It can take years — and dozens of trips to the dermatologist — to discover how to get rid of acne on your unique skin. Everyone has unique skin types, skin tones, lifestyles, and genetic histories that make it impossible to have a single piece of one-size-fits-all advice. But here at Teen Vogue, we’ve pretty much made it our life mission to figure out the best tips from the pros to point you in the right direction. We’ve seen it all and won’t recommend skincare products or acne treatments unless they’re backed up by experience and science.
We’ve rounded up the best advice on how to get clear skin from top dermatologists. Read on for our favorite ways to get your skin to look and feel its best.
1. Wash Your Face Daily
The first and most important rule isn’t groundbreaking: Remember to wash your face! Cleansing and treating your skin twice a day is the best way to keep breakouts away. For those emergencies when you’re just too tired to wash your face, keep a stash of face wipes in the drawer of your nightstand. This way if you get home super late and don’t feel like going all the way to the sink, you can still go to bed with clean skin!
2. Use the Right Face Cleanser
Buying a generic face wash won’t necessarily improve your complexion. For a cleanser to be most effective, you have to pay attention to your skin’s needs and pick the ingredients accordingly. If your skin tends to be oily, choose products with salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or glycolic acid. For sensitive skin, look for gentle cleansers with lactic acid or hydrating ingredients like glycerin, which aren’t as drying as those made for oilier types.
3. Don’t Over-Exfoliate Your Skin
Scrubbing your face daily with grainy cleansers and exfoliating products can do more harm than good. When done too often, it can cause redness, inflammation, and irritation. “Exfoliating a pimple can pull away healthy skin cells and create an open wound and higher risk for scarring,” says Jessica Weiser, MD, from New York Dermatology Group. “Exfoliation should be done with caution, and not more than 2-3 times a week maximum.”
4. Regularly Change Your Face Towel
When you think about it, consistently reaching for your go-to face towel every day is like reusing a dinner napkin over and over again. Using dirty towels can harbor bacteria, and they can even introduce new bacteria to your skin, which may lead to more pimples. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean you need to reach for a new towel every single time you wash your face, according to Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, board-certified NYC dermatologist and clinical instructor at NYU Langone and Mount Sinai Hospital. As long as you’re truly washing off all of your makeup, you can stick to switching out your towels on a weekly basis.
Worried moisturizer will make your acne worse? Think again — it can actually help improve your skin. “If the skin surface is dry and dehydrated, the oil glands tend to overproduce oil and this can make acne worse,” Dr. Weiser says. “Hydrating the skin surface can re-balance oil glands and help control acne and improve healing.” When buying a moisturizer, she recommends looking for a lightweight, oil-based product that won’t clog your pores. Dr. Levin likes Differin Soothing Moisturizer because it’s “a great lightweight pH balanced moisturizer you can use in combination with acne topical treatments.”
6. Use Sunscreen that Doesn’t Clog Pores
While SPF is a must, some sunscreens can trigger breakouts. You want to look for oil-free and non-comedogenic formulas that won’t clog pores,” says Karen Hammerman, MD, from Schweiger Dermatology. Options from brands like Elta MD and Peter Thomas Roth, which are recommended by the pros, are specifically tested on acneic skin so you can get your dose of SPF without having to worry about clogged pores.
7. Skip Makeup When You’re Working Out
Take an extra five minutes before hopping on the treadmill to completely wash your face and remove your makeup to minimize the risk of breakouts. “Sweat is released through visible pores in the skin,” says dermatologist Dr. Janelle Vega. “When makeup covers those pores, that barrier doesn’t allow the sweat to make it to the surface of the skin, which can lead to clogged pores. The trapped debris and bacteria are a perfect breeding ground for acne bumps and zits.”
8. Wash Your Face Post-Workout
“After sweating, immediately use an exfoliating cleanser to help keep your pores clear and remove excess oil,” says Dr. Zein Obagi of ZO Skin Health. Try keeping Neutrogena Rapid Clear Treatment Pads in your gym bag or locker for those times you need an on-the-go cleanse. These will remove any leftover dirt while treating your skin with acne-fighting salicylic acid.
If you have body acne, taking a shower as soon as possible after working out is also key. It turns out that standing around in tight, sweaty workout clothes puts you at the greatest risk for bacne and rashes. “The whole idea is that the bacteria that live on the skin can get trapped in the hair follicles and cause inflammation,” says dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Hale. “The more you work out in the heat the more likely this is.” Dr. Levin agrees that showering right after a workout is your best defense against body acne. But in a pinch, body wipes like the Yuni Shower Sheets will do the trick.
9. Tailor Your Diet
Sad but true: Any foods that cause a spike in insulin can lead to inflammation and an acne flare, explains Dr. Kally Papantoniou with Advanced Dermatology PC.
“Leafy green vegetables and other brightly-colored fruit and vegetables which are rich in antioxidants and nutrients dampen inflammation and improve skin quality (studies have shown acne patients have higher oil production and lower antioxidant levels),” says Dr. Weiser. “Limit intake of dairy products, which can contain hormones and antibiotics that can worsen acne breakouts.” Other skin-boosting superfoods include eggs, nuts, legumes, and quinoa.
10. Drink Plenty of Water
Okay, so drinking your eight glasses isn’t going to magically clear your skin, but Dr. Levin does point out that “drinking water improves your overall health.” Plus, it won’t contribute to your acne struggles like the sugar and caffeine found in sodas and coffee.
11. Have a Cup of Tea
Try sipping spearmint tea. According to Dr. Carl Thornfeldt, dermatologist and founder of Epionce Skincare, having two cups a day could reduce acne by 25%! Dr. Levin explains this is because spearmint tea has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and reduction in testosterone levels in some limited studies. “While it’s unclear how it works, and it’s important to note that there are no standardized studies, it is encouraging data that spearmint may have potential as a natural adjunct treatment for hormonal acne,” she says.
12. Change Your Pillowcases
Unwashed sheets and pillowcases lead to cross-contamination which leads to pimples. Aim to wash your bedding once or twice a week to prevent bacteria from building up and affecting your complexion, suggests Dr. Papantoniou. If that seems overboard, at least aim to wash your pillowcase once a week since that’s where your face rests while you snooze (and dream of flawless skin).
13. Keep Your Phone Screen Clean
Think of how many times a day you touch your phone — that thing gets pretty germy. To stay in the clear, clean your screen daily with an alcohol wipe. And when possible, Dr. Papantoniou recommends using the speaker option or headphones so your phone isn’t resting on your face as often.
14. Wipe Down Your Headphones
Sneaky everyday habits could secretly be doing a number on your skin. Even something as seemingly harmless as wearing over-the-ear headphones could be the culprit to breakouts around your temples and jawline. “This is especially the case when you wear them during and after a workout, or if you keep them on for long periods of time,” says dermatologist Dr. Debra Luftman. “Sweat and moisture collect on and around the headphones, compressing the skin and therefore encouraging bacteria and yeast to multiply,” she says. Gross, but true. Use an antibacterial wipe to quickly disinfect your headphones.
15. Stash a Heal + Conceal Stick in Your Locker
If a midday zit pops up, swipe it with a concealer loaded with blemish-shrinking ingredients. This way you can cover it up and treat it in one step. ZO Skin Health Offects Correct & Conceal Acne Concealer Stick will do the trick.
16. Try to Keep Your Hands Off Your Face
One of the most basic tips for how to get rid of acne is simply to keep your hands to yourself. Your hands aren’t always clean, and dirt under your fingernails and improper squeezing can cause acne to spread or lead to further infection, Dr. Hammerman says. Plus, popping can lead to pitted scars, which stick around much longer than that pimple would.
17. But If You Must Pop a Pimple, Do It the Right Way
Even though every dermatologist ever will tell you not to pop, we get it: sometimes you just can’t resist squeezing it, especially when it’s ready to blow. So, if you are determined to take matters into your own hands, these are the doctor’s orders on how to go about it: Start with clean hands, use cotton tipped applicators or a comedone extractor, and apply antibiotic ointment post-popping. (Get more tips on how to pop a pimple properly.)
18. Ice Your Acne to Bring the Swelling Down
If you really must do something about your pimple beyond washing your face and spot treating, ice or a cold compress can help reduce inflammation. Wrap an ice cube or the compress in a soft tissue or cloth and apply it to your zit for 20-30 seconds at a time, a few times a day. In case of an emergency (like, prom), you can also see a dermatologist for a cortisone injection, which can help shrink the cyst down quickly in a day or two.
19. Don’t Irritate Your Acne with Toothpaste or Rubbing Alcohol
Sure, we’ve all heard that toothpaste or rubbing alcohol can help dry out a zit, but many DIY treatments aren’t solutions for how to treat acne. In fact, applying toothpaste or rubbing alcohol are more likely to cause irritation and dryness than treat the actual pimple. Instead, stick with topical over-the-counter and prescription spot treatments with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide that are specially made to target pimples, says Dr. Hammerman. For an all-natural spot treatment, she suggests dabbing tea tree oil on the area a few times a day with a cotton ball.
20. Combat Hormonal Acne with Birth Control
Sometimes, your gynecologist can share insight into your acne, especially when it comes to deciding if birth control could help your breakouts. The FDA approves of Estrostep, Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Yaz to combat acne, but the trick is to be patient, as it can take up to four months to start seeing results. “This plan of attack works best when paired with whatever topical treatments you’re already using to treat your acne, like Proactiv, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, etc,” advises dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi.
21. Don’t Overlook Amazing New Technology in the Drugstore Aisle
If saving babysitting money for a year still won’t make a dent in the funds you need to get a fancy laser treatment that will blast away acne scars, don’t be discouraged. Thanks to the geniuses behind drugstore brands like La Roche-Posay, there’s a new class of products that feature smart technology and better-than-ever ingredients to help treat dark marks and acne scarring — at an affordable price. “La-Roche Posay’s Pigmentclar line is unique in the way it combines exfoliating lipohydroxy acid (LHA), phe-resorcinol, and ferulic acid, which are both strong brightening ingredients, all together to form a topical product that’s seriously effective,” says dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara.
22. Manage Your Stress and Get Enough Sleep
The side effects of too much stress and not enough sleep most definitely include acne. Stress can wreak havoc on your skin, as can sleep deprivation (since sleep deprivation, of course, additional stress to the body). That being said, obviously becoming “less stressed” is easier said than done. Nonetheless, dermatologists advise to do whatever you can to bring some relaxation into your life and lower stress, whether that be by listening to music, taking a bubble bath, exercising, or heading to bed earlier.
23. Rethink Your Hair Care Regimen
If you’re getting a lot of forehead acne, it might be that your hair products are to blame. Hair oils, dry shampoo, and other spray-on products can wreak havoc on your skin if they’re not thoroughly washed off. Make sure to wash your hair properly and rinse away all the product that just may be clogging the pores near your hairline.
24. Keep Your Hats and Headbands Clean
Another common culprit of forehead acne specifically? Hats and headbands. Think about it: If you wear a hat for an entire afternoon, that’s hours worth of sweat, makeup, and bacteria and bacteria buildup trapped on your skin. Headbands and headscarves can do the same thing if they’re resting on the top of your forehead instead of pushed back into your hair. This doesn’t mean you should top wearing hats and headbands, of course—but if you are experiencing a lot of forehead acne, make sure to regularly take off these accessories and give your skin a break. Also, make sure to wash them. You can throw most headbands right into the wash, or you can hand-clean the inside of hats with warm water and hand or dish soap.
25. Talk to a Doctor About Prescription Medication
If you’ve tried all the over-the-counter options and you’re still getting acne, talk to your dermatologist about prescription acne medicine. Dermatologists can help troubleshoot your skin conditions and create a treatment regimen to help prevent pimples and clear your skin. Some acne (especially cystic acne) needs that next-level approach.