Benzoyl peroxide attacks the P. acnes bacteria. However, one of its main side effects is dryness: If you’re going to use anything with benzoyl peroxide, make sure to moisturize afterwards. Sulfur and azelaic acid are less common and less severe alternatives to benzoyl peroxide. Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, says sulfur-based treatments are “a good fit for patients who can’t tolerate the side effects of benzoyl peroxide.”
In women, acne can be improved with the use of any combined birth control pill. These medications contain an estrogen and a progestin. They work by decreasing the production of androgen hormones by the ovaries and by decreasing the free and hence biologically active fractions of androgens, resulting in lowered skin production of sebum and consequently reduced acne severity. First-generation progestins such as norethindrone and norgestrel have androgenic properties and can worsen acne. Although oral estrogens can decrease IGF-1 levels in some situations and this might be expected to additionally contribute to improvement in acne symptoms, combined birth control pills appear to have no effect on IGF-1 levels in fertile women. However, cyproterone acetate-containing birth control pills have been reported to decrease total and free IGF-1 levels. Combinations containing third- or fourth-generation progestins including desogestrel, dienogest, drospirenone, or norgestimate, as well as birth control pills containing cyproterone acetate or chlormadinone acetate, are preferred for women with acne due to their stronger antiandrogenic effects. Studies have shown a 40 to 70% reduction in acne lesions with combined birth control pills. A 2014 review found that antibiotics by mouth appear to be somewhat more effective than birth control pills at decreasing the number of inflammatory acne lesions at three months. However, the two therapies are approximately equal in efficacy at six months for decreasing the number of inflammatory, non-inflammatory, and total acne lesions. The authors of the analysis suggested that birth control pills may be a preferred first-line acne treatment, over oral antibiotics, in certain women due to similar efficacy at six months and a lack of associated antibiotic resistance.
Warning: Sulfur smells like rotten eggs. But it is an effective ingredient at drying up pus-filled pimples and whiteheads (you’ve gotta take the good with the bad). It works by sucking up the oil. Sulfur is typically mixed with other active ingredients to get the most efficacy and fragrances to mask the strong scent. You can often find it in masks and spot treatments.
Accutane is especially good for cystic acne in women and body acne in men. “Oral vitamin A basically shuts down your sebaceous glands. If you suppress [them] for a long enough period, you can cure someone of their acne, and about 50 percent do hit that cure rate,” says Linkner. A course of Accutane can take about six to nine months. Sometimes patients need to repeat the course at a higher dosage in order to truly eliminate acne.
Blackheads are a mild form of acne that appear as unsightly, open pores that look darker than the skin surrounding them. They get their dark appearance from a skin pigment called melanin, which oxidizes and turns black when it's exposed to the air. Blackheads aren't caused by dirt, but by sebum (oil) and dead skin cells blocking the pore. If the pore remains open, it becomes a blackhead; if it's completely blocked and closed, it turns into a whitehead.
The main hormonal driver of oily sebum production in the skin is dihydrotestosterone. Another androgenic hormone responsible for increased sebaceous gland activity is DHEA-S. Higher amounts of DHEA-S are secreted during adrenarche (a stage of puberty), and this leads to an increase in sebum production. In a sebum-rich skin environment, the naturally occurring and largely commensal skin bacterium C. acnes readily grows and can cause inflammation within and around the follicle due to activation of the innate immune system. C. acnes triggers skin inflammation in acne by increasing the production of several pro-inflammatory chemical signals (such as IL-1α, IL-8, TNF-α, and LTB4); IL-1α is known to be essential to comedo formation.
And though none of the experts we spoke to specifically called this out, writer Frankie May Wong declared this salicylic-acid-enhanced Medik8 gel as her cystic-acne Holy Grail. She uses it sparingly to avoid it losing its efficacy, but thanks its blend of acne-fighting ingredients for her clear skin and the lack of scarring thereafter: “Another reason the Beta Gel seemed to work miracles could’ve been the combination of dioic acid (a rarer ingredient that otherwise only appears in the pricey but raved-about SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense serum), azelaic acid, and niacinamide.”
Dapsone has shown efficacy against inflammatory acne but is generally not a first-line topical antibiotic due to higher cost and lack of clear superiority over other antibiotics. It is sometimes a preferred therapy in women or for people with sensitive or darker toned skin. Topical dapsone is not recommended for use with benzoyl peroxide due to yellow-orange skin discoloration with this combination. While minocycline is shown to be an effective acne treatment, it is no longer recommended as a first-line antibiotic due to a lack of evidence that it is better than other treatments, and concerns of safety compared to other tetracyclines.
Scarring from severe cystic acne can have harmful effects on a person's self esteem, happiness and mental health. Thankfully, there are many different acne scar treatment options available, ranging from chemical peels and skin fillers to dermabrasion and laser resurfacing. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, these are all safe and effective acne scar treatment methods. However, Baldwin says it's important to first clarify what you mean by "scar." "Many people point to red or brown spots leftover from old zits and call them scars," she says. "These are marks, not scars and they'll fade with time. Scars have textural changes and are not flush with the surface of the skin. There are two types of acne scars—innies and outies. Outies can be injected with corticosteroids and flattened. Innies can be either deep and narrow or broad, sloping and relatively shallow. Deep and narrow scars need to be cut out, but broader sloping scars can be made better by fillers, laser resurfacing and dermabrasion."
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First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
How to Handle It: Your best bet is benzoyl peroxide. "Benzoyl peroxide can kill acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation," says Zeichner. Try a cream like the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual-Action Acne Treatment ($37), which also exfoliates with lipo-hydroxy acid. Be aware that it can seriously dry out skin so moisturize well after you use it.
Coconut oil is all the rage, with uses ranging from hair conditioning to cooking. But some swear by it as a natural acne treatment. To use coconut oil as an acne treatment, you can include it as part of a healthy diet. The fatty acids like lauric acid and caprylic acid are metabolized into antibacterial agents in the body. Or, you can apply a very small amount and rub directly onto your skin after cleansing for an extra hydrating boost.
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Many treatment options for acne are available, including lifestyle changes, medications, and medical procedures. Eating fewer simple carbohydrates such as sugar may help. Treatments applied directly to the affected skin, such as azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid, are commonly used. Antibiotics and retinoids are available in formulations that are applied to the skin and taken by mouth for the treatment of acne. However, resistance to antibiotics may develop as a result of antibiotic therapy. Several types of birth control pills help against acne in women. Isotretinoin pills are usually reserved for severe acne due to greater potential side effects. Early and aggressive treatment of acne is advocated by some in the medical community to decrease the overall long-term impact to individuals.
People who escaped their teen years almost pimple-free may develop persistent adult-onset acne as they get older. Despite the normal increase in androgen levels during puberty, some doctors believe that flare-ups of acne have less to do with androgen levels than with how a person's skin responds to an increase in sebum production or to the bacteria that causes acne. The bacteria Propionibacterium acnes occurs naturally in healthy hair follicles. If too many of them accumulate in plugged follicles, they may secrete enzymes that break down sebum and cause inflammation. Some people are simply more sensitive than others to this reaction. Sebum levels that might cause a pimple or two in one person may result in widespread outbreaks -- or even acute cystic acne -- in another person.