There’s a reason why Toula let her dad spray Windex all over her face in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” After waking up with a huge zit on her wedding day, she was desperate enough that she’d try just about anything to get rid of it.
It’s a familiar feeling for many of us. More than 40 million people in the United States suffer from acne—that makes it the most common skin condition, by far. Though there’s no cure, there’s also no need to deal with constant oily skin, pimples, and blackheads.
Believe it or not, there are plenty of treatments and tips that can help. Once you understand a little more about acne, your next breakout won’t seem like the end of the world—and you just might be able to clear it up a little sooner.
Causes of acne
No single factor causes acne—that’s part of the reason why so many people struggle with it.
“We used to think that acne started with clogged pores, but now we know that it’s really an inflammatory condition,” says Dr. Rosalyn George, a North Carolina–based dermatologist. “What starts the acne is the inflammation in the skin, and then you get clogged pores that hide bacteria that feed on oil.”
In other words, it's sort of like a chain reaction—inflammation causes clogged pores, which can lead to bacteria and excess oil production—and eventually, a breakout. To make things even more complicated, hormones also play a big role in the onset of acne.
“That’s why you don’t start to see it until puberty,” George says. “Testosterone specifically creates more oil.”
It doesn’t sound particularly encouraging that even the experts are still figuring out what causes breakouts, but don’t despair. Dermatologists and skin care gurus have some helpful advice for dealing with pimples and breakouts.
Tips for treating acne
1. Start washing your face (if you’re not already).
Since oil only makes acne worse, keeping your skin fresh and clean should minimize breakouts.
“There are people who don’t wash their face, and that gives the bacteria more places to grow, and there are the people who think dirt causes acne and they over-cleanse the skin.” Dr. Rosalyn George
Wait a minute—you can “over-cleanse” your face? Yes—George usually recommends washing no more than twice a day. Another common blunder she sees her patients make all the time? Not removing makeup before bed.
2. Find some skin care products that work for you.
It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and George says that few people actually need prescription-strength medicine to treat their acne. (We’ll explore several treatments below.)
3. Wait it out.
Choose a product specifically targeted to acne-prone skin and stick with it. George usually tells her patients to wait four to six weeks before switching to something new. Just because you had a flare-up doesn’t mean the treatment won’t work for you.
Another common mistake is that people expect their skin to heal within a week. “It actually takes about three months on a product to notice any difference,” says George.
Organic acne treatments
George’s recommendation? Try using skin care products that contain 2 percent salicylic acid, a medication that unclogs pores, reduces redness, and shrinks pimples.
When you’re dealing with irritated, inflamed skin, the last thing you want to do is add unnecessary chemicals or toxins to the mix. Instead, opt for organic skin care products—like Alba Botanica’s AcneDote line. Every product contains salicylic acid—derived from natural willow bark extract—for zit-fighting power.
Swipe this cooling astringent all over your face with a cotton ball to cleanse the pores of oil and grime. Lavender and orange peel oil give it a fresh scent—a far cry from the acrid smell of many acne products.
A maximum-strength spot treatment that delivers clearer skin in just four hours? Sounds like a dream come true. Apply directly to breakouts or pimples to stop them in their tracks.
Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate—it’s the key to removing dead skin cells and impurities. A dual-purpose scrub that works for both the face and body couldn’t be more suited to the job.
This face wash lathers easily into a refreshing foam that removes makeup, eliminates grease, and leaves skin looking beautiful.
Other natural acne treatments
If going organic isn’t your top priority, feel free to widen your search for acne products to the “natural” category. Though the natural standard isn’t regulated by the FDA or any other agency, these products generally use essential oils or other naturally occurring ingredients instead of harsh chemicals.
Of course, check out the ingredient list fully before using any new skin care product—especially if you know your skin reacts badly to any common ingredients.
Our good friend salicylic acid makes another appearance here. Try using this cleanser in a hot shower to really get all the gunk out of your pores.
Derma-E Very Clear Oil-Free Acne Wipes
Perfect for taking off makeup or washing up after a workout, Derma-E’s wipes gently remove dirt, oil, grime, and dead skin cells.
The extract of the witch hazel plant has been used for centuries to treat skin irritation and wounds, so why not try it for acne? Its anti-inflammatory properties soothe redness, while the astringent goes to work on your pores. Just swipe it on with a cotton ball after cleansing.
Like witch hazel, tea tree oil has a reputation within the natural health community as a helpful acne fighter. Said to possess antibacterial and antiseptic properties, this essential oil has been shown to be as effective at combating acne as other drugstore treatments.
When that one giant pimple crops up, turn to a blemish stick like this one. Witch hazel and tea tree oil work together to dry out zits in just a few hours. Plus, it’s small enough that it’s great for traveling or just throwing in your purse.
DIY acne treatments
Not ready to shell out your hard-earned money for something you’re not sure will work? Try one of these DIY skin solutions instead of using a storebought product. Each remedy comes together with just a few gentle ingredients, and shouldn’t be too harsh on sensitive skin.
Slather on this spot treatment to dry out a bothersome breakout. Because baking soda has amphoteric properties—meaning it can act as either an acid or a base—it can correct any imbalances in the skin, as well as dry out zits.
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon water
Mix equal parts baking soda and water together to form a thick paste. Apply directly to pimple and leave it on for 15 minutes. Rinse off and follow with a gentle moisturizer.
Since apple cider vinegar is naturally antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, it kills acne-causing bacteria in the pores. This gentle toner works especially well in the winter, when other harsh skin care products might leave your face dry and flaky.
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup of water
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons fresh mint
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for a few minutes. Strain, let cool, and store in a mason jar (with a lid) in the fridge for up to six months. Swipe on after cleansing your skin, then apply moisturizer.
Green tea contains tons of antioxidants—compounds that fight damage-causing free radicals, which can trigger cancer and other diseases. Make the most of it with this soothing, cooling toner.
Steep tea bags each in ½ cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, and allow them to cool.
Pour ¼ cup of each tea into a liquid-measuring cup and add the aloe vera juice. Pour the mixture into a sterilized 2-ounce glass bottle*. Use the toner each morning and evening after cleansing and exfoliating.
Keep refrigerated and use within one month.
*To sterilize a glass bottle, put it through a hot wash in the dishwasher or use tongs to dunk it in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds.
Oats are a natural exfoliant—their gritty texture removes dead skin cells and impurities gently. A few drops of tea tree oil add even more acne-fighting power.
Combine all ingredients in small bowl. Mix until mask becomes thick and grainy. After washing your face, apply the mask all over skin and let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse.
Though many people with acne avoid extra oil like the plague, washing the face with oil can actually help prevent breakouts for some. Some skincare experts believe that acne-fighting washes can over-dry the skin, leading the pores to produce excess oil to make up for it.
Here’s how it works: You massage a specific combinations of oils into your skin, steam your face over a bowl of hot water, and wipe off with a clean washcloth. That’s all there is to it!
It doesn’t get more natural than good old H2O. Yes, sliding ice cubes over your skin helps exfoliate and cleanse. Some natural beauty gurus also say this method can help shrink pores.
Foods that can trigger acne
What you apply to your skin isn’t the only thing that affects breakouts—the foods you eat can also play a role.
Since acne is an inflammatory response, avoiding foods that can trigger inflammation may be beneficial. George pinpointed two food types associated with skin problems that you might want to avoid: sugar and dairy.
“The biggest thing to avoid is sugar,” George says. “Sugar is bad for you, we know this. It’s junk food, basically.”
In one 2007 study, researchers found that following a low-glycemic diet appeared to help clear up patients’ skin. Though doctors don’t fully understand the relationship between diet and acne, they do know that foods with a high glycemic load—think white bread, candy, and pasta—promote inflammation. Not a good thing when it comes to fighting breakouts.
Foods with a high glycemic index include:
- White bread
- White rice
- Corn flakes
- Russet potatoes
- Ice cream
- Frozen meals and desserts
Though studies on the relationship between dairy consumption and acne haven’t been as conclusive, many experts believe there’s an association between the two. Several studies have noted the connection appears strongest between milk consumption and breakouts. Some hypothesize that the hormones and growth factors in milk might have something to do with this, although more research needs to be done to know for sure.
If you think cutting out dairy might benefit your skin, avoid the following foods:
- Ice cream
- Other dairy-based desserts
The bottom line
Dealing with daily breakouts can be tough. It’s easy to feel frustrated, lose confidence in your appearance, and even despair over never experiencing clear skin.
There’s no need to give up hope, though. Even if you’ve tried treatment after treatment and changed your diet, you still have other options.
“The biggest thing is that if it’s not getting better, be sure to see a dermatologist,” George says. “There’s no reason you need to suffer through it—especially if you’re starting to get scarring.”
Just remember—as with a bad haircut, your first breakup, and the awkward middle school years, it does get better.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho