If you’re used to seeing advertisements for acne treatments using five or six different products to clear up blemishes, you might be surprised that a simple three-step kit is our top pick. In fact, we favored Paula’s Choice for its simplicity. This twice-daily, three-step kit — which includes a cleanser, an anti-redness exfoliant, and a leave-on treatment — is concise without cutting corners.
Contrary to the marketing promises of “blemish banishers” and “zit zappers,” immediate results are not the trademark of acne treatments — a frustrating truth to anyone suffering through a breakout. And while pimples are personal (your stress-induced spots will look and act differently than your best friend’s breakout), the best acne treatments will include a regimen of products to hit all of acne’s root causes. We tested 43 kits to find the most well-rounded breakout-fighting solutions on the market.
The recognition and characterization of acne progressed in 1776 when Josef Plenck (an Austrian physician) published a book that proposed the novel concept of classifying skin diseases by their elementary (initial) lesions. In 1808 the English dermatologist Robert Willan refined Plenck's work by providing the first detailed descriptions of several skin disorders using a morphologic terminology that remains in use today. Thomas Bateman continued and expanded on Robert Willan's work as his student and provided the first descriptions and illustrations of acne accepted as accurate by modern dermatologists. Erasmus Wilson, in 1842, was the first to make the distinction between acne vulgaris and rosacea. The first professional medical monograph dedicated entirely to acne was written by Lucius Duncan Bulkley and published in New York in 1885.
Antibiotics are frequently applied to the skin or taken orally to treat acne and are thought to work due to their antimicrobial activity against C. acnes and their ability to reduce inflammation. With the widespread use of antibiotics for acne and an increased frequency of antibiotic-resistant C. acnes worldwide, antibiotics are becoming less effective, especially macrolide antibiotics such as topical erythromycin. Therefore, they are not recommended for use alone but are preferred as part of combination therapy. Commonly used antibiotics, either applied to the skin or taken orally, include clindamycin, erythromycin, metronidazole, sulfacetamide, and tetracyclines such as doxycycline and minocycline. Doxycycline 40 milligrams daily (low-dose) appears to have similar efficacy to doxycycline 100 milligrams daily and has fewer gastrointestinal side effects. When antibiotics are applied to the skin, they are typically used for mild to moderately severe acne. Antibiotics taken orally are generally considered to be more effective than topical antibiotics, and produce faster resolution of inflammatory acne lesions than topical applications. Topical and oral antibiotics are not recommended for use together.
Baby acne generally goes away on its own after a month or so. As far as actual baby acne treatment, your pediatrician may suggest that you wash your baby’s face with warm water and a gentle soap, says Dr. Kahn. (There is no proof that breast milk, which some moms swear by as a homeopathic remedy, actually works.) Don’t pick at your baby’s acne; you’ll cause scarring, she warns.
If you notice that you’re breaking out right around your period every month, your acne might be linked to hormones. “A sensitivity to the hormones called androgens manifests in the form of cystic acne,” says Linkner. Androgens, namely testosterone, cause the skin to produce more sebum. More sebum equals more acne. Birth control, which has estrogen and progestin, helps keep hormones balanced and skin clear. Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep, and YAZ are all FDA-approved as acne treatments.
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: Pair two of the best-known acne-fighting ingredients, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, in the week leading up to your period. (If you're feeling bloated, now's the time to do it.) The combo can help prevent hormonal acne from happening in the first place. Zeichner suggests following a salicylic acid wash, like fan-favorite Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser ($7), with a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment, such as Murad Acne Spot Fast Fix ($22). If you're still seeing zits, "visit your dermatologist to discuss prescription options, like birth control pills, oral spironolactone — which blocks oil — or topical Aczone 7.5 percent gel," says Zeichner. "It's shown to be particularly effective in adult women without causing irritation." Oral contraceptives level out those hormone fluctuations, keeping your oil production normal and your skin clear.
Another once-daily gel your dermatologist might prescribe for acne is Aczone 7.5 percent. The active ingredient, dapsone, is both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, and it’s proven to help with blackheads, whiteheads, and deeper painful pimples. Oftentimes, Aczone is used alongside other acne treatments. And like many of those other remedies, Aczone can cause skin to dry out.
While you can certainly benefit from a great skin-care regimen, "in cystic acne, usually you need internal treatment," he says. "Topical medications usually don't work. Accutane is a great miracle cure for really bad cystic acne, but most people with cystic acne will improve with oral antibiotics — sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for three weeks."
Acne scars are caused by inflammation within the dermal layer of skin and are estimated to affect 95% of people with acne vulgaris. The scar is created by abnormal healing following this dermal inflammation. Scarring is most likely to take place with severe acne, but may occur with any form of acne vulgaris. Acne scars are classified based on whether the abnormal healing response following dermal inflammation leads to excess collagen deposition or loss at the site of the acne lesion.
Believe it or not, as with adolescent acne, hormones are believed to be mainly to blame. In the case of newborns, however, it’s not their own hormones that are probably prompting the pimple problems, but Mom's — which are still circulating in baby's bloodstream as a holdover from pregnancy. These maternal hormones stimulate baby's sluggish oil-producing glands, causing pimples to pop up on the chin, forehead, eyelids and cheeks (and, sometimes, the head, neck, back and upper chest).
Shower twice a day. Take a shower or bath in the morning and at night. Alternatively, take a shower in the morning and then again after physical activity, like exercise, or sweating. Wash your entire body with a mild cleanser and use shampoos that limit oil production in your hair. Be sure to always shower after exercising to remove the dead skin cells your body has sloughed off through sweating.
A 2013 study on acne vulgaris in The Nurse Practitioner concurred that a multidimensional approach to acne is usually necessary because most people have a combination of symptoms. Based on the advice of dermatologists and aestheticians, we turned our focus to regimen sets, analyzing the ingredients of more than 40 kits before finding our top picks.
Combined oral contraceptives. Four combined oral contraceptives are approved by the FDA for acne therapy in women who also wish to use them for contraception. They are products that combine estrogen and progestin (Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Yaz, others). You may not see the benefit of this treatment for a few months, so using other acne medications with it the first few weeks may help.