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).
Acne vulgaris is a chronic skin disease of the pilosebaceous unit and develops due to blockages in the skin's hair follicles. These blockages are thought to occur as a result of the following four abnormal processes: a higher than normal amount of oily sebum production (influenced by androgens), excessive deposition of the protein keratin leading to comedo formation, colonization of the follicle by Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) bacteria, and the local release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the skin.
Hormonal activity, such as occurs during menstrual cycles and puberty, may contribute to the formation of acne. During puberty, an increase in sex hormones called androgens causes the skin follicle glands to grow larger and make more oily sebum. Several hormones have been linked to acne, including the androgens testosterone, dihydrotestosterone (DHT), and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA); high levels of growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) have also been associated with worsened acne. Both androgens and IGF-1 seem to be essential for acne to occur, as acne does not develop in individuals with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) or Laron syndrome (insensitivity to GH, resulting in very low IGF-1 levels).
Alternative and integrative medicine approaches used in the treatment of acne include fish oil, brewer's yeast, probiotics, oral zinc and topical tea tree oil. More research is needed to establish the potential effectiveness and long-term safety of these and other integrative approaches, such as biofeedback and traditional Chinese medicine. Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of specific treatments before you try them.
Topical and oral preparations of nicotinamide (the amide form of vitamin B3) have been suggested as alternative medical treatments. It is thought to improve acne due to its anti-inflammatory properties, its ability to suppress sebum production, and by promoting wound healing. Topical and oral preparations of zinc have similarly been proposed as effective treatments for acne; evidence to support their use for this purpose is limited. The purported efficacy of zinc is attributed to its capacity to reduce inflammation and sebum production, and inhibit C. acnes. Antihistamines may improve symptoms among those already taking isotretinoin due to their anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to suppress sebum production.
The side effects depend on the type of treatment you use. Generally, for topical, over-the-counter creams, you can watch out for stinging, redness, irritation and peeling — these side effects usually don’t go any deeper than the skin. Others, like oral antibiotics or hormonal medications, could come with new sets of complications, so we suggest talking to your doctor before pursuing the treatment.
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).
Our favorite for banishing blemishes on the fly, Glossier's zit stick is not only effective, but it's portable. Just stash it in your purse for any unexpected breakouts! Packed with acne-fighting benzoyl peroxide, this convenient roll-on works extremely quickly. In a clinical trial, 83% of test subjects said that it lessened the appearance of pimples in just 3 hours. We've tried it ourselves and can confirm the 3-hour claim is true.
For an overnight solution or something that covers a larger surface area (rather than a smaller spot-treatment), Zeichner also recommends Neutrogena’s rapid-clear leave-on mask. The idea is that you spread benzoyl peroxide all over your face, but it’s not a wash-off mask, so you’re getting a prolonged exposure to the antibacterial peroxide. He says it’s helpful for treating the pimples you have and preventing new ones from popping up.
“Sometimes I see people try over-the-counter products just for a couple of weeks, they get frustrated, they say it’s not working, and they discontinue them,” Arthur says. “But it really does take a while to see the effectiveness. So unless you’re having a problem with the medication, like it’s causing severe irritation or dryness, it’s recommended to give it at least 2-3 months before switching to something else.”