How to Get Rid of Acne: 6 Treatments You Haven't Tried!

Skin Care
acne by epidenver
acne, a photo by epidenver on Flickr.

People typically think of acne as a typical teenage problem.  However, a University of Alabama at Birmingham study of more than a thousand adults revealed that acne doesn’t always end with the teen years, even if you have a skin care routine. Adult acne affects the following demographics:

  • 50% of women and 42% of men in their 20s
  • 35% of women and 20% of men in their 30s
  • 25% of women and 12% of men in their 40s
  • 15% of women and 7% of men in their 50s and up

Obviously, not a teenage issue at all!

Social Issues

Dr. Jeanette Graf, M.D., a Great Neck, NY-based dermatologist and author of the best-seller Stop Aging, Start Living, “Adult acne is often difficult for adults emotionally, because they didn’t expect to be battling zits way past their teen years.” Adding to the stress, she says, is that “society doesn’t seem as open to adults having skin problems.”

Dr. Paul Cohen, M.D., of Toronto’s Rosedale Dermatology Center, agrees. “When adults come into my office with acne, they’re much more distraught than teens.”

What Causes Acne?

Acne vulgaris by Adams999
Acne vulgaris, a photo by Adams999 on Flickr.

Adult acne occurs when the skin’s sebaceous glands produce excess amounts of an oily substance called sebum, which clogs pores that attract bacteria and become inflamed.  In a seven-step process, bacteria accumulates within the pore, eventually leading to pimple formation.

There are numerous contributing factors to adult acne:

  • Changes in humidity or weather
  • Cosmetics, skin products or hair products
  • Family heritage or hypersensitivity
  • High-sugar food & drinks that increase oil production which blocks pores [Read More:  How Does Food Influence Acne?:  The Scary Truth about Dairy Products and Sugar]
  • Hormones from dairy products, pregnancy or menstrual cycle
  • Certain medications, such as corticosteroids
  • Smoking
  • Stress, which can trigger cortisol that may result in pore-clogging oil

Making Changes

Some of the possible causes for acne are beyond your control, like an inherited tendency toward breakouts. But others can be addressed through a variety of techniques:

1.  Go see your dermatologist in person.

Dermatologists can often grant personalized advice and treatments that you would not get from reading a book or magazine (or *sob!*, even a blog).  For instance, Dr. Lawrence Gibson, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic recommends also keeping your hair off your face, especially if it’s oily, as much as possible.

Dermatologists also have access to stronger LED light therapies than are available for at-home use.  What’s more, at an appointment, dermatologist can determine if you are a candidate for each therapy in the first place:  For instance, studies have shown LED phototherapy does not work against cystic acne, the most severe form of acne, which is characterized by painful nodular inflammations a few centimeters in size.  (A photo is available here).

LED phototherapy is not recommended in these patients because the treatment temporarily causes inflammation in the skin as immunological cells infiltrate the area, which can be very painful.  LED phototherapy could exacerbate cystic acne by causing the lesions to erupt, potentially spreading into surrounding follicles or resulting in scarring.  So, again, if you have chronic acne, get thee to a dermatologist!

2.  Try this Skin Care Regimen for Morning

Aveeno Clear Complexion Cleansing Bar

1. Cleanser with anti-inflammatory ingredients and salicyclic acid, such as Aveeno Clear Complexion Cleansing Bar ($6.75,  In studies, salicyclic acid has been found to be more effective than alpha hydroxy acids in reducing the number of pimples.  I also prefer salicyclic acid to benzoyl peroxide for all over the face because benzoyl peroxide increases free radical production in the skin.

2. Spot treatment, such as ZAPZYT Acne Treatment Gel ($4.99,, or, for more sensitive skin, Neutrogena On the Spot Vanishing Formula ($16.69 for three, Both contain benzoyl peroxide, which causes an oxidative reaction within the pore that actually destroys the pimple from the inside out.  Pretty awesome.

3. Oil-Control Treatment, such as Philosophy On a Clear Day Blemish Serum ($30.00, This product contains ultra-effective salicyclic acid as the first ingredient, and glycolic acid, which increases cell turnover.

3b. Moisturizer (optional; use only if your skin is dry), such as Aveeno Ultra Calming Moisturizing Cream ($13.95, This product contains feverfew extract, which I would never recommend if the good folks at Aveeno didn’t take out the potentially-irritating parthenolide within it.  However, without the parthenolide, feverfew is an anti-inflammatory. However, if your skin is oily, you may wish to skip this step, especially because, according to NYC dermatologist Jody Levine, “You want the active ingredients, like salicyclic acid, to soak in without interference.”

4. Oil free foundation or powder with SPF, such as Neutrogena Healthy Defense Powder with SPF 30 ($19.98 for two, The product does not contain any ingredients that should provoke acne, and provides oil coverage and SPF protection, which is often hard for women with oily or acne-prone skin to find.

3.  And this regimen for night!

Clean and Clear Advantage Spot Treatment1. Cleanser, such as Aveeno Clear Complexion Cleansing Bar ($6.75, (see morning for description)

2. Spot treatment WITHOUT benzoyl peroxide, such as Clean and Clear Advantage On-The-Spot Acne Treatment ($6.75, This product contains 2% salicyclic acid. The benzoyl peroxide spot treatment from the morning is not recommended for night because benzoyl peroxide can denature the form of vitamin A (tretinoin) found in Retin-A.

3. Retinoid treatment (if not pregnant or nursing). Ideally, see a dermatologist for a prescription for Retin-A, which has twenty times the potency of retinol sold over-the-counter.  Retinoids are helpful against acne because they increase the rate of cell turnover, exfoliating the skin. If prescription treatments are not an option for you, RoC Anti-Wrinkle Treatment for All Skin Types ($14.79, contains retinol fairly high on the ingredients list and anti-aging antioxidant vitamin E.  Keep in mind retinoids can increase photosensitivity, which is why the product should only be used at night.

4. Moisturizer (optional; use only if your skin is dry), such as Aveeno Ultra Calming Moisturizing Cream ($13.95, Sometimes retinoids are irritating or drying to the skin, so you may wish to use a soothing, anti-inflammatory moisturizer like this one at night, even if you choose not to during the day.

4.  Avoid these 17 ingredients in skin care products!

Dr. Leslie Baumann recommends oily/acne-prone skin care types avoid the following ingredients in her best-seller, The Skin Type Solution, as at least one peer-reviewed published studies have associated each of these ingredients with acne:

  • Butyl stearate
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Cocoa butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Decyl oleate
  • Isopropyl isostearate
  • Isopropyl myristrate
  • Lanolin
  • Myristyl myristrate
  • Neopentanoate
  • Neopalmitate
  • Octyl palmitate
  • Octyl stearate
  • Peppermint oil
  • Propionate
  • Propylene glycol
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate

However, it should be noted these ingredients do not provoke acne in all patients. Consult your dermatologist if you have a question about a certain ingredient and your skin type.

5.  Try each of these lines.

Jan Marini Skin Transformation SystemIf you’d prefer not to go to a store and look for the products I recommended above, I also like the following brands.  While I haven’t had acne for a long time, these brands have always delivered consistent results in any skin care system of theirs I have tried:

What I like about ordering these lines through is there is a no-hassle return policy.  Try one for 3 weeks; if it doesn’t work, move onto the next.

6.  See a facialist!

Though I’m a full advocate of modern traditional medicine (I am studying for an M.D., after all!), the truth of the matter is, there are still many methods that traditional medicine has yet to analyze properly, like acupuncture, herbal remedies, or meditation.  Truth be told, I believe facials, including extraction methods and facial steaming, are areas that need further exploration.

Skin care educator Angela Palmer advises recognizing the difference between a doctor and an esthetician, each of whom can offer assistance. A professional esthetician, she says, can provide facial treatments that complement a doctor’s treatment program.

Palmer explains that extracting blockages and clearing pores of excess oil will make blemishes less likely to form. Specially formulated acne facials can not only reduce breakouts and inflammation, but also improve skin clarity overall.

Regular facials tend to have a better effect than occasional visits to an esthetician, so it’s helpful to find a source that’s both affordable and convenient in terms of place and time. Adults with busy schedules can’t always make time during business hours for a facial, so look for a professional esthetician with appointments available during evening and weekend hours.

Bottom Line

There are many methods you can use to treat acne, some of them more effective than others.  The best way to treat acne is to use clinically-proven ingredients in high strength and in combination.  Unfortunately, you may have to rotate through a few different lines and products before you see results.  Another caveat is that bacteria can become resistant to skin care treatments over time, so even if you get months to years of relief from an anti-acne system, you may have to change eventually anyway.

I would also recommend that all readers see a dermatologist and possibly an aesthetician for exclusive, in-person recommendations.  Lastly, be smart about what you put on your face!  From your hair and your hands to oil-rich make-up products, treat your acne-prone skin like the delicate tissue it really is.  It’s not to be messed with!

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  • RJ
  • RJ

    I also use CeraVe PM for the niacinamide! How often should I use SA if I’m using tazorac nightly and aczone in the mornings? I’m thinking once or twice a week. I definitely need to though. I’ve realized that the acne that I thought was “hormonal” was in part caused by not exfoliating. Also, before I saw your post on alcohol, I thought it was quite bad and I ordered Paula’s Choice 2% SA. Is that okay? Or is it not as effective/good as Neutrogena’s Rapid Clear?

  • RJ

    Glycolic and salicylic acid decrease the effectiveness of retinoids, don’t they? Thank you so much for pointing out that alcohol isn’t so bad in products. So, Neutrogena rapid clear treatment pads are an effective source of salicylic acid? Can you recommend a liquid foundation? I hate powder foundation…I use mineral foundation now, but it dries my skin out. I’m in the unique situation of having both oily and dry skin and acne. The dry skin is from retinoid use, even though I’ve been using it for a year now. I use CeraVe cream, and that’s usually effective, but not with powder foundation on top.

  • My age is 30 years…so I have adult based on this articles above..I think the other solution for our adult acne problem is to exercises regularly and eat healthy food…without any medicine what so ever…this way work for me to prevent acne comes out…but I don’t know if this will work for you guys…

  • Kendra

    Hi Nicki, I can’t seem to find the “RoC Anti-Wrinkle Treatment for All Skin Types” In stores or online- the replacement, “Neutrogena healthy skin anti-wrinkle anti-blemish treatment clear skin cream”also seems to be discontinued- do you have a replacement anti-aging/anti-blemish serum to suggest? (Especially for someone with sensitive skin that is occasionally acne prone?)

  • Hi Nicki! Another fabulous post, as always! Yes, the UNBLEMISH regimen is the only line that’s consistently treated my acne. Prior to using it, I struggled with acne for about 12 years…even prescriptions from my derm didn’t help like this. It’s actually a violation to sell our product through Amazon. Not to mention, the Amazon return policy is for 30 days. Our company offers a full 60-day guarantee…so you’re actually better off purchasing product from a consultant like Gail (in the previous comment) or myself – to ensure it’s guaranteed and have a better overall customer service experience. I am contacting our corporate office about the posting on Amazon so they can take appropriate action to get it removed. Have a great Friday!

  • gail

    Love the Unblemish Line from Rodan + Fields! The link above wasn’t working, so thought I’d provide one that does and help those out there get one step closer to clearer skin 🙂 Also love using their anti age serum at night!

    Preferred Customers also get 10% off:

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