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.
Dermabrasion is an effective therapeutic procedure for reducing the appearance of superficial atrophic scars of the boxcar and rolling varieties.[32] Ice-pick scars do not respond well to treatment with dermabrasion due to their depth.[32] The procedure is painful and has many potential side effects such as skin sensitivity to sunlight, redness, and decreased pigmentation of the skin.[32] Dermabrasion has fallen out of favor with the introduction of laser resurfacing.[32] Unlike dermabrasion, there is no evidence that microdermabrasion is an effective treatment for acne.[8]
Acne, also known as acne vulgaris, is a long-term skin disease that occurs when hair follicles are clogged with dead skin cells and oil from the skin.[10] It is characterized by blackheads or whiteheads, pimples, oily skin, and possible scarring.[1][2][11] It primarily affects areas of the skin with a relatively high number of oil glands, including the face, upper part of the chest, and back.[12] The resulting appearance can lead to anxiety, reduced self-esteem and, in extreme cases, depression or thoughts of suicide.[3][4]
Azelaic acid has been shown to be effective for mild to moderate acne when applied topically at a 20% concentration.[66][128] Treatment twice daily for six months is necessary, and is as effective as topical benzoyl peroxide 5%, isotretinoin 0.05%, and erythromycin 2%.[129] Azelaic acid is thought to be an effective acne treatment due to its ability to reduce skin cell accumulation in the follicle, and its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.[66] It has a slight skin-lightening effect due to its ability to inhibit melanin synthesis, and is therefore useful in treating of individuals with acne who are also affected by postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.[1] Azelaic acid may cause skin irritation but is otherwise very safe.[130] It is less effective and more expensive than retinoids.[1]
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Acne vulgaris and its resultant scars have been associated with significant social and academic difficulties that can last into adulthood, including difficulties obtaining employment.[31][177] Until the 1930s, it was largely seen as a trivial problem among middle-class girls – a trivial problem, because, unlike smallpox and tuberculosis, no one died from it, and a feminine problem, because boys were much less likely to seek medical assistance for it.[165] During the Great Depression, dermatologists discovered that young men with acne had difficulty obtaining jobs, and during World War II, some soldiers in tropical climates developed such severe and widespread tropical acne on their bodies that they were declared medically unfit for duty.[165]
Like acne on your face, back acne occurs when your pores become blocked with oil and dead skin cells. Exfoliating your back regularly might help remove these dead skin cells and pore-clogging debris before they have a chance to block pores. However, you want to take care not to scrub too hard, especially if you're experiencing an active breakout. Use a soft cloth to gently brush away surface impurities as you shower.
Many treatment options for acne are available, including lifestyle changes, medications, and medical procedures. Eating fewer simple carbohydrates such as sugar may help.[7] Treatments applied directly to the affected skin, such as azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid, are commonly used.[8] Antibiotics and retinoids are available in formulations that are applied to the skin and taken by mouth for the treatment of acne.[8] However, resistance to antibiotics may develop as a result of antibiotic therapy.[16] Several types of birth control pills help against acne in women.[8] Isotretinoin pills are usually reserved for severe acne due to greater potential side effects.[8][17] Early and aggressive treatment of acne is advocated by some in the medical community to decrease the overall long-term impact to individuals.[4]
Any acne treatment is a weeks-long experiment that you’re conducting with your skin. Acne is slow to heal, and in some cases, it can get worse before it gets better (nearly every benzoyl peroxide product we looked at emphasized the likeliness of irritating acne further, and starting off with a lighter application). April W. Armstrong, a doctor at the University of California Davis Health System, recommends waiting at least one month before you deem a product ineffective.
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."

For those with acne-prone skin, it can be tough finding a sunscreen that doesn’t clog pores and meshes well with your skincare regimen. Oily sunscreens often lead to breakouts. In addition to the wash, toner, moisturizer and treatments, the Clear Start kit includes an acne-safe (read: oil-free) sunscreen in its lineup — perfect for those wanting the best of both worlds in avoiding all types of red faces.
Cystic Acne: The most severe type of acne, cystic acne requires dermatological care and prescription acne medication to treat. Even the best acne products available over the counter are no match for this painful condition in which the area of the outbreak becomes inflamed, but not infected. Cystic acne can result in permanent scarring. However, it's important to know that all acne lesions can scar. Scarring is related to size, amount of inflammation, genetics and delay in therapy.
Acne vulgaris and its resultant scars have been associated with significant social and academic difficulties that can last into adulthood, including difficulties obtaining employment.[31][177] Until the 1930s, it was largely seen as a trivial problem among middle-class girls – a trivial problem, because, unlike smallpox and tuberculosis, no one died from it, and a feminine problem, because boys were much less likely to seek medical assistance for it.[165] During the Great Depression, dermatologists discovered that young men with acne had difficulty obtaining jobs, and during World War II, some soldiers in tropical climates developed such severe and widespread tropical acne on their bodies that they were declared medically unfit for duty.[165]

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There are a number of mild chemical peels available over the counter, but acne scar removal requires a stronger peel typically administered by a doctor or dermatologist. Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels are slightly stronger than alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) peels and may be used for acne scar treatment. The strongest type, phenol peels, may cause significant swelling and require up to two weeks of recovery time at home. Neither are recommended for people with active severe acne.
Baby acne is a common condition that affects many babies within several weeks to several months of age. Most pediatricians agree that the best treatment for baby acne is nothing at all, since the condition is natural and will clear up quickly enough as long as the baby's face is gently washed. Under severe conditions, though, your baby's doctor may recommend a stronger treatment. Here's what you need to know about getting rid of baby acne.

Baby acne is a common condition that affects many babies within several weeks to several months of age. Most pediatricians agree that the best treatment for baby acne is nothing at all, since the condition is natural and will clear up quickly enough as long as the baby's face is gently washed. Under severe conditions, though, your baby's doctor may recommend a stronger treatment. Here's what you need to know about getting rid of baby acne.
Garlic is fantastic for fighting acne due to its high levels of antioxidants, as well as its’ anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties. There are two ways you can use garlic to clear up acne. The first is a preventative measure, which is simply by adding more garlic to your diet. This helps your general health as well as purifies your blood, which can help to stop future break outs. For more immediate results, take a peeled clove of garlic and rub it on the troubled area several times a day. If your skin is sensitive, try crushing the garlic and mixing it with some water.
It's a common misconception that those with oily skin shouldn't moisturize. Be sure you're treating your entire face to a full routine and not solely relying on spot treatments to battle your breakouts. If your acne comes with a side of oil, this is your best bet for a daily moisturizer. It contains panadoxine, a vitamin B6 derivative that improves skin’s overall healthy balance by visually minimizing pore size and shine.

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Antibiotics are an acne treatment used to kill acne-causing bacteria. They may be applied directly on the skin (topical) or taken by mouth (oral). Topical antibiotics kill bacteria in the upper portion of your pores, while oral antibiotics can reach to the lower depths of the pores. Antibiotics used for acne treatment include clindamycin or tetracyclines like doxycycline or minocycline. These antibiotics are the most effective for treating acne because they both kill bacteria and act as anti-inflammatory agents to calm down the skin.
Keep in mind that even if some products market themselves toward severe acne breakouts, all the kits we looked at are definitely designed for mild to moderate acne. Not sure if you fit on that scale? You’re not alone! When you’re in the middle of a breakout, all acne seems severe, so it can be difficult to self-diagnose your symptoms. We talked to dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to better understand the differences between the various types of acne (see below).

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The approach to acne treatment underwent significant changes during the twentieth century. Retinoids were introduced as a medical treatment for acne in 1943.[82] Benzoyl peroxide was first proposed as a treatment in 1958 and has been routinely used for this purpose since the 1960s.[167] Acne treatment was modified in the 1950s with the introduction of oral tetracycline antibiotics (such as minocycline). These reinforced the idea amongst dermatologists that bacterial growth on the skin plays an important role in causing acne.[163] Subsequently, in the 1970s tretinoin (original trade name Retin A) was found to be an effective treatment.[168] The development of oral isotretinoin (sold as Accutane and Roaccutane) followed in 1980.[169] After its introduction in the United States it was recognized as a medication highly likely to cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy. In the United States, more than 2,000 women became pregnant while taking isotretinoin between 1982 and 2003, with most pregnancies ending in abortion or miscarriage. About 160 babies were born with birth defects.[170][171]
C. acnes also provokes skin inflammation by altering the fatty composition of oily sebum.[45] Oxidation of the lipid squalene by C. acnes is of particular importance. Squalene oxidation activates NF-κB (a protein complex) and consequently increases IL-1α levels.[45] Additionally, squalene oxidation leads to increased activity of the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme responsible for conversion of arachidonic acid to leukotriene B4 (LTB4).[45] LTB4 promotes skin inflammation by acting on the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPARα) protein.[45] PPARα increases activity of activator protein 1 (AP-1) and NF-κB, thereby leading to the recruitment of inflammatory T cells.[45] The inflammatory properties of C. acnes can be further explained by the bacterium's ability to convert sebum triglycerides to pro-inflammatory free fatty acids via secretion of the enzyme lipase.[45] These free fatty acids spur production of cathelicidin, HBD1, and HBD2, thus leading to further inflammation.[45]
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."

Although the late stages of pregnancy are associated with an increase in sebaceous gland activity in the skin, pregnancy has not been reliably associated with worsened acne severity.[136] In general, topically applied medications are considered the first-line approach to acne treatment during pregnancy, as they have little systemic absorption and are therefore unlikely to harm a developing fetus.[136] Highly recommended therapies include topically applied benzoyl peroxide (category C) and azelaic acid (category B).[136] Salicylic acid carries a category C safety rating due to higher systemic absorption (9–25%), and an association between the use of anti-inflammatory medications in the third trimester and adverse effects to the developing fetus including too little amniotic fluid in the uterus and early closure of the babies' ductus arteriosus blood vessel.[47][136] Prolonged use of salicylic acid over significant areas of the skin or under occlusive dressings is not recommended as these methods increase systemic absorption and the potential for fetal harm.[136] Tretinoin (category C) and adapalene (category C) are very poorly absorbed, but certain studies have suggested teratogenic effects in the first trimester.[136] Due to persistent safety concerns, topical retinoids are not recommended for use during pregnancy.[137] In studies examining the effects of topical retinoids during pregnancy, fetal harm has not been seen in the second and third trimesters.[136] Retinoids contraindicated for use during pregnancy include the topical retinoid tazarotene, and oral retinoids isotretinoin and acitretin (all category X).[136] Spironolactone is relatively contraindicated for use during pregnancy due to its antiandrogen effects.[1] Finasteride is not recommended as it is highly teratogenic.[1]
Even something as simple as tea could be the ticket to decreasing your cystic-acne breakouts. Writer Crystle Martin credits spearmint tea (and lots of it) for reducing her regular cystic breakouts down to just once a month, which a dermatologist she consulted chalks up to its many health benefits. “Spearmint tea works due to the efficacy of the compounds inside it: flavonoids, menthol, limonene, and rosmarinic acids, which each have either anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, or anti-viral properties (or some combination of these).”
A major mechanism of acne-related skin inflammation is mediated by C. acnes's ability to bind and activate a class of immune system receptors known as toll-like receptors (TLRs), especially TLR2 and TLR4.[45][64][65] Activation of TLR2 and TLR4 by C. acnes leads to increased secretion of IL-1α, IL-8, and TNF-α.[45] Release of these inflammatory signals attracts various immune cells to the hair follicle including neutrophils, macrophages, and Th1 cells.[45] IL-1α stimulates increased skin cell activity and reproduction, which in turn fuels comedo development.[45] Furthermore, sebaceous gland cells produce more antimicrobial peptides, such as HBD1 and HBD2, in response to binding of TLR2 and TLR4.[45]

There are packaged products that contain some combination of the aforementioned ingredients, too. Zeichner likes Clean & Clear’s Acne Triple Clear face wash with salicylic acid in it, but says to sit with it for a bit to let it sink into skin. “Allow salicylic acid to sit on the skin while you sing the alphabet before rinsing, to ensure enough contact time for it to do its job.”
But the side effects of targeted breakout cream treatments aren’t always worth it. “So many products instruct consumers to use benzoyl peroxide spot treat red bumps and pustules. I don’t recommend it,” says Dr. Lawrence Green, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University. Such high concentrations of benzoyl peroxide cause added irritation and inflammation to already sensitive skin, so with this in mind, we cut kits that included spot treatments.
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.

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We suggest avoiding spot treatments. “Benzoyl peroxide, when placed on red spots, can actually cause more irritation and inflammation to the area. It’s best used to prevent red bumps and pustules, and applied all over the area you want to treat,” said Townsend, who was also quick to naysay a spot-treat-only approach: “Acne affects all of the pores. If someone is going to spot treat against my advice, I still suggest they spot treat one day and treat the whole face the next.”
Scientists initially hypothesized that acne represented a disease of the skin's hair follicle, and occurred due to blockage of the pore by sebum. During the 1880s, bacteria were observed by microscopy in skin samples affected by acne and were regarded as the causal agents of comedones, sebum production, and ultimately acne.[163] During the mid-twentieth century, dermatologists realized that no single hypothesized factor (sebum, bacteria, or excess keratin) could completely explain the disease.[163] This led to the current understanding that acne could be explained by a sequence of related events, beginning with blockage of the skin follicle by excessive dead skin cells, followed by bacterial invasion of the hair follicle pore, changes in sebum production, and inflammation.[163]

All the dermatologists we talked to agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to acne. Every patient responds to treatments differently, and sometimes it can get worse before it gets better. But with the help of your dermatologist, you can find an acne treatment regimen that works for you. And, yes, we do stress how helpful it is to work with a derm to get it right.


Even better than one stand-alone cream is a multipronged combination of acne treatments. “A good place to start is to use a combination of salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and a topical retinoid,” says Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “Salicylic acid helps remove excess oil from the surface of the skin and exfoliate the dead cells, while benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria and helps reduce inflammation.”
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There are a number of mild chemical peels available over the counter, but acne scar removal requires a stronger peel typically administered by a doctor or dermatologist. Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels are slightly stronger than alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) peels and may be used for acne scar treatment. The strongest type, phenol peels, may cause significant swelling and require up to two weeks of recovery time at home. Neither are recommended for people with active severe acne.
Diet. Studies indicate that certain dietary factors, including skim milk and carbohydrate-rich foods — such as bread, bagels and chips — may worsen acne. Chocolate has long been suspected of making acne worse. A small study of 14 men with acne showed that eating chocolate was related to a worsening of symptoms. Further study is needed to examine why this happens and whether people with acne would benefit from following specific dietary restrictions.
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