Although acne is something that most people experience and hope to magically outgrow by high school graduation, that’s usually not the case. The sad truth is that acne can plague anyone, whether you’re a 20-something or well into your adult life.
Acne can range anywhere from a few pesky pimples and blackheads to painful, cystic acne that disrupts your everyday life. Wherever you fall on that range, we can all agree on one thing—acne is a pain in the ass. So, we rounded up a few experts and collegiettes to gather eight methods that are gentle, aggressive or somewhere in between to help you kick acne’s ass and achieve the skin you’ve been dreaming of!
1. Natural methods
It’s amazing just how much a good exercise regimen and healthier eating habits can not only drastically improve your mind and body, but also your skin! So, if you’re not sure where to begin on your acne-fighting journey, it doesn’t hurt to start with basic, natural methods such as diet and exercise.
Rachna Shah, a freshman at Dartmouth College, credits both as her favorite ways to clear up her acne. “One of my favorite (more natural and gentle) ways to get rid of acne is exercising regularly and eating healthier foods,” says Rachna. “While it may seem like a long-term option compared to aggressive medications, its benefits range far beyond getting rid of your acne.”
Consistent exercise routines do so many awesome and natural things to our body that double as a way to fight acne. While you’re working up a sweat and toning up your muscles, you’re also increasing your blood circulation, receiving more oxygen and releasing sweat. The blood and oxygen flow draws out pore-clogging toxins while sweat aids even more in this process, removing dirt and oils. Over time, you’ll notice that this process can contribute to clearer skin! Dr. Cynthia Bailey, a dermatologist based in Sebastopol, California, offers her insight as to how exercise helps promote better skin.
"Acne is considered an inflammatory condition, [so it's] not simply a problem of bacteria or clogged pores," Dr. Bailey explains. "Exercise counteracts the biochemical and endocrine drivers of general inflammatory physiology in the body. It's why exercise is important to fighting all conditions fueled by inflammation including arthritis, metabolic syndrome, etc." If that's not enough encouragement to exercise more often, we don't know what is!
Also, as an added bonus, exercise produces endorphins (hormones) that aid in the reduction of stress. Stress produces a hormone called cortisol, which does some harmful things to our body, including breakouts. Therefore, producing more of those happy hormones in turn reduces stress, which equals a reduction in cortisol. Simple enough, right?
While exercise is certainly not a quick, overnight fix in any acne battle, it does provide many natural ways to detoxify your skin and fight the bad hormones. However, be sure not to backtrack and cause breakouts! Remember to cleanse your face after hitting the gym and to not to sit in your workout clothes for too long after your sweat sesh to avoid body acne. Consider following up your workout with a DIY skincare routine to go even more natural!
Put good in to get good out! Whether we like to admit it or not, there are some foods out there that are just not good for our skin. Eating healthier helps you avoid the foods that can mess with your hormones and lead to acne, and ensures that you’re receiving all the good, natural stuff such as antioxidants, amino acids and other nourishing nutrients that make for a healthier complexion.
"I recommend a diet that is heavily weighted towards whole plant foods and away from refined carbohydrates, dairy and bad fats and animal-based foods," says Dr. Bailey, so make sure to keep that in mind the next time you're at the grocery store! Although dairy is a much-loved staple of an everyday diet for many, Dr. Bailey especially recommends steering clear of the stuff if you want to improve your complexion.
"Dairy in particular has been linked to the formation of acne by triggering an inflammatory biochemical cascade that specifically targets the pores," says Dr. Bailey. "High refined carbs and sugars have also clearly been identified as drivers of acne." Yes, we know it's difficult to avoid these foods, but the overall improved health of your skin will be worth it!
If you're looking for an even more specific diet to follow, Nicholas Grimm, a certified physician assistant at the BayCare Clinic in Green Bay, Wisconsin, recommends following a ketogenic diet.
"Diets that are higher in fat, very low in carbohydrates and a moderate protein intake have a tendency to help control insulin levels, which influence how our skin behaves," says Grimm. "It’s really a lifestyle choice—to a large degree, I would encourage people to avoid processed foods. Natural foods like nuts and healthy fats like avocado are good. This isn’t necessarily going to be an answer to the acne but it can aid in the improvement of acne," Dr. Grimm explains. So although Grimm wouldn’t recommend a healthy diet as the sole treatment for more severe and cystic acne, it’s definitely a step you’ll want to include!
"If I were to put everybody on a ketogenic diet, they would probably see some significant improvement in their skin," Grimm adds.
For some, all it might take to improve your acne is a diet adjustment and some exercise, so they’re definitely two acne-fighting methods that are worth a shot if you haven’t given them a chance yet.
2. Gentle methods
Mild to acne-prone facial cleansers
Consistently washing your face every day isn’t always easy, especially right before bed. However, we all typically sweat throughout the day, and if you’re one to wear makeup, that makes for a pore-clogging nightmare when you’re hitting the sheets without fully cleansing your face.
While facial cleansers generally serve to remove dirt, oil and makeup, it’s important to remember that not everyone’s skin is the same! Some skin types require gentler washes to aid sensitive skin and others require a little more oomph in getting rid of all those pesky pimples. In order to find an acne cleanser that works best for the type of skin you have, talk with your dermatologist to help identify your skin type and find the products that work best for you! Dr. Bailey reveals some of the best acne-fighting ingredients to look out for in facial cleansers.
"Active [acne-fighting] ingredients include salicylic acid, glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Yeast acne (pityrosporum folliculitis) responds to zinc pyrithione," says Dr. Bailey. If you're more into gentler cleansers, Dr. Bailey recommends applying leave-on products that are medicated.
Grimm offers up witch hazel as a natural astringent for those who experience oiliness. "There are some people that like to use astringents to dry the skin out, things like witch hazel, and for people with very oily complexions that sometimes provides them with some relief.”
Again, if your skin is extra-sensitive, you'll want to speak with your doctor about the ingredients that are best for your skin to avoid, and which cleansers are the most compatible. “The best thing is going to be to focus on using skin cleansers that are fragrance-free," says Grimm. "What we have to remember about what skin cleansers do is they’re really just there to remove excess surface oil, dirt and debris. They’re not really intended to treat deeper inflammatory acne lesions. They’re really there to allow for a more even penetration of topical prescription medication." It's important to know exactly how the products you use work in order to gain the most acne-fighting benefits from them.
Establishing a gentle routine
Establishing a skincare routine is a great way to ensure you’re consistently removing oil, makeup and other toxins from your pores every day. Stephanie Huynh, a sophomore at Lehigh University, recommends sticking to a gentle skincare routine to send your acne packing!
“The best [acne-fighting] method for me and a lot of my friends is to get on a good skincare routine,” says Stephanie. “This means taking your makeup off at night using gentle methods such as micellar water, and then cleansing with an acne fighting or soothing cleanser. Because I have combination skin, and my problem areas are located only in certain areas I don't like using an extremely harsh cleanser, but that's my preference.”
If you find that you’ve established a routine but you’re still not getting the results you want, it may be in regards to the order and types of products you use in the daytime versus at night (an issue that can fixed with the help of your doc). Chelsea Jackson, a junior at Iowa State University, shares her story as an example for finding a specific routine!
“After nearly a year of trial and error, I found that using different products during the morning versus the evening has helped clear up my skin,” says Chelsea. “I use the Cetaphil daily facial cleanser if I shower at night and COSRX low pH good morning gel cleaner in the morning, if I shower in the AM. I also use a vitamin-C-based serum in the morning before I put on my Cetaphil daily facial moisturizer. At night, I'll use a retinol cream instead of the vitamin-C serum (with the same moisturizer). Though my acne is really only present on my body, not my face, I've found that face products don't irritate my breakouts as much as body washes do (even the ones that claim to be for "sensitive skin").”
So, when you've finally found your skincare routine, the biggest thing you'll want to remember is to not overwash! “A gentle cleanser is recommended once a day," says Grimm. "A lot of people go overboard with cleansers—they scrub and they scrub and they scrub thinking that they’re going to remove the acne by cleaning more. But a lot of the acne has more to do what’s going on in the inside of the body (hormonal influence) with regard to anything that’s going on to the outside. A lot of people attribute acne to being unclean and really that’s not what we’re talking about."
Again, it is so important to talk with your dermatologist if you’ve been struggling with acne and not getting any positive results. Establishing a good acne-fighting routine makes a world of difference when you can be sure that you’re using all the correct products for your skin, and using them in the right way!
Related: How to Get Rid of a Sudden Breakout
3. Aggressive methods
While exercise, healthier eating habits and gentle cleansers can do wonders for acne, it sometimes just doesn’t do the trick for stubborn acne and painful, cystic acne. If you feel that you need some extra ammunition in your battle to get rid of your acne, there are a few prescription-strength options and other medicines out there your dermatologist can recommend and prescribe!
Prescription medications & topical treatments
Birth control, topical treatments, and antibiotics, oh my! These are just a few things that your dermatologist can prescribe to help with your acne. Zaynah Javed, a freshman at UC Berkely, recommends topical gels as a way to effectively treat acne.
“Prescription acne medication is always an option!” Zaynah says. “If you talk to a doctor about it, they are usually very receptive to the idea and will try to find the right medicine for you. I use Tretinoingel, which is pretty easy to use since you just have to apply it at night. I haven't had any adverse effects from it but if you do, doctors are always able to help you find the right solution for you!”
Aside from topical treatments, another prescription method to consider includes certain antibiotics. Antibiotics aren’t meant for casual breakouts and are used to fight acne-causing bacteria among other things in people who face moderate to severe acne. "Even though [antibiotics] are effective against certain types of bacteria that have been associated with acne, we primarily use them for their anti-inflammatory properties," Grimm explains. "If we can reduce inflammation in and around the oil glands then we can prevent oil gland obstruction to a degree and really help with the acne."
However, it's important to be aware of the side effects and interactions of the antibiotics with other medications you are taking, as well as the implications of their use. Grimm explains that while antibiotics are effective in their treatment, they're not necessarily meant for long-term use.
"We’re really trying to limit long-term oral antibiotic use because it’s not safe for people. There are trends in bacteria that are developing resistance to specific antibiotics which is making treatment of specific bacterial infections much more difficult. MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is by far one of the most well-known things."
While antibiotics aren't a treatment to be taken lightly, they can really provide the help that you may need if you're not seeing results from anything else.
Another popular prescription medication to help regulate acne-causing hormones is birth control. Whether it be the pill or through a hormonal birth control device (ring, IUD, etc.), this method can work wonders for those who experience acne at the fault of their hormone levels. Sarah Madaus, a junior at Temple University, credits birth control as a positive impact on her acne.
“I struggled with severe cystic acne during high school, so I went to a dermatologist,” Sarah explains. “She prescribed Retin-A, which is a retinoid topical gel, as well as birth control. The birth control regulated a few hormones that were imbalanced, which actually causes a lot of acne in young women. Paired with regular exercise and lots and lots of water my skin looked 75 percent better in just six months.”
There are many options out there when it comes to treating moderate to severe acne, so talk to your dermatologist to find the best method that fits you and your lifestyle!
Accutane (known generically as isotretinoin) is one of the more serious prescription medications out there in fighting severe and unresponsive acne. According to drugs.com, Accutane is a form of vitamin A that works to get rid of severe, nodular acne by reducing the amount of oil released by oil glands in your skin.
"[Accutane] is a miracle for severe acne but must be dosed optimally and by someone well experienced in using the medicine," says Dr. Bailey. "The goal is not just to clear the acne while on the medicine but to create a sustained, potentially lifelong remission from acne."
Accutane is typically prescribed as a last resort method to patients who have exhausted other medicines, as the medication requires attentive use and is quite powerful. Abby Piper, a senior at the University of Notre Dame, shares her personal experience on Accutane.
“I had really bad and painful acne in high school and senior year I decided to go on Accutane,” says Abby. “I finished it in my first semester of college and it definitely helped… it did have a lot of intense side effects [as well]. My skin was so dry and the chapped lips were the absolute worst part—they started cracking and got infected at one point…” Abby explains.
Although there are some significant side effects to note, there has also been a lot of success with the drug. “I don't regret it, because it did help a lot, but there definitely were acnes scars left… it's just important to keep in mind that the process with the birth control, blood tests, iPLEDGE quizzes every month (components that enable access to the drug), doctor appointments and side effects like dry skin and muscle fatigue took a toll,” says Abby.
If you’re considering Accutane as a method, talk with your doctor about the risks, benefits and side effects to ultimately decide if it’s right for you and your lifestyle.
While getting rid of acne isn’t always easy, it helps to remember that you do have options to discuss with your dermatologist! Dealing with acne can be extremely tough, both mentally and physically, but at the end of the day, all that matters is that you’re comfortablein the skin you’re in.