Having acne as an adult can sometimes cause low self-esteem or anxiety. Cystic acne can also be painful and uncomfortable. In adults, acne is caused by stress, hormones, and genetic factors. Luckily, there are several treatments for acne available that can help restore your healthy skin.
Starting out with skincare
The first step in controlling acne is implementing good skincare habits. This means washing your face twice a day with a gentle cleanser. Wash your face when you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed. You should also wash your face again if you get sweaty. Pat your skin dry with a clean towel. Avoid washing your face too many times a day, though, so that your skin doesn’t become overly dry.
After developing a good skincare routine, it’s important to know that the right acne treatment won’t magically clear your skin up in a day or two. Most acne treatments need up to four weeks to start working. Whichever kind of treatment you select, stick with it and don’t try to use other treatments at the same time. Most people start to see some results within four to six weeks of beginning an acne treatment. However, it could take up to three months for your skin to clear completely.
Over-the-counter and topical acne treatment
There are lots of over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatments available at your local pharmacy. This could be the best acne treatment for people who have mild-to-moderate acne or infrequent breakouts. When choosing an OTC acne treatment, look at the active ingredients listed on the label. Depending on the active ingredients, acne treatments work in different ways.
- Salicylic acid. Acne products with this ingredient help prevent your pores from becoming clogged. You might feel some stinging or irritation.
- Benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient kills off acne-causing bacteria on your skin. It also removes oil and dead skin cells that can clog pores. Use these products with caution if you have sensitive skin.
- Sulfur. Sulfur also helps to clear away dead skin cells and excess oil. It’s usually used together with other ingredients.
- Alpha hydroxy acids. In addition to removing dead skin cells, these acids reduce inflammation and create smooth skin. This is a good treatment to reduce acne scarring and pores.
A topical treatment could be in the form of a gel, cream, or lotion that you apply to the affected area. Some topical treatments have the ingredients listed above. There are also topical retinoids. These are acne treatments that exfoliate your skin and prevent dead skin cells from collecting in your hair follicles. Two common topical retinoids are tretinoin and adapalene. These come in the form of a cream or gel that you put on once a day before bedtime. You can expect to see results in about six weeks.
For acne cases that are moderate to severe, one of the best treatments is oral medication.
Antibiotics. For those with severe acne that doesn’t clear up, the most common treatment is an oral antibiotic. This, along with a topical treatment applied directly to the skin, helps to kill off bacteria and clear out your pores. The antibiotic also reduces the redness and painful swelling that often comes with severe acne.
Contraceptives. These hormonal pills, also called birth control, are only for women. The hormones in the pill, estrogen and progestin, have been proven to also help with acne. It may take a few months to see results, so your dermatologist may recommend another medication or topical treatment to take along with the contraceptive pill.
Isotretinoin. This is recommended for those with severe acne that haven’t had success with other medications. It’s a vitamin A derivative that kills bacteria and reduces inflammation while clearing pores and getting rid of excess oil. Even though 85% of people have success with isotretinoin, there can be serious side effects. Some of these include depression, birth defects, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Medical procedures for acne treatment
If neither topical nor oral medications have helped to clear up your acne, the next thing to consider is a medical procedure. These can be done in your dermatologist’s office.
Chemical peels. During this treatment, your dermatologist will apply a layer of glycolic acid to your skin. After a few minutes, it’s then washed off, taking a layer of damaged skin with it. Within a few days, you’ll notice a reduction in blackheads and whiteheads, and your skin should appear smoother. It’s important to wear sunscreen or avoid the sun in the days following such a chemical peel.
Therapies. Laser and light therapies help to reduce redness and acne scarring. Special handheld lights are held near the skin for treatment. These lights also help to promote the growth of new skin cells. You will likely need multiple treatments like this.
Extraction. Your doctor can manually remove blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts that don’t get better with medication. It’s important that you don’t try this yourself, though, so that you don’t leave a blemish or scar. This treatment will help the appearance of your skin and work to prevent future breakouts.
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Mayo Clinic: "Acne.", "Over-the-counter acne products: What works and why."
NYU Langone Health: "Medical Procedures for Acne."
Sutter Health: "Adult Acne: Best treatments for adult acne."
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