Teenagers aren't the only ones who break out. Discover the truth about treating adult acne and get clear skin for good.
July 15, 2014
1 of 17
If you've ever had a pimple, you know how frustrating it can be to find a solution (and if you've never had a pimple, congratulations: you're the luckiest person alive). An overwhelming number of acne products are available (all making the same promise of clear skin), and yet, the harder you try to zap your zits, the more red and painful they can become. In order to truly banish blemishes, you'll need to distinguish the difference between the old wives' tales and tested truths. That's where we come in. Read on to learn how you can eliminate acne once and for all.
"Two landmark but flawed studies conducted in the '60s and '70s found that chocolate was not associated with acne," says Jennifer Burris, doctorate candidate at New York University, and author of a Journal of the Academy of Nutrition review on diet and acne. "These studies were so popular that people concluded diet had nothing to do with acne and stopped researching the topic for the next 40 years." Today, researchers are finding that there is indeed a connection between food and acne. Example: Burris and her team looked at the diets of more than 200 people and found that those who ate more sugary foods, dairy products, and unhealthy fats, as well as less fish, were more likely to have moderate to severe acne.
3 of 17Getty Images
Myth: If you suffer from acne, you should never eat chocolate
Even though there's a connection between diet and acne, it's not exactly fair to throw chocolate under the bus. "Essentially any food with a high glycemic index can increase blood cortisol levels and worsen acne," says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. (That includes sweets, breads, and pastas.) "Refined carbs cause your insulin levels to spike, which leads to increased sebum production and clogged pores."
The good news: You can still have chocolate! "The problem isn't the cocoa itself, it's the sugar and dairy that's added," says Marguerite Germain, MD, dermatologist in Charleston, SC, who suggests eating dark chocolate with a cocoa content 70% or higher. "The higher the percentage of cocoa, the lower the glycemic index."
4 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Acne is a teenager problem
It's not a given that you'll grow out of acne. In fact, a survey of more than 1,000 adults published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 50% of women between 20 and 29 years old, 35% of women between 30 and 39 years old, and 26% of women between 40 and 49 reported having acne. (Note: Adult acne is more common in women than men.)
You can blame the same surge of hormones you experienced as a teen: "Your estrogen increases at your first period and peri-menopause," says Dr. Gohara. "The hormone causes an increase in oil production, which ultimately causes bacterial inflammation and pimples." That's why it's common for women to have acne as teenagers and again later in life.
5 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Makeup makes acne worse
It's true that some products can clog your pores and ultimately cause pimples, but the right makeup can actually improve acne. Dr. Gohara suggests powder-based mineral foundations with ingredients like silica, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. "Powder foundations absorb oils that would otherwise be clogging your pores," she says. If you prefer a liquid foundation, make sure it's non-comedogenic. "That means the product hasn't been found to promote acne per the cosmetics company's standards," explains Dr. Gohara.
6 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Sunscreen clogs your pores
First, a little sunscreen 101. There are two categories of sunscreen: chemical sunscreens, which absorb UV light (common ingredients: oxybenzone and avobenzone) and physical sunscreens, which reflect UV rays (common ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide). While some chemical sunscreens can irritate the skin, causing inflammation and breakouts, physical sunscreens might actually help. "Zinc oxide, a common active ingredient in physical sunscreens, may kill acne-causing bacteria," says Dr. Germain. Look for the ingredient on your sunscreen labelno more SPF excuses!
7 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Stronger products are better products
If you've spent more than 30 seconds looking at acne products in your drugstore, you know that benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid rule the ingredient labelsand with good reason. The best acne treatments do two things: unclog pores and kill bacteria. These ingredients are often recommended because benzoyl peroxide blasts bacteria and salicylic acid unclogs your pores, tackling both problems.
Still, there's no need to go overboard, especially when it comes to benzoyl peroxide. A review published in Expert Opinion Pharmacotherapy found no difference between products that are 2.5% benzoyl peroxide and ones that are 10%except that stronger products may be more irritating.
8 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Toothpaste can heal a zit
"Toothpaste has baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, menthol, essential oils, and triclosan, which, yes, can dry pimples out," says Dr. Gohara. "But it's not made for your skin, so it can cause irritation and rashes." This means you could essentially be trading one problem for another. Instead, try a spot treatment that contains benzoyl peroxide. It's made specifically for your skinand won't leave your face smelling like spearmint.
9 of 17Getty Images
Myth: The sun makes acne better
Here's the deal: Exposure to sunlight may reduce inflammation in your body, and since acne is an inflammatory process, you may see less of it initially, explains Dr. Germain. But hold on to your sun hats: Over time, the sun breaks down your skin's collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm, tight, and young-looking. "When collagen breaks down, your pores have less support around them, and they flop open," says Dr. Germain. "This can create blackheads, some of which may be present for life." Plus, sun damage makes it more difficult for the skin to repair itself, so it increases your risk of acne scars, Dr. Germain adds. Let's not forget skin cancer: "In terms of carcinogens, ultraviolet light is right up there with cigarettes," says Dr. Gohara. You wouldn't smoke to minimize a pimple, would you?
10 of 17
Myth: Blackheads are dirt in your pores
"Blackheads have nothing to do with dirt," says Dr. Germain. Skin cell turnover is a natural process that pushes oil and debris out of your pores, keeping them clean. When that doesn't happen fast enough, your pores collect a backlog of oil, skin debris, and protein. Dirt is not part of the equation. That's why derms suggest a retinoid to help reduce blackheads. "The vitamin A derivative increases the turnover of skin cells, keeping pores clear," says Dr. Germain. Ask your dermatologist about a prescription for tretinoin topical (brand name: Retin-A), or pick up an over-the-counter cream with retinol on the label.
Myth: Breakouts mean you don't wash your face enough
Wouldn't it be great if pimples washed away at the end of the day like foundation? "Over-washing can actually exacerbate the problem," says Dr. Gohara. When you wash too much, you strip your skin of its natural oils. This makes your skin dehydrated, so it overcompensates by producing more oil, which can clog pores and make breakouts worse. Dr. Gohara suggests using a benzoyl peroxide wash in the morning, followed by a salicylic acid toner, and lightweight moisturizer. At night, wash with a gentle cleanser (avoid ones with exfoliating beads or sodium lauryl sulfate, which can be irritating), and follow with a cream that has retinol. No need to use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid again.
12 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Moisturizers cause acne
It seems counterintuitive to slap moisturizer over oily pores, but this goes back to Dr. Gohara's over-washing point: dehydrated skin produces more pore-clogging oil than hydrated skin. So if you apply a lightweight moisturizer (not a heavy cream) every day, your skin won't need to take hydration into its own (oily) hands.
13 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Chlorine improves acne
It might seem like swimming dries up your pimples, but it presents a similar problem as toothpaste. "Chlorine can dry out pimples, but it can also irritate your skin, causing more breakouts in the long-run," says Dr. Gohara. Be sure to rinse off when you're done swimming, and use an oil-free lotion to offset any dryness.
14 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Popping makes pimples go away
Hands off! "A whitehead can heal within three days if you leave it alone, but it could take months if you pop it," says Dr. Germain. "Plus, popping causes trauma to the skin, which can lead to inflammation or infection."
We know it's hard to resist popping a particularly ripe whitehead, but instead of squeezing and scraping, use an overnight spot treatment of benzoyl peroxide.
15 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Treat body acne as you would face acne
"Topical products aren't absorbed as well by your body as they are by your face," says Dr. Germain. That's because the follicles on your bodywhich deliver acne-fighting ingredients deep into your skinare further apart from each other than they are on your face. Even the best bacteria-blasting products may not do the trick, so talk to your derm about antibiotics and watch your diet.
16 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Hair products have nothing to do with acne
Quite the contrary. In fact, there's a term for this exact problem. It's called "pomade acne," and it happens when the oils from your hair products continuously make contact with your face. (Thanks a lot, side bangs.) The clear-skin solution: "Avoid products with petroleum jelly, and choose water-based products over oil-based ones," says Dr. Germain.
17 of 17Getty Images
Myth: Stress can't cause acne
The pimple that surfaced just in time for your wedding day probably wasn't an unfortunate coincidence. "Stress creates a hormonal imbalance in the body, which can lead to acne," says Dr. Germain. According to research conducted by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, stressed out teenagers are 23% more likely to have severe acne. Researchers suspect stress-induced inflammation may also play a role, affecting men and women of all ages.