From blackheads to full-blown breakouts, acne is the most common skin condition in the U.S., affecting 85% of us at some point in our lives. There are many reasons we get acne including internal factors such as hormonal shifts, while external or environmental factors (—maskne, we’re looking at you!), are on the rise. And, whether mild or severe, occasional or persistent, finding the best acne treatment to meet your specific skin concerns can be challenging. “That’s because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach with acne,” explains Dr. Nina Desai, Board-Certified Dermatologist. “It’s all about understanding your acne’s story.” So how do you prevent breakouts before they even happen, and what's the best way to treat acne?
Get the 411 on all-things acne with this acne guide. Featuring expert acne advice to help you figure out how to treat your acne and prevent breakouts, delving into the ingredients, products, and a little acne anatomy to support your skin journey to complexion clarity.
“To treat acne you have to be a detective. With my patients, I’ll find out about oil production, hormones, and products used,” shares Dr. Nina. “It’s important to look at what’s happening on your skin and when. Is skin looking oilier at different times of the day? Are products feeling heavy and are you noticing your pores are getting clogged? Do you get breakouts at specific times of the month? Keeping track of what’s going on will help you identify potential contributing factors.”
Read on for the full acne guide...
What Are The Types Of Acne?
OK, so let’s start at the beginning. Understanding the types of acne will help you identify what’s happening to your skin, so you can target your treatments, and prevent breakouts and treat your acne effectively.
“There are two types of acne; inflammatory and non-inflammatory. Non-inflammatory or comedonal acne is clogged pores that look white because they’re closed under the surface, or black which are open at the skin’s surface,” explains Dr. Nina. This type of acne occurs when excess oils or sebum and dead skin cells get trapped in your pores.
- Micro-comedones: Clogged hair follicles or pores in the skin.
- Open comedones: More commonly known as blackheads. They occur when a clogged follicle reaches the surface of the skin and opens—basically the debris in your pore gets exposed to air, oxidizes, and takes on that black color.
- Closed comedones: Also known as whiteheads. These consist of a clogged hair follicle that stays beneath the skin, producing a white or flesh-colored bump.
Generally, these types of acne commonly appear on oily-prone areas of the skin like the T-zone.
“Inflammatory acne is anything that has that red, pus-filled, or cystic look to it. P-acne bacteria can overgrow and cause issues when there’s an excess of sebum or oil production on skin.”
If oils, dead skin cells, and other debris aren't cleared out of pores and mix with naturally occurring bacteria, it can create an infection that causes visible swelling, redness, and the dreaded pus. This tends to happen on a deeper level than comedonal acne.
- Pustules: These are your traditional zits. They are usually red bumps with a ‘head’ filled with white pus. We’re often most tempted to squeeze these guys, which is a big no-no.
- Papules: Red bumps without the head.
Severe Inflammatory Acne:
This type of acne can be incredibly painful and as it occurs on the lower levels of your skin may need expert advice for treatment from a dermatologist, to avoid any scarring.
- Nodules: These are a sign of a more severe infection deeper into the skin. They appear as large, painful, solid lesions.
- Cysts: Deep, painful, pus-filled lesions, bigger and more painful. Often appearing around the jawline area.
What Causes Acne?
Put on your acne detective hat, it’s important to understand the factors that could be contributing to your acne.
Excess sebum: At the end of the hair follicle or pore, you’ll find sebaceous glands. These produce sebum, an oily substance that keeps skin hydrated, healthy, and protected. Some people naturally have more sebum-producing glands than others—oily skin types vs dry skin types, and with oilier skin types, these glands can overproduce oil which can then clog pores. Prevent breakouts from ever forming by taking control of your oil/sebum via clarifying treatments and oil-free formulations.
Hormones: “Women get acne at different times in their lives with hormone fluctuations. Pre-teen and teen are common, but I also see a lot of acne in women in their 30s and 40s from fluctuations due to pregnancies and other hormonal surges, so that can help inform treatment too. And, hormones aren’t just tied to our menstrual cycles, but also stress too. Stress can impact skin as much as other body systems. So, it’s important to look at your life factors too,” adds Dr. Nina.
Dead skin cells: “While hormones and sebum are often the main culprits in acne, debris like dead cells can contribute to clogged pores, which again lead to breakouts.” This is where regular exfoliation can really help prevent breakouts, and also treat acne that's active.
Diet: While studies are still being done on the effects of diet on acne, it's known that high sugar levels can contribute to spikes in hormones, which in turn lead to acne. There are also studies being done on the effects of caffeine, alcohol, and high fat diets and their effects on skin. Eating a healthy, balanced, fruit and vegetable-rich diet is always our recommendation, for your optimal health and wellbeing.
Environmental stressors: Free radical damage from the sun, pollution, heavy metals, blue light, all can cause significant issues for our skin, including premature aging. It also contributes to potential breakouts by weakening our skin’s barrier and causing dead skin cells and debris to build up. Wearing an SPF every day is vital in preventing aging damage and will protect skin. “For acne-prone skin, I recommend Oil Free SPF 40+ as it offers high protection without clogging pores, and is an effective way to prevent breakouts,” advises Dr. Nina. You’ll also benefit from adding an antioxidant vitamin C serum like C-Shield Anti-Pollution Drops into your daily routine as this offers robust skin-defense against those other environmental stressors.
Over-exfoliation: “This is a much less common cause, but one worth considering. Regular exfoliation is pivotal to treat acne and prevent breakouts, but over-exfoliation—as with anything you overindulge in, can cause inflammation, sensitivities, and trigger acne. It can damage the surface of the skin and the skin’s moisture barrier, so that’s also something to check in on when assessing acne, breakouts, or inflamed skin.”
Mask-wearing: “If you’re wearing a mask for long periods of time, it’s likely you’ve noticed you’re more prone to breakouts. A face mask is an occlusive product which means any oil, dirt, or makeup underneath it can build up and clog our pores more consistently because of the face covering.”
How To Prevent Breakouts
Identifying what we think might be the cause of our breakouts is important, as is making sure we're not adding to the issue with our lifestyle and skincare habits. “We need to make sure the products we're using are not only right for our skin type, but that they also prevent breakouts, rather than feeding them,” says Dr. Nina,
“Washing our face properly at night is one of the best ways to prevent breakouts. If we skip this step or don't cleanse effectively, this can often be a major culprit in acne issues. When we go to sleep at night our skin really breathes and repairs, so if we leave a lot of oil, makeup, dirt, or clogging products on our skin when we’re sleeping, we’re likely to wake up with congested skin or a new breakout. Cleansing your face at night is vital as is selecting the appropriate nighttime products too.”
While acne treatments and products may differ depending on your individual skin’s needs; “Switching to oil-free products like the Oil Free Moisturizer or Oil Control Emulsion is a great place to start, so you’re avoiding adding to any congestion,” she advises. “Listen to what your skin is telling you. Some people can tolerate oil products and still get occasional acne, while others can’t tolerate any additional oil. You can even try zoning your products, treating your oily zones with different products to your drier zones. Taking an ingredients-focused approach to tailoring your routine will help.”
For non-inflammatory acne like black and whiteheads, look to products that get into pores and exfoliate the skin. “Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, plus retinol, and niacinamide will really help clean and clear out the pores, plus prevent breakouts from reoccuring. For this you can’t go wrong with Hydra-Bright Pro 5 Liquid Exfoliant as it contains five AHAs and PHA, plus niacinamide for an easy and effective exfoliation treatment you can do a few times a week.”
For inflammatory acne; “Target that antibacterial component with salicylic acid, benzyl peroxide, and azelaic acid. In more serious cases, your dermatologist might recommend antibiotics too. This depends on the nature of the acne, how deep, how cystic, and how regular.”
When it comes to maskne; “There's a lot you can to do preempt and prevent breakouts. Make sure your skin is super clean under the mask, so that means no makeup, even if it’s non-comedogenic or oil-free it still can trigger more breakouts. If you need to wear makeup, try to keep it minimal, stick to lighter, oil-free products. If you notice oil build-up during the day, find a safe time to go to an empty bathroom and wash some of the oil off your face. Or carry a wipe with you if you can’t get to a bathroom.”
“When you get home, do repair work to make sure you get the oil and debris off your face. Cleanse carefully with Purifying Gel Cleanser, then use your active ingredients like the salicylic acid and retinol-powered Beta-Clarity BHA Drops serum at night. I wouldn’t recommend using these under the mask during the day as your skin is likely to be more sensitive and irritable. It’s important to realize there’s more than just acne happening under the mask, it’s inflammation, irritation, and oil build-up.”
Ingredients To Treat Acne + Prevent Breakouts
Get targeting the right ingredients for your skin’s needs so you can create your own acne prevention and treatment system. And, no, this doesn’t involve popping any zits. Letting them heal with the right treatments is key to avoid scarring or a prolonged breakout experience.
Treats all types of acne.
What it does: “Salicylic acid is the expert at really tackling bacteria.” It’s an oil-loving beta hydroxy acid or BHA, that stimulates exfoliation in the skin, clearing pores, and promoting new cell growth. It reduces inflammation, smooths skin’s surface and breaks down blackheads and whiteheads. Because it takes off the upper layers of skin it allows other active ingredients in a formula to penetrate more effectively.
What’s it in: You’ll find it in most acne-fighting clarifying products. And, when teamed up with retinol and glycolic acid in Beta-Clarity BHA Drops, this is truly the dream team in preventing and treating any breakouts, for smoother, clearer skin.
Treats all types of acne.
What it does: One of the best multitasking ingredients—there really isn’t much retinol can’t do, it penetrates skin cells and normalizes their behavior. It also stimulates cells deep in the basal layer, which push upwards causing a burst of exfoliation, helping keep the skin free of impactions. “I also love using retinol to treat acne as it gets into pores to clean out black and whiteheads and clear anything that might be brewing, so we aren’t only treating active acne but also getting rid of anything coming up from below.”
What’s it in: Again, Beta-Clarity BHA Drops have it teamed up with salicylic acid, but for a higher concentration that's more smoothing focused, GlyPro Retinol Drops will be your go-to. You can alternate between both serums to really get the most out of your acne-defense and smoothing, but avoid using both in one go. You can also do a monthly Retinol + C Smoothing Peel which delivers a clarifying, clearing boost to your daily routine.
Best for treating comedonal acne.
What it does: Glycolic acid is a genius exfoliator, and as it’s a small molecule alpha hydroxy acid, it’s able to dive deep into skin sloughing off layers of dead skin cells, removing debris and oil from pores, for a major brightening boost. It doesn’t treat inflamed blemishes, but its exfoliating power will help clear out blackheads and whiteheads.
What’s it in: Try it in your morning cleanse with the Glycolic Resurfacing Cleanser, or find it teamed up with retinol in the GlyPro Retinol Drops, while for a more intensive monthly resurfacing treatment try our GlyPro AHA Resurfacing Peel for next-level retexturizing and glow boosting.
Treats all types of acne.
What it does: While it might not have the most glamorous name, it’s a tried and trusted acne-fighter, which eliminates P.acne bacteria by injecting air into the follicle.
What’s it in: Because it’s so strong, we recommend using it only as a spot treatment, like in our Clear Skin Spot Treatment.
Maintaining Clarity + Clear Skin
While you may have your acne treatment plan now, you’ll need to protect your complexion clarity with essential maintenance to keep those blemishes at bay.
Treats all types of acne.
What it does: “Charcoal is an effective ingredient in balancing as it has both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, drawing out excess oils and impurities.”
What’s it in: “The Charcoal Detox Mask can be helpful in the treatment of both active acne and in preventing new breakouts. You can do this several times a week depending on what your skin needs,” shares Dr. Nina.
Treats all types of acne.
What it does: Niacinamide gets to work on the lining inside pores, preventing them from getting clogged. It clears the pores, tightening them up, and minimizing their appearance. It also helps balance oil production too, reducing breakouts.
What’s it in: Try our niacinamide-infused salicylic acid and retinol serum—Beta-Clarity BHA Drops for a clarifying, smoothing boost. For exfoliation, try Hydra-Bright Pro 5 Liquid Exfoliant powered by niacinamide and a blend of AHAs.
Treats all types of acne.
What it does: “It’s a versatile acid with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It clears out pores, while brightening uneven tone left behind from acne,” advises Dr. Nina.
What’s it in: Boosting brightness when combined with alpha arbutin, the Hydra-Bright Alpha Arbutin Drops are also helpful in diminishing pigmentation left from acne marks.
And, as with all products, remember to give it time. It can take anywhere from 30-60 days for cell turnover to occur. This means that using a product for a week or two isn’t going to cut it. If you want to see results, you need to stick with your ritual for at least one month before you can determine whether or not to continue with a certain product. That said, if you experience an immediate negative reaction from a product, don’t continue using it.
Treating Acne Marks
Like the party-crasher it is, acne can leave a mess after it’s gone. These are known as post-inflammatory marks or erythema and can be red or brown. “The deepest mark is an acne scar which is a deep disruption of collagen. This can be pitted with indentation or hypertrophic with an overgrowth of skin. For anyone developing post-inflammatory complications from acne, you want to see your dermatologist quickly to minimize this,” explains Dr. Nina.
“If you have residual inflammation, the best at-home product to treat it is sunscreen. Redness and brown spots will be made darker by sun exposure, so protection is important to avoid making it worse. You should be using SPF daily, regardless of any residual inflammation. After that, you’re looking at targeted discoloration treatments containing vitamin C, alpha arbutin, and AHAs. Redness usually fades with time and good sunscreen. Brown spots usually mean we need exfoliation and brightening.”
What If Nothing Is Helping Your Acne?
“This depends on the type of acne you’re experiencing. If it's inflammatory and leaving marks, hyperpigmentation, and/or scarring, get to your dermatologist office to mitigate the effects. It may be that you need to go on antibiotics or prescription drugs to alleviate effects,” Dr. Nina advises.