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One of the most common skincare issues that we’re constantly asked about is acne. And we totally understand the frustration when it comes to combatting this skincare issue; sometimes it can seem like a never-ending battle. But we promise, with the right information and guidance, you can learn to curb your breakouts and reduce the signs of a flare-up. Just remember, knowledge is power when it comes to acne, so understanding what helps and what hinders is essential. So, we’ve created a guide containing the most useful information that we’ve learned over the years. Here’s everything you need to know:

Understand Your Acne: 

The first step to knowing how to deal with a skincare issue is understanding the cause, especially when it comes to something as difficult to treat as acne. Acne occurs when your hair follicles become blocked with a combination of dead skin cells and sebum (the natural oil your skin produces). This then causes whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples to form. If your acne is severe, you could also have cystic acne, which means the infection has gone deeper into your skin and the pore has become inflamed causing a bump of pus to form. It’s really important to be able to identify the type of spot you’re experiencing because different treatment is necessary for each. Here’s how you should target each one:

acne diagram

Whitehead: A hair follicle that’s blocked by dead skin cells piling up once the follicle opening is blocked. This is smaller and less inflamed than a Cyst. You should never pop a white head but instead, apply a topical spot cream. You can also use a retinoid cream as a way of preventing more whiteheads, as they stop dead skin cells from clogging pores and allow the skin to absorb treatments better.

Blackhead: This is essentially a whitehead that becomes exposed to oxygen, which oxidizes the contents making it turn black. Salicylic acid is great for both preventing and treating blackheads, as its small molecular structure means it can penetrate deep into the pore, where the acid then breaks down the ‘glue’ that binds the blockage. You can also use nose strips, we’re obsessed with the Biore Deep Cleansing Pore Strips (which you can use weekly), or a blackhead extractor to remove blackheads, but the latter needs to be done very carefully – here’s how to do it like a pro.

Pimple: This is an overgrowth of bacteria called p.acnes, which stimulate an immune response that creates redness, swelling, pain and sometimes pus. For a quick and easy DIY, lightly press a hot (not too hot) flannel onto your skin to open your pores, then dab tea tree oil or a piece of fresh ginger onto the blemish, which both have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Cyst: Cysts tend to be more painful, larger, redder and more raised than a whitehead. You should never try to pop a cyst, as these can lead to a spread of bacteria and more inflammation, which only means it will take longer to go away. For our full dermatologist’s guide to treating cystic acne, check out our guide here.

Nodule: This is another severe type of acne, similar to a cyst. A nodule, like a cyst, is a solid, large and painful lump below the surface of the skin. Unlike a cyst it doesn’t have a head, and the lump of dead skin and sebum will remain intact and could be there for weeks or even months. Retinoids and salicylic acid can be used to help unclog the trapped debris, but it’s best to have this treated with prescription ointments or antibiotics from your doctor.

Use products specifically designed for acne-prone and oily skin:

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If you’re acne-prone, a consistent skincare routine with products specifically made to soothe acne and regulate oil production can help to balance your skin, reduce flare-ups, and boost skin regeneration, which will enable your blemishes to heal quicker. Plus, they’re a lot less likely to contain ingredients that will aggravate your skin.

Cleanse: A gel or foam cleanser is ideal for oily and acne-prone skin types as they will clean deep into pores without clogging them. To combat excess oil, oil cleansers attract excess oil, plus they’re typically antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, helping to control acne bacteria. An oil-cleanser should be used as the first step of a double cleansing routine (we love the Missha Black Head Off Cleansing Oil, $38, which also contains tea tree oil), which should be followed with a water-based cleanser. Find out why you should be double cleansing, aka washing your face twice, here. Look out for other ingredients like botanical extracts and amino acids as they’ll help calm any irritation, remove excess sebum, and provide a more even-tone.

Exfoliate: A chemical exfoliator is super important as they can penetrate your skin more deeply and dissolve and dislodge dead skin cells. Products that contain AHAs (like glycolic and lactic acid) and BHAs (like salicylic acid) should be your go-to ingredients, as these have a small molecular structure that can penetrate more deeply; The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution, $12, is our fav!

Tone: A good toner is essential for acne-prone skin as it’ll help tighten your pores while getting rid of any bacteria that’s clogging them. Look for a toner that gently exfoliates as well, as this will help shed dead skin cells. Ingredients like salicylic acid, AHAs and glycolic acid are your skincare holy grail, so keep an eye out for these. Natural ingredients like ginseng, chamomile, and rose are also amazing as they’re packed with antioxidants, and help reduce inflammation and soothe skin. We love the COSRX One Step Original Clear Pad (70pcs), $23, which contain willow bark extract and tea tree leaf oil to fight acne bacteria.

Moisturize: One of the most common myths is that if you’re acne-prone you don’t need to moisturize, but that’s not true! It’s possible to have dehydrated yet oily skin, and the more dehydrated your skin is, the more oil it’ll produce to lubricate your skin cells. Look for a lightweight gel formula, that is ‘non-acnegenic’ which means it’s been specifically tested for acne-prone skin and doesn’t contain any harsh ingredients. Your moisturizer should also be ‘non-comedogenic’ so it won’t block your pores. Other amazing ingredients to look out for include hydrating hyaluronic acid, and salicylic acid, which will de-clog your pores and curb breakouts.

SPF: Wearing SPF is so essential for everyone, but particularly if you’re using products containing AHAs as this can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays. The sun can also make scars appear darker, so if you have acne-scarring, by wearing an SPF it will help your scars to heal and fade more quickly than if they were exposed to the sun.

Be Mindful of your daily habits:

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Your skincare regime may be BOMB, but if you’re guilty of any of the following habits, these could be contributing to your breakouts.

Stressing out: Stress releases the stress hormone cortisol, whichcauses your oil glands to produce more sebum (oil), which can then clog your pores and lead to breakouts. Check out our post for stress-busting tips here.

Not being a clean freak: By not cleaning the beauty tools or devices that you use on your face regularly, you risk transferring bacteria to your face and clogging your pores, which can trigger breakouts. So, start getting OCD about cleaning your phone, makeup brushes, and changing your pillowcases on a weekly basis.

Touching your face: On average we touch our faces more than three times an hour, and by doing so we’re relocating bacteria to our face, and blocking our pores with dirt and oil. As tempting as it is, never pick your pimples; this will just aggravate them further, making them more inflamed and more likely to scar.

Your diet: The correlation between your diet and skin is closely connected. Dairy products, in particular, have been shown to trigger breakouts due to the hormones in milk, so where possible try to avoid cheese and cow’s milk and instead try almond or coconut milk, and vegan cheese or yogurt. Other foods you should steer clear of include dried fruit, fizzy drinks, and milk chocolate – these foods contain a high amount of sugar, which cause inflammation and can dehydrate and irritate your skin. Check out this ahhhmazing healthy chocolate alternative here.

Our favorite acne busting products:acne products

Source: Mario Badescu, Boots, The Ordinary

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, $17: This drying solution is amazing at taking down pimples overnight as it helps to dry out blemishes and reduce redness and inflammation. Check out why we love it so much here.

Banana peels: We know this sounds weird, but whenever we have a blemish we use the peel of a ripe banana and rub it directly onto a pimple – leave it on for 30 minutes and then wash your face, and repeat twice, daily. Banana peels are packed with anti-inflammatory ingredients as well as enzymes which will help fade scars. If you don’t believe us, take a quick read of these reviews on acne.org here.

Witch Hazel: Witch hazel is ideal for treating acne as it’s a natural astringent, so it will help draw out bacteria, dirt, and oil in your skin. We love applying the Boots Tea Tree & Witch Hazel Spot Wand, $6, as it has a day and a night formula for 24-hour control.

AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution, $12.30: This chemical exfoliator uses glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric AHAs, and Salicylic acid to exfoliate dead skin for a super deep pore cleanse that helps to fade blemishes and scarring. Shop it here.

As with all skincare issues, it’s always best to consult your dermatologist.