Elizabeth Siegel, Allure magazine
Everyone knows what not to do to pimples: Don't pop them. Don't pick at them. Don't go crazy scrubbing them. But it turns out, we don't have any idea what we should actually use. Allergan (the company that makes Botox and some topical acne treatments) did a recent survey, finding that 53 percent of women ages 25 to 45 have used three or more different acne treatment products in the past year. Is this due to impatience or ineffectiveness? "It can take weeks for treatments to kick in. Studies evaluating acne medications usually last around three months," says Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. But all the patience in the world won't help if you're using the wrong product. Here's your handy-dandy pimple primer:
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Red, bumpy pimples. "They respond really well to benzoyl peroxide," says Zeichner, which also exfoliates pores to prevent new breakouts. Use a face wash with 10-percent benzoyl peroxide once a day (try Clean & Clear Continuous Control Acne Cleanser), and a less concentrated spot treatment overnight. Try Proactiv Solution Advanced Blemish Treatment, which contains 6-percent benzoyl peroxide.
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Whiteheads and blackheads. "Prescription retinoids like tretinoin, adapalene, or tazarotene are best," says Zeichner. "If you can't tolerate retinoids, salicylic acid is a good option." Once a day, use a face wash and leave-on treatment with 0.5-percent salycilic acid. Try Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser and Clean & Clear Dual Action Moisturizer. If you don't experience irritation after a week or so, work your way up to formulas with 2-percent salicylic acid, such as Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser and Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment.
Cystic acne. "This should be treated with medications to prevent scarring," says Zeichner. "Oral antibiotics, oral isotretinoin, and hormonal therapies such as birth control pills are commonly used." In short: See your derm.
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Another word of advice: Don't double up! "Topical retinoids, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide can be irritating if you use them together," says Zeichner. "At most, apply one product in the morning and another in the evening." If your skin does get red or flaky, that's not a sign that your acne is clearing up. "Skip a day or two, and reapply when the skin calms down," he says. Using a basic moisturizer along with the treatment will also help prevent irritation.