4 Ways to Help Prevent Breakouts
Leah Ansell, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and an assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University.
- Don't Touch
- Go Easy on Your Skin
- Choose Products Wisely
- When to See a Dermatologist
The right skin regimen is an important step in preventing and treating acne, a common skin condition characterized by pimples and other lesions that arise when excess sebum (oil) and dead cells plug hair follicles. It comes in many forms, including blackheads and whiteheads. But the most severe type is highly visible: The pimple that grows deep inside the skin and forms a red and swollen bump.
Squeezing or popping pimples can be counterproductive: You can inadvertently push oil and debris deeper into a follicle. This is likely to increase inflammation and make the blemish worse.
The only time it may be OK to pop a pimple is if it is a whitehead that is clearly on the verge of releasing itself, in which case you may be able to safely press on it with clean hands to help it along. Keep the area clean and allow it to heal naturally to prevent scarring.
Otherwise, be aware that picking at pimples (or scabs the result from picking) prolongs healing time and can cause scarring.
Go Easy on Your Skin
While keeping your skin as clean as possible is an important aspect of preventing breakouts, it's possible to be overzealous with cleansing. Washing your face too often or scrubbing it can do more harm than good.
Keeping acne-prone skin clean is important, but don't wash so much that it becomes dry and irritated. During a breakout, use a nonabrasive, alcohol-free cleanser, gently massaging it into your skin. Rinse with warm water and pat dry with a clean towel.
Clean your face no more than twice a day—when you wake up and before bedtime (never sleep in makeup). The exception: If you perspire a lot during physical activity, wash your face as soon as possible to remove sweat.
If you're on the go, cleansing wipes can be a convenient, effective way to clean your face. But they can make your face dry or oily, so be sure to select products that don't aggravate your acne.
Scrubbing and Exfoliating
Scrubbing can irritate your skin, cause inflammation, and tear the tops off pimples. An indicator you're rubbing your skin too hard: It appears red and burns or stings afterward.
That said, gentle exfoliation can be useful for treating acne by removing dead skin cells before they can mix with oil and plug up pores. This method isn't right for everyone, especially people who have delicate skin. Check with your dermatologist before you exfoliate.
Exfoliating up to twice per week with a gentle scrub should be adequate. A soft facial brush can be effective as well, but keep it clean. Brushes can harbor bacteria, which often is a factor in the formation of blemishes.
Be aware that prescription and over-the-counter_products/article.htm' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >over-the-counter (OTC) topical acne treatments containing retinol, such as including Retin-A Micro and Differin, work in part by chemically exfoliating skin. If you use one of these, don't use another exfoliant.
Choose Products Wisely
There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for acne. It may take trial-and-error to find the best treatment that's right for you. Stick with proven OTC acne products (such as benzoyl peroxide) or doctor-prescribed medications.
Be consistent and patient. It can take weeks for acne to clear up, and with certain prescriptions, the condition may get worse before it gets better. Continue to use your treatment as directed even after your skin has cleared up to prevent future breakouts.
The notable exception to this rule is isotretinoin, an oral retinoid formerly sold as Accutane. It is used for moderate to severe inflammatory acne and for limited periods of time because it can have serious side effects; the most serious of which is birth defects if a woman becomes pregnant while taking it.
When to See a Dermatologist
There may come a time when self-treatment isn't enough to prevent or clear up acne breakouts. See a dermatologist if:
- The products you've tried are not working.
- Your acne is leaving scars or dark spots.
- Your acne makes you feel embarrassed or insecure.
Do this sooner rather than later. The earlier you get help with acne, particularly cystic acne, which can cause permanent scarring, the better. Darker skin is predisposed to developing scars, keloids (painful, itchy abnormal scars), or dark spots, so you should have a low threshold for seeing a dermatologist if you have dark skin.
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National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal, and Skin Diseases: National Institutes of Health. What is acne? Sept. 2016.
The American Academy of Dermatology. Isotretinoin: The truth about side effects.
Alexis, A. Acne vulgaris in skin of color: understanding nuances and optimizing treatment outcomes. J Drugs Dermatol. 2014 Jun;13(6): s61-5.
Stein Gold L. Topical treatments in acne vulgaris: Guidance for the busy dermatologist. J Drugs in Derm. 2015 Jun;14(6): 567-72.
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