It starts with assessing your acne, says Doris Day, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center and the author of "Forget the Facelift." If your pimples are leaving scars, make an appointment for a dermatologist right away. Otherwise you can begin to get rid of acne by selecting an over-the-counter product from your local drugstore.
So how do you find the best acne products? Start by remembering that they work in different ways, depending on their active ingredient, says Day. Some work by killing bacteria that causes acne flare-ups, others remove excess oil and dead skin cells that create pimples when trapped in hair follicles. Some are decidedly gentler than others -- and better for sensitive skin.
(Skip ahead now to see the best products for getting rid of acne.)
For Day, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are acne-treatment winners. "Most of the time you can get great results with over-the-counter products that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide," says Day. "Because they are over-the-counter, they aren't as harsh. Salicylic acid is great for acne because it helps gently exfoliate the skin; and it gets down into the follicle and helps exfoliate deeper than glycolic acid." To get rid of acne, she suggests patients alternate a salicylic acid cleanser or cream with acne products that contain bacteria-killing benzoyl peroxide for maximum efficacy.
Two things that don't help when treating acne, she cautions: rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. "These clean wounds, but they do not affect the bacteria that causes acne," she says. "Also alcohol is very drying and hydrogen peroxide is actually toxic when applied directly to the skin."
What causes acne? "We know that acne is caused by excess oil getting trapped in the hair follicle, but we still don't know exactly why," Day says. "We know that stress triggers it, hormones impact it, metabolism and gut flora could be a factor." But even though all research points to an immune system response versus a skin disorder, luckily there are acne treatments that work at the skin level until we figure the rest out. Check out the ingredients and products that get rid of acne now.
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Acne Treatment No. 1: Benzoyl Peroxide
Used with salicylic acid, it's usually so effective Day recommends beginning with over-the-counter doses of each. Only then -- if you don't see a difference in a couple of weeks -- it may be a sign that you should see a dermatologist for a more intensive acne treatment regimen.
Benzoyl peroxide is widely available in a number of gels, creams and lotions, in concentrations between 2.5 percent and 10 percent. Since it can cause red and scaly skin irritation if you have sensitive skin you may want to start with the lowest concentration and work upwards. Some research actually suggests that lower doses of benzoyl peroxide are just as effective as the higher ones. Adult acne sufferers take heed: your skin becomes thinner as you age so you want to treat it as gently as possible.
Try: Neutrogena On the Spot Acne Treatment, $5.99. Another great option: Proactiv Emergency Blemish Relief, $46.
Acne Treatment No. 2: Salicylic Acid
Try: Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Fast-Acting Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment, $18. Or try Olay Fresh Effects Clear Skin Spot Zinger, $7.99.
Acne Treatment No. 3: Over-the-Counter Retinols
Topical retinoids come in cream, gel and liquid forms, usually applied in the evening to help your body deal with any irritation. If you do get redness, doctors advise starting out by applying it every other night.
Try: Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5, $57. Or, Curology, which lets you get a prescription strength retinol through a dermatologist online.
Acne Treatment No. 4: Coconut Oil
Try: For an at-home natural acne treatment: Mix a drop of coconut oil with equal parts honey, an antiseptic, and aloe, an anti-inflammatory that will also help with pain and itch. Apply to pimples as a spot treatment. Rinse off after an hour.