To many parents’ dismay, their beautiful newborn’s face breaks out with red bumps at around 3 to 4 weeks of age. This is called baby acne. It tends to occur at about the same age as the baby’s peak gas production and fussiness. How attractive! (This all coincides with parents’ maximum sleep deprivation.) Parents are often quite concerned both about how these bumps look and about their significance.
From the What to Expect editorial team and Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect the First Year. Health information on this site is based on peer-reviewed medical journals and highly respected health organizations and institutions including ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), as well as the What to Expect books by Heidi Murkoff.
If your acne is severe, painful, or refusing to get lost, you may just be beyond what an over-the-counter treatment can do. Not only can a professional set you up with the really powerful stuff, but also Fitz Patrick explains that “working closely with an aesthetician or dermatologist means you can keep tweaking a routine to make it work best for you.”
Acne vulgaris is diagnosed based on a medical professional's clinical judgment. The evaluation of a person with suspected acne should include taking a detailed medical history about a family history of acne, a review of medications taken, signs or symptoms of excessive production of androgen hormones, cortisol, and growth hormone. Comedones (blackheads and whiteheads) must be present to diagnose acne. In their absence, an appearance similar to that of acne would suggest a different skin disorder. Microcomedones (the precursor to blackheads and whiteheads) are not visible to the naked eye when inspecting the skin and can only be seen with a microscope. There are many features that may indicate a person's acne vulgaris is sensitive to hormonal influences. Historical and physical clues that may suggest hormone-sensitive acne include onset between ages 20 and 30; worsening the week before a woman's period; acne lesions predominantly over the jawline and chin; and inflammatory/nodular acne lesions.
Frequently used topical retinoids include adapalene, isotretinoin, retinol, tazarotene, and tretinoin. They often cause an initial flare-up of acne and facial flushing, and can cause significant skin irritation. Generally speaking, retinoids increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight and are therefore recommended for use at night. Tretinoin is the least expensive of the topical retinoids and is the most irritating to the skin, whereas adapalene is the least irritating to the skin but costs significantly more. Most formulations of tretinoin cannot be applied at the same time as benzoyl peroxide. Tazarotene is the most effective and expensive topical retinoid, but is not as well-tolerated. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has similar but milder effects, and is used in many over-the-counter moisturizers and other topical products.
It's a common misconception that those with oily skin shouldn't moisturize. Be sure you're treating your entire face to a full routine and not solely relying on spot treatments to battle your breakouts. If your acne comes with a side of oil, this is your best bet for a daily moisturizer. It contains panadoxine, a vitamin B6 derivative that improves skin’s overall healthy balance by visually minimizing pore size and shine.
Shah often recommends over-the-counter retinols or prescription retinoids to her acne-prone patients. “I find that compared to other treatments they are beneficial for not just treating acne but also preventing new acne from forming as they help prevent that initial stage of the follicle getting clogged,” she says. “They can also help with some of the post acne [problems] such as hyperpigmentation.” But keep in mind if you have sensitive skin (or eczema or rosacea), a prescription retinoid might be too strong an option. However, your dermatologist can recommend an over-the-counter retinol with a low concentration (0.1 to 0.25 percent), which might be better tolerated. Retinol also isn’t a quick fix. It takes time to see results, and it’s something you’ll have to keep using to maintain its benefits. Shah also mentions that retinol plays well with other acne treatments on the list. "Retinol can be combined with other over-the-counter or prescription medications such as benzoyl peroxide, topical antibiotics, and oral medications. The right combination depends on the severity of the acne and your skin type."
If your baby still has acne at 3- to 6-months-old, infantile acne may be the culprit. “These bumps tend to be more red and inflammatory,” says Dr. Kahn. “You’ll see more of the different types of acne than with baby acne, including pustules and cysts, not just whiteheads and blackheads.” And unlike baby acne, infantile acne is linked to family history: Your baby is more likely to get it if you or your partner had severe acne as a teen. Acne in older babies can also be an indication that your baby is more likely to have acne later in life. Like baby acne, infantile acne rarely needs treatment; if there’s a lot of redness and swelling, however, your doctor might want to treat it with a topical antibiotic.
Azelaic acid has been shown to be effective for mild to moderate acne when applied topically at a 20% concentration. Treatment twice daily for six months is necessary, and is as effective as topical benzoyl peroxide 5%, isotretinoin 0.05%, and erythromycin 2%. Azelaic acid is thought to be an effective acne treatment due to its ability to reduce skin cell accumulation in the follicle, and its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It has a slight skin-lightening effect due to its ability to inhibit melanin synthesis, and is therefore useful in treating of individuals with acne who are also affected by postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. Azelaic acid may cause skin irritation but is otherwise very safe. It is less effective and more expensive than retinoids.
Whereas acne vulgaris clogs pores from the bottom up, acne inversa (or hidradenitis suppurativa) is a form of acne that clogs pores from the top down. It’s caused by excessively rapid skin growth, occluding the mouth of pores with shed skin cells. When the pores are blocked and clogged, they become inflamed and can create pimples and acne lesions. This form of acne is usually observed in intertriginous skin, where two skin areas may touch or rub together. Induced or aggravated by heat, moisture, maceration, friction and lack of air circulation. Examples of these areas include underarms, folds of the breasts, and between buttocks cheeks.
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Exercise not only helps you with fitness, but it can help reduce acne-prone skin irritations. That’s right, add its use on how to get rid of pimples to the list of exercise benefits. Exercise offers stress relief while getting the blood circulating. This blood-pumping activity sends oxygen to your skin cells, which helps remove dead cells from the body.
Several scales exist to grade the severity of acne vulgaris, but no single technique has been universally accepted as the diagnostic standard. Cook's acne grading scale uses photographs to grade severity from 0 to 8 (0 being the least severe and 8 being the most severe). This scale was the first to use a standardized photographic protocol to assess acne severity; since its creation in 1979, the scale has undergone several revisions. The Leeds acne grading technique counts acne lesions on the face, back, and chest and categorizes them as inflammatory or non-inflammatory. Leeds scores range from 0 (least severe) to 10 (most severe) though modified scales have a maximum score of 12. The Pillsbury acne grading scale simply classifies the severity of the acne from grade 1 (least severe) to grade 4 (most severe).
Misperceptions about acne's causative and aggravating factors are common, and those affected by it are often blamed for their condition. Such blame can worsen the affected person's sense of self-esteem. Until the 20th century, even among dermatologists, the list of causes was believed to include excessive sexual thoughts and masturbation. Dermatology's association with sexually transmitted infections, especially syphilis, contributed to the stigma.
First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
Dermatologists aren’t sure why azelaic acid is so effective at clearing up inflammation, but it’s often used as an option for sensitive skin or pregnant patients. Linkner says the ingredient is good at treating malasma, acne, and rosacea. Your dermatologist can prescribe a foam product with azelaic acid, and you can also find beauty products with very small amounts of this active ingredient.
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.
For UVA protection, a sunscreen with a high UVA protection of PA+++ or higher of PA++++ as recommended, especially to treat PIE. PPD is the UVA equivalent of SPF; use a sunscreen with a minimum of PPD20. The PA+ system has a + that corresponds to a tier of PPD protection. Of note, different countries use different PA systems. Japan and Taiwan changed their PA system to a 4+ tier system while Korea uses a 3+ tier system.
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Chemical peels can be used to reduce the appearance of acne scars. Mild peels include those using glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, Jessner's solution, or a lower concentrations (20%) of trichloroacetic acid. These peels only affect the epidermal layer of the skin and can be useful in the treatment of superficial acne scars as well as skin pigmentation changes from inflammatory acne. Higher concentrations of trichloroacetic acid (30–40%) are considered to be medium-strength peels and affect skin as deep as the papillary dermis. Formulations of trichloroacetic acid concentrated to 50% or more are considered to be deep chemical peels. Medium-strength and deep-strength chemical peels are more effective for deeper atrophic scars, but are more likely to cause side effects such as skin pigmentation changes, infection, and small white superficial cysts known as milia.
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This content is strictly the opinion of Dr. Josh Axe and is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Axe nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.
Cystic acne is the most severe form of acne vulgaris and can be caused by a variety of factors. This type of acne sees painful lesions develop deep within the skin, which could result in permanent scarring or hyperpigmentation. Cystic acne is easily diagnosed due it its pronounced, inflamed lesions. However, you should consult a dermatologist to rule out other skin conditions which might mimic acne such as rosacea, psoriasis or perioral dermatitis.
The approach to acne treatment underwent significant changes during the twentieth century. Retinoids were introduced as a medical treatment for acne in 1943. Benzoyl peroxide was first proposed as a treatment in 1958 and has been routinely used for this purpose since the 1960s. Acne treatment was modified in the 1950s with the introduction of oral tetracycline antibiotics (such as minocycline). These reinforced the idea amongst dermatologists that bacterial growth on the skin plays an important role in causing acne. Subsequently, in the 1970s tretinoin (original trade name Retin A) was found to be an effective treatment. The development of oral isotretinoin (sold as Accutane and Roaccutane) followed in 1980. After its introduction in the United States it was recognized as a medication highly likely to cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy. In the United States, more than 2,000 women became pregnant while taking isotretinoin between 1982 and 2003, with most pregnancies ending in abortion or miscarriage. About 160 babies were born with birth defects.
Simple alcohols like isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol are everywhere in acne treatment because they trick you into thinking they’re working: Splash some on and any oil on your face instantly vaporizes. However, these ingredients destroy the skin’s barrier, called the acid mantle. When your acid mantle is damaged, you’re actually more susceptible to breakouts, enlarged pores, and inflammation. To make matters worse, evaporating all the oil on your face can actually set your sebaceous glands into overdrive, leaving your skin oilier than ever. If any product included a simple alcohol high up in its ingredients list, we nixed its whole kit.
In general, it is recommended that people with acne do not wash affected skin more than twice daily. For people with acne and sensitive skin, a fragrance free moisturizer may be used to reduce irritation. Skin irritation from acne medications typically peaks at two weeks after onset of use and tends to improve with continued use. Cosmetic products that specifically say "non-comedogenic", "oil-free", and "won't clog pores" are recommended.
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Acne that’s more inflammatory is denoted as moderate acne. This happens when there are occasional nodules and possibly mild scarring. Severe acne occurs when there are a lot of inflammatory lesions, nodules and possibly scarring. It’s also considered severe if the acne is still present after six months of treatment or if it causes serious psychological issues.
Sugar: For starters, sugar can use up your valuable acne-fighting minerals, particularly zinc because it’s used to process the sugar you consume. Sugar also causes a spike in blood sugar level, leading to high insulin levels, which creates increased sebum production and blocked pores. Additionally, studies show that sugar also has an inflammatory effect which can worsen existing acne. Steer clear of sweets like cookies and cakes, but don’t worry – chocolate is considered safe for skin.
Benzoyl peroxide attacks the P. acnes bacteria. However, one of its main side effects is dryness: If you’re going to use anything with benzoyl peroxide, make sure to moisturize afterwards. Sulfur and azelaic acid are less common and less severe alternatives to benzoyl peroxide. Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, says sulfur-based treatments are “a good fit for patients who can’t tolerate the side effects of benzoyl peroxide.”
There are two big guns used to take down acne, and they're both great at doing entirely different things. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that comes from willow bark and works primarily as an exfoliator, breaking down fatty acids like sebum so your pores don’t clog. (Glycolic acid works similarly but is less effective.) These acids are effective on comedones — whiteheads, blackheads, and other non-red bumps.
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“You unfortunately cannot determine the strength of a product strictly by the percentage of its active ingredients because how well a product works depends on how well its inactive ingredients help it penetrate the skin,” explains Dr. Green. “In other words, a 2 percent benzoyl peroxide may be more effective than another brand’s 5 percent benzoyl peroxide because there are other ingredients helping out.”
Antibiotics are frequently applied to the skin or taken orally to treat acne and are thought to work due to their antimicrobial activity against C. acnes and their ability to reduce inflammation. With the widespread use of antibiotics for acne and an increased frequency of antibiotic-resistant C. acnes worldwide, antibiotics are becoming less effective, especially macrolide antibiotics such as topical erythromycin. Therefore, they are not recommended for use alone but are preferred as part of combination therapy. Commonly used antibiotics, either applied to the skin or taken orally, include clindamycin, erythromycin, metronidazole, sulfacetamide, and tetracyclines such as doxycycline and minocycline. Doxycycline 40 milligrams daily (low-dose) appears to have similar efficacy to doxycycline 100 milligrams daily and has fewer gastrointestinal side effects. When antibiotics are applied to the skin, they are typically used for mild to moderately severe acne. Antibiotics taken orally are generally considered to be more effective than topical antibiotics, and produce faster resolution of inflammatory acne lesions than topical applications. Topical and oral antibiotics are not recommended for use together.
Antiandrogens such as cyproterone acetate and spironolactone have been used successfully to treat acne, especially in women with signs of excessive androgen production such as increased hairiness or skin production of sebum, or baldness. Spironolactone is an effective treatment for acne in adult women, but unlike combined birth control pills, is not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for this purpose. The medication is primarily used as an aldosterone antagonist and is thought to be a useful acne treatment due to its ability to additionally block the androgen receptor at higher doses. Alone or in combination with a birth control pill, spironolactone has shown a 33 to 85% reduction in acne lesions in women. The effectiveness of spironolactone for acne appears to be dose-dependent. High-dose cyproterone acetate alone has been found to decrease symptoms of acne in women by 75 to 90% within 3 months. It is usually combined with an estrogen to avoid menstrual irregularities and estrogen deficiency. The medication has also been found to be effective in the treatment of acne in males, with one study finding that a high dosage reduced inflammatory acne lesions by 73%. However, the side effects of cyproterone acetate in males, such as gynecomastia, sexual dysfunction, and decreased bone mineral density, make its use for acne in this sex impractical in most cases. Hormonal therapies should not be used to treat acne during pregnancy or lactation as they have been associated with birth disorders such as hypospadias, and feminization of the male babies. In addition, women who are sexually active and who can or may become pregnant should use an effective method of contraception to prevent pregnancy while taking an antiandrogen. Antiandrogens are often combined with birth control pills for this reason, which can result in additive efficacy.
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).