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When blocked pores become increasingly irritated or infected, they grow in size and go deeper into the skin. If pimples get trapped beneath the skin’s surface, they can form papules: red, sore spots which can’t be popped (please don’t try! Squeezing the oil, bacteria, and skin cell mixture can result in long term scars that may be unresponsive to acne treatments). They’re formed when the trapped, infected pore becomes increasingly inflamed and irritated, and they usually feel hard to the touch. Papules are small (less than 1 centimeter in diameter) with distinct borders; when clusters of papules occur near each other, they can appear as a rash and make your skin feel rough like sandpaper. Because they’re inaccessible, they’re a bit more difficult to treat, and are therefore considered moderately severe acne.
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.
Salicylic acid and azelaic acid. Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring acid found in whole-grain cereals and animal products. It has antibacterial properties. A 20 percent azelaic acid cream seems to be as effective as many conventional acne treatments when used twice a day for at least four weeks. It's even more effective when used in combination with erythromycin. Prescription azelaic acid (Azelex, Finacea) is an option during pregnancy and while breast-feeding. Side effects include skin discoloration and minor skin irritation.
The Pore Normalizing Cleanser is designed just to cleanse, not treat, which is a good thing: The Nurse Practitioner study emphasizes the importance of washing with mild cleansers in conjunction with topical acne medications to combat or avoid excessive skin irritation. This one is water-based and fragrance-free, and uses sodium laureth sulfate (as opposed to its harsh cousin sodium lauryl sulfate) to eliminate any chance for irritation.
How to Handle It: Pair two of the best-known acne-fighting ingredients, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, in the week leading up to your period. (If you're feeling bloated, now's the time to do it.) The combo can help prevent hormonal acne from happening in the first place. Zeichner suggests following a salicylic acid wash, like fan-favorite Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser ($7), with a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment, such as Murad Acne Spot Fast Fix ($22). If you're still seeing zits, "visit your dermatologist to discuss prescription options, like birth control pills, oral spironolactone — which blocks oil — or topical Aczone 7.5 percent gel," says Zeichner. "It's shown to be particularly effective in adult women without causing irritation." Oral contraceptives level out those hormone fluctuations, keeping your oil production normal and your skin clear.
Medical conditions that commonly cause a high-androgen state, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and androgen-secreting tumors, can cause acne in affected individuals. Conversely, people who lack androgenic hormones or are insensitive to the effects of androgens rarely have acne. An increase in androgen and oily sebum synthesis may be seen during pregnancy. Acne can be a side effect of testosterone replacement therapy or of anabolic steroid use. Over-the-counter bodybuilding and dietary supplements are commonly found to contain illegally added anabolic steroids.
There has been a long-observed link between higher stress levels and the incidence of breakouts, and studies have shown that stress can worsen acne’s frequency and severity. Sebaceous glands contain receptors for stress hormones, making them upregulated and kicking sebum production into overdrive. Unfortunately, those with stress sometimes fall victim to a vicious acne cycle. Anxious types have a tendency to pick their skin and pop pimples under stress. This bad habit can exacerbate blemishes by pushing the buildup deeper into the pore, inducing cellular damage, rupturing cellular walls, and spreading bacteria. In extreme cases, sometimes people become so worried or embarrassed about their skin that they compulsively pick at every little thing that shows up. This condition is called acne excoriee, and can turn mild acne into severe scars.
Apricot seeds may be a great option for how to get rid of pimples. A recent study published in Phytotherapy Research notes that the phytonutrients and antimicrobial qualities of apricot essential oil obtained from apricot seeds may help provide glowing skin. Apricot essential oil showed antimicrobial activity against a range of bacteria and yeasts that were tested, indicating its possible benefits to prevent and minimize acne. (18)
What's Going On: You might be all too familiar with these, which tend to make their debut when you’re in high school. "Blackheads, like whiteheads, are blocked pores," says Zeichner. What gives them their namesake color, though, is the oil. It's already dark, but blackheads also have a larger opening at the surface than whiteheads do, meaning air can enter and oxidize that oil sitting inside the pore, turning it even darker.
A BHA product often cited includes salicylic acid, it must be between a pH between 3 and 4 to work. A BHA works to slough (to get rid of) off dead skin cells and encourage new skin growth. As a result, you may experience dry skin and scaliness around your acne, but this will dissipate over time as your skin begins to regenerate faster. Use this in a cleanser or spot treatment daily on the acne-affected areas of your skin.
Retinoids and retinoid-like drugs. These come as creams, gels and lotions. Retinoid drugs are derived from vitamin A and include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, others), adapalene (Differin) and tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage). You apply this medication in the evening, beginning with three times a week, then daily as your skin becomes used to it. It works by preventing plugging of the hair follicles.