Top Tips to Manage Acne-Prone Skin
1. Cleanse gently and wisely
While deep cleansing sounds desirable to purify oily spot-prone skin, over-washing and harsh cleansers can do more damage than good – by stripping away the protective barrier, skin is left dry and vulnerable to bacteria. Avoid using soap too – the high pH of soap will dry the skin and cause a compensatory surge in oil production, leaving skin in a confused state with an undesirable combination of dry and greasy patches.
Choose a cleanser containing helpful anti-inflammatory ingredients such as salicylic acid to help soothe inflamed pimples, and gently massage over the entire face and neck for at least 60 seconds (to allow any active ingredients to take effect). Avoid cleaners and toners containing harsh alcohol-based astringents and ingredients such as witch hazel, which typically cause a sting on application and make the skin appear red. Small flaking patches might indicate you’re over cleansing, so ease back and then gradually increase the frequency of use as your skin adjusts and gets used to the product.
2. Make salicylic acid your star ingredient
Salicylic acid may sound like a harsh chemical, but it is actually derived from willow bark and is completely natural. Salicylic acid is one of the most effective acne-fighting non-prescription ingredients and is a great choice of exfoliant for those with acne-prone and oily skin. Salicylic acid targets pimples by sloughing away dead skin cells that clog pores and lead to breakouts, and also minimizes pore visibility.
It is often compared to another active ingredient called benzoyl peroxide, and while salicylic acid won’t destroy bacteria, it won’t cause irritation, redness and peeling (like benzyl peroxide can) and it will dampen down any inflammation. And as a bonus, salicylic acid can decrease pigmentation and improve collagen production, which is good news for those wanting to ward off the signs of ageing!
A common misconception is that moisturizing is bad for oily skin prone to breakouts. It’s true that many creams and lotions contain ingredients that can block pores and make acne worse (such as paraffin and lanolin), so never put a product designed for your body near your face. Look for products labelled ‘non-comedogenic’, which is a fancy way of saying they don’t contain ingredients that block pores and lead to the formation of blackheads and whiteheads. Hydrating the skin with an oil-free moisturiser will not only counteract the drying effect of many acne treatments, but also loosen the pore-blocking sebum (skin debris and grease) leading to clearer and healthier skin overall.
4. Give it time and be optimistic
Sometimes your skin can take a while to adjust to new products or active ingredients. Direct your attention away from the guide on the bottle and focus only on your skin. If you experience signs of irritation or over-drying, try reducing the application to every other day (or even less often) for a couple of weeks before gradually increasing back to daily. And if you’ve had acne for a while and tried lots of different products, it is easy to get impatient and lose hope that anything works.
Remember that it takes 4-6 weeks for spots to heal, so you need to persevere with a new product for at least this long (and ideally a bit longer) before really deciding whether it is doing the trick and clearing your skin.
5. Keep your hands off!
As tempting and satisfying as it is, squeezing spots really is the worst thing you can do so keep your hands off! Pressure on an inflamed pimple will push the contents of the grease gland (oil, bacteria and dead skin cells) into the surrounding healthy skin which causes damage and more inflammation.
Squeezing can lead to a temporary darkening of the skin (so called ‘post-inflammatory pigmentation’) that can take weeks, even months to settle, and scarring, which can be permanent and difficult to treat – not cool. If you really find it difficult to resist squeezing, instead try applying a warm compress (like a clean face cloth) to the pimple for 5 minutes to reduce any swelling and then apply a salicylic acid-based spot treatment product.
6. Review your make up choices and clean your brushes
It’s a fact that as breakouts worsen, the more make-up we use to try to conceal the problem. For pimple-prone skin, making the right cosmetic choices and regularly cleaning applicators are essential if future breakouts are to be prevented. Mineral-based make up products are a good option as they contain ingredients such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and silica that mop up excess oil without blocking pores. Also, switch to a concealer that contains an active spot-fighting ingredient such as salicylic acid to not only improve the visibility of blemishes but also treat on-the-go. And just as would be the case if you didn’t wash your face each day, make-up brushes accumulate a daily layer of pore-clogging product, dirt and bacteria – your skin’s worst enemy.
Aim to cleanse your brushes at least once a week using baby shampoo or a professional brush cleaner to keep them in tip top condition.
7. Keep off the sunbeds
Another common misconception is that a few 10 minute sessions under a sunbed will kill acne-causing bacteria and clear skin. In reality, sunbeds can make acne worse, and more worryingly, some people become dependent on having a suntan as they feel it reduces the visibility of pimples and red marks.
If the risk of developing skin cancers (including life-threatening malignant melanoma) isn’t enough to make you steer clear, remember that sunbeds emit unfiltered ultraviolet light (including UVA) which also leads to collagen breakdown, causing premature wrinkles, permanent brown marks and leathery skin – not an attractive substitute for acne!
8. Review your contraceptive
One for the ladies! Acne is triggered by excess oil (sebum) production from the sebaceous glands, which are under the control of a group of hormones called androgens. Along with dead skin cells, sebum can clog pores and promote the growth of bacteria that cause inflammation and breakouts. A woman’s ovaries and adrenal glands normally produce low levels of androgens but in some women with acne, the body may be producing too much. However, for most, blood hormone levels will be normal and acne develops because the grease glands are more sensitive to the effects of androgens.
Sadly, for men, there is not much that can be done to stem testosterone levels without having undesirable effects (loss of sex drive, breast development etc.), but for women, combined contraceptive pills can help. They contain a low dose of oestrogen and progesterone, and different pills contain different versions of these two hormones – but beware, if you’re not selective, some can actually cause breakouts. Ask your GP to review your birth control and avoid progesterone-only pills, implants and injections where possible. Switch to a combination pill that contains a skin-friendly progesterone – this will reduce the sensitivity of the grease glands to testosterone and stop excessive oil production.
9. Review your diet
For many years, the jury was out as to whether there was a link between diet and acne – the hard evidence was simply lacking. But over the past decade, many dermatologists now agree that hormones in cow’s milk may stimulate oil production and promote acne. Similarly, foods with a high glycaemic index can cause a spike in blood sugars, causing a rise in hormone levels and sending grease glands into an oily overdrive.
Try reducing cow’s milk intake to just 1-2 servings per day (or choose an unsweetened alternative like almond milk), and cut out fatty foods high in omega-6 fatty acids and refined sugars (generally found in all the foods you know are bad for you!) – even if your skin doesn’t dramatically improve, your waistline will!
10. Make contact with a dermatologist (especially if you are scarring)
Having even the odd spot, never mind persistent breakouts, can really knock your self-esteem and confidence. If your acne is putting restrictions on your social life and you feel you’re not keeping things at bay with over-the-counter products, see your GP and request a referral to a dermatologist. And this isn’t just for people with severe acne, some people can have only mild breakouts but it can make them very low and has a negative effect on body image, which is a reason to seek help from a professional.
Most importantly, if you have any signs of scarring, don’t delay - make an appointment with a dermatologist right away as once established, scarring can be difficult to treat and an unpleasant long term reminder of a treatable condition.