Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/2/2021
Acne is a common annoyance that affects just about everyone at some point in life. In fact, an estimated 40 to 50 million people are affected by acne vulgaris — a medical term for common acne — in the United States alone.
While acne can be a serious source of frustration, it’s almost always treatable with the right mix of good habits, over-the-counter acne treatments and, if necessary, prescription medication.
Below, we’ve explained the basics of the development of acne, as well the different factors that can contribute to acne breakouts.
We’ve also shared 16 science-based, actionable tips that you can use to reduce acne and stop your breakouts from making a comeback.
Acne develops when the hair follicles, or pores, in your skin become clogged due to sebum and dead skin cells.
Sebum is a type of natural oil that’s secreted by your sebaceous glands. When a combination of sebum and dead skin cells builds up inside a pore, it can develop into comedonal acne, such as a blackhead or whitehead.
Acne becomes infected, inflamed and painful when bacteria, such as Propionibacterium acnes, start to multiply inside clogged pores.
When severe acne develops, it can damage your skin, leaving behind acne scarring, discoloration and other unwanted skin imperfections.
Several different factors all play a role in the development of acne, including the hormones that control sebum production, your genes, age, habits and your use of certain medications.
Although acne is usually associated with teens, it’s far from uncommon to continue to deal with acne as you get older.
Since acne can vary in type and severity, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula that everyone can use to stop breakouts.
However, the right combination of habits, over-the-counter skincare products and medications can help most people take control of their skin and get rid of acne breakouts for good.
Below, we’ve shared 16 tips that you can use to reduce acne, from simple changes to your skincare habits to science-based medications that you can add to your acne prevention routine.
If you’re prone to acne breakouts, it’s important to keep your skin clean. Washing your skin on a regular basis helps to get rid of the sebum and dead skin cells that can clog pores and produce acne breakouts.
Try to wash your skin with warm water twice a day — once in the morning, and once before you go to bed.
It’s also best to wash your face and body after you exercise, spend time outdoors or do anything else that causes you to sweat.
A good quality cleanser will help to remove excess sebum, dead skin cells, cosmetics and other substances that can clog your pores and cause acne breakouts.
It’s best to use a cleanser at least once a day. Choose a gentle cleanser that’s formulated to clean and hydrate your skin without stripping away excess moisture, such as our Deep Sea Cleanser for Acne.
When you wash your face, use your fingertips to gently apply cleanser to your skin. It’s best not to use a washcloth, sponge or cleansing brush, as these could irritate your skin and make your acne breakouts worse.
If you’re prone to comedonal acne or inflamed acne, look for a cleanser that’s made with active ingredients that are scientifically proven to get rid of acne lesions and reduce inflammation.
One good ingredient to look for is salicylic acid, which works by unclogging pores and stripping away dead skin cells.
Another good ingredient to look for in a cleanser is benzoyl peroxide, which works by stopping the bacteria that cause acne from multiplying on your skin and inside blocked pores.
Although popping your pimples might seem like an easy way to get rid of acne, it’s rarely a good idea.
Trying to pop a pimple can push its contents deeper inside your skin, which may make the acne worse.
It also spreads bacteria from your hands to your face, increasing your risk of developing infected, inflamed acne that leaves behind scars and dark spots.
If you spot a pimple, treat it with a cleanser or topical acne medication, not by trying to squeeze it with your fingers.
Since your hands come into contact with so many different surfaces throughout the day, they’re a major breeding ground for bacteria.
When you touch your face, it’s easy to transfer this bacteria onto your skin and, in many cases, to the inside of papules, pustules and other acne lesions.
Touching your face can also result in the transfer of dirt, oil and other substances that can worsen acne.
If you need to touch your face (for example, to apply a topical acne treatment), make sure that you wash your hands first.
Research in medical professionals shows that washing your hands for 30 seconds can reduce the amount of bacteria by almost 60 percent.
Many types of makeup, skincare products and hair products contain oil-based ingredients that can clog your pores and contribute to acne breakouts.
If you’re prone to acne, use makeup and skincare products that are labeled “non-comedogenic” or “oil-free.”
These products are formulated with fewer oily ingredients, making them less likely to clog your pores and cause acne.
If you style your hair oily hair products, try to reduce the amount of products that you use. Wash regularly to keep your hair clean and prevent oil from building up, as the natural oil on your scalp and hair can easily make its way onto your hairline and forehead.
Also, make sure to fully clean away your makeup before you sleep. It only takes a few minutes to clean away makeup with a non-comedogenic makeup remover or towelette, and doing so is an easy way to significantly reduce your risk of getting acne.
Since these items come into contact with your face for long periods of time, acne-causing oils, dead skin cells, skincare products and other substances can build up on them.
Try to wash your pillowcases, hats, sports clothing and any other items that come into contact with your face at least twice a week.
As for your sheets, make sure to change them weekly to ensure your skin isn’t ever pressed against a surface that could cause acne breakouts.
Although acne isn’t contagious, sharing makeup and products that come into direct contact with your face with other people can transfer oils, dead skin cells and bacteria onto your skin.
To keep your skin protected from acne, avoid sharing makeup, makeup brushes, applicators or similar products with other people.
You may have heard that greasy foods, such as fries and fatty meats, are linked to worse acne breakouts.
While oily foods may contribute to acne, recent research has found a stronger link between the consumption of high glycemic index carbohydrates, such as white bread, simple sugars, potato chips and other sugary foods, and acne.
To reduce acne, experts recommend focusing on low-GI foods, such as fresh vegetables, fruits with low sugar content, beans and other sources of complex carbohydrates.
Retinoids are medications derived from vitamin A that treat acne breakouts by stimulating skin cell production, unclogging pores and controlling inflammation.
While many retinoids are only available with a prescription, some are used in over-the-counter skincare creams, gels, spot treatments and other acne products.
If you’re prone to mild acne breakouts, adding a topical treatment such as retinol or adapalene to your skincare routine is a quick, simple and effective way to clear your skin and stop acne from coming back.
You can find retinol in many over-the-counter acne products, including night creams, serums, moisturizers and more.
Likewise, adapalene can be found in night moisturizers, serums and as a spot treatment in the form of Differin® gel.
Our guide to topical retinoids for acne goes into more detail about how these ingredients work, their benefits, side effects and more.
While over-the-counter retinoids are ideal for mild acne, they may not be strong enough to get rid of larger, more severe acne breakouts.
Enter tretinoin. Tretinoin is a prescription retinoid that’s used to treat acne breakouts, get rid of wrinkles and improve skin texture.
It works by speeding up your skin’s production of new skin cells, unclogging pores and promoting skin peeling.
Research shows that tretinoin is effective at getting rid of comedonal acne such as whiteheads and blackheads, as well as inflammatory acne lesions such as papules and pustules.
Tretinoin is available as a cream or gel. It’s one of several active ingredients in our Prescription Acne Cream, which is formulated specifically to treat stubborn acne.
Inflamed, infected acne develops when bacteria such as Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) get inside blocked pores and multiply.
If you have infected acne, your healthcare provider may prescribe a topical antibiotic to stop the bacteria that cause acne from multiplying on your skin and inside your pores.
Several different antibiotics are used to treat acne, including clindamycin. Clindamycin works by stopping acne-causing bacteria from growing and by decreasing the swelling that can occur with inflamed, infected acne breakouts.
Like tretinoin, clindamycin is one of several active ingredients included in our Prescription Acne Cream.
Many topical acne treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide and topical retinoids, can dry out your skin and cause it to become irritated easily.
When your skin is irritated, it’s more at risk of breaking out with acne. If your skin starts to feel dry while you’re treating acne, apply a non-comedogenic moisturizer to trap moisture in the skin and keep it fresh, hydrated and protected.
From over-the-counter products to medications like tretinoin and clindamycin, topical treatments for acne work, but usually not immediately.
Most of the time, you’ll need to wait for four to six weeks before you’ll be able to notice any large improvements in your skin after starting a new acne treatment.
Several hormonal birth control pills, including Yaz, Estrostep, Ortho Tri-Cyclen and their generic equivalents, are approved by the FDA as treatments for acne.
As we’ve covered in our guide to birth control and acne, birth control reduces acne by regulating your body’s levels of androgen hormones such as testosterone, many of which stimulate sebum production and give you oily skin.
The pill is particularly effective for hormonal acne, which can develop due to fluctuations in your levels of certain hormones.
We offer several birth control pills online, including birth control pills for treating acne, following a consultation with a healthcare provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
While most forms of acne are treatable with over-the-counter products and topical medications like tretinoin, others can be severe, persistent and challenging to treat.
If you have severe acne, such as cystic acne, it’s always best to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.
Dermatologists specialize in skincare and can prescribe more powerful, effective medications, to treat breakouts.
For severe acne breakouts, a dermatologist may prescribe medications like isotretinoin or oral antibiotics. Used together, these medications can usually clear even the most stubborn cystic or nodular acne.
Some dermatologists also offer in-office acne treatments, such as the use of corticosteroids or acne incision and drainage, to get rid of large cysts and acne nodules.
A variety of factors play a role in acne breakouts, from sebum and dead skin cells to hormones, genetic factors and habits.
When it comes to mild or moderate acne, the right combination of skincare products and good habits can often get your breakouts under control.
For more severe acne, it’s best to talk with a dermatologist about prescription acne treatments, such as retinoids and/or antibiotics.
Our guide to acne types, causes and treatments goes into more detail about how and why acne develops, as well as the steps that you can take to stop acne breakouts once and for all.