Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/9/2021
Acne breakouts can vary hugely in severity, from a few pimples to inflamed and painful cystic acne that dominates your face.
If you only get mild acne breakouts, you’ll generally have an easier time keeping pimples and other forms of acne at bay than someone with moderate or severe acne.
A wide range of factors can contribute to acne breakouts, from your levels of certain hormones to your skin care routine, habits and lifestyle.
Below, we’ve explained how acne breakouts develop, as well as the types of acne you may get if you’re prone to mild acne breakouts.
We’ve also discussed what you can do to treat mild acne using over-the-counter acne products, prescription medications and simple changes to your skin care routine.
Not all acne is severe. If you have mild acne, you may only get whiteheads, blackheads and the occasional papule or pustule.
Although mild acne is less severe than other forms of acne, it can still have a noticeable impact on your appearance.
Most cases of mild acne can be treated using over-the-counter skin care products such as facial cleansers, serums and topical retinoid creams.
If your acne doesn’t improve with over-the-counter products, you may want to consider using a stronger treatment such as our Prescription Acne Cream.
Acne develops when the hair follicles in your skin, or pores, become clogged with a combination of sebum and dead skin cells.
Sebum is a type of oil that’s secreted by your sebaceous glands to keep your skin hydrated and protected. Your skin needs sebum to stay healthy, but when too much sebum is secreted, it can build up on the surface of your skin and cause it to feel overly oily.
In order to repair and rejuvenate itself, your skin constantly creates new cells through a process called epidermal turnover.
As a byproduct of this process, dead skin cells are constantly shed from your skin. When these cells build up on the surface of your skin, they can mix with sebum and cause the pores in your skin to become clogged, causing acne.
Sometimes, bacteria can multiply inside a clogged pore, causing it to become red, swollen and painful.
A variety of different factors may cause you to develop mild acne, including:
Hormones. Certain hormones, such as testosterone, can cause your sebaceous glands to produce more sebum, increasing your risk of developing acne.
Your levels of these hormones fluctuate, particularly during your menstrual cycle. These fluctuations in your body’s level of certain hormones play a major role in hormonal acne, period acne and the acne breakouts you may experience during puberty.
Genetics. Although researchers haven’t found a specific gene that causes acne, there does appear to be a hormonal factor. For example, research suggests you can inherit a tendency to develop acne from your parents.
Medications. Some medications, such as oral contraceptives, anti-seizure medications, lithium, steroids and others, may cause acne breakouts or make your existing breakouts worse.
Habits and lifestyle factors. Certain habits, such as smoking or not sleeping enough, may affect your risk of developing acne. You may also be more prone to breakouts if you’re under a significant amount of stress.
Other factors, such as certain diseases and medical conditions, can also increase your risk of developing acne. We’ve discussed these more in our detailed guide to the causes of acne.
According to the Adult Female Acne Scoring Tool (AFAST), mild acne is acne that affects less than half of your face and is mostly made up of relatively small acne lesions.
It’s rare for mild acne to cause swelling, redness or other symptoms that may occur with more severe forms of acne. It’s also rare for this type of acne to leave behind scars.
If you have mild acne, you may notice that several different types of acne lesions form on your skin:
Whiteheads. These are non-inflammatory acne lesions that can develop on your face and body. Whiteheads form when sebum and dead skin cells fully block a pore, closing its contents to the outside skin.
Blackheads. These are non-inflammatory lesions that, like whiteheads, can develop on your face and body. Blackheads form in the same way as whiteheads, but have a darker color that gives them a different appearance.
Contrary to popular belief, the dark color of blackheads isn’t caused by dirt. Instead, it’s caused by the contents of the blocked pore oxidizing when exposed to air.
Inflammatory acne. Inflammatory acne lesions develop when bacteria multiply inside a clogged pore, causing an infection. In response to the infection, your skin may become red, swollen and, in some cases, painful to the touch.
Small, red inflamed acne lesions are often referred to as papules. When inflamed acne lesions contain pus, they’re referred to as pustules.
Even if your acne is mild, it can worsen over time if it’s left untreated, resulting in severe forms of acne such as nodules and cysts.
Mild acne is usually the easiest form of acne to treat. Mild breakouts often respond well to acne treatments available over the counter, as well as some prescription acne medications.
If you only have mild acne, you’ll likely see improvements by treating it with an over-the-counter retinoid.
Retinoids are a class of medications derived from vitamin A. They work by increasing the rate at which your skin produces new cells, which helps to prevent acne breakouts.
While some retinoids require a prescription, several are sold over the counter. Look for products such as cleansers, serums and creams that contain the following ingredients:
Retinol. Retinol is a mild retinoid. It’s often combined with other ingredients in products designed to treat and control acne. You can learn more about how it works in our guide to retinol for acne.
Adapalene. Adapalene is a retinoid-like compound that works by preventing acne from developing under your skin. It’s available over the counter Differin® gel, which can be applied directly to areas of your skin with acne.
In addition to retinoids, other over-the-counter products can help to control mild acne breakouts and get rid of existing pimples. These include:
Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide, which can be found in cleansers and other topical products for treating acne, controls the growth of bacteria. It may be helpful if you have inflammatory acne lesions such as papules or pustules.
Azelaic acid. Azelaic acid is a naturally-occuring acid that helps to control swelling and stop bacterial growth. Like benzoyl peroxide, it’s available in cleansers and other acne products available over the counter.
Other ingredients available in over-the-counter products, such as salicylic acid, can also help to control breakouts and treat mild acne. We’ve explained how these work in our guide to the best over-the-counter acne treatments for adults.
Tretinoin is a more powerful retinoid that’s effective at treating both mild acne and more severe forms of acne. Like other retinoids, it works by increasing the rate at which your skin produces new cells.
Tretinoin is one of the most well-studied acne medications, with numerous studies showing that it helps to treat and prevent acne breakouts.
Research shows that as well as treating acne, tretinoin is also effective at reducing many signs of skin aging, such as wrinkles and discoloration.
Tretinoin is one of several ingredients in our Prescription Acne Cream, which is tailored using a customized formula to treat your specific acne needs.
You can learn more about how tretinoin works, its effects and how you can use it in our guide to tretinoin for acne.
After you’ve treated your mild acne, it’s important to maintain good skin care habits to stop new breakouts from occurring. Try to follow the tips listed below:
Keep using your treatment, even as your skin clears. Acne treatments require time to work. It may take three to four months for your acne to clear. For optimal results, it’s important to keep using your acne treatment even after you notice improvements.
Apply topical acne treatments to your entire face. Instead of just treating the areas of your skin with acne, make sure to apply your topical acne treatment to your entire face to prevent new breakouts from occurring.
Use non-comedogenic makeup. Try to only apply makeup and skin care products that are labeled “non-comedogenic” or “won’t clog pores.” These are less likely to make your skin oily and cause acne breakouts.
Wash your face twice a day. Washing your face helps to clean away sebum, sweat and other substances that can cause or worsen acne. Try to wash your face two times a day, as well as after exercising.
When you wash your face, apply products carefully using your fingertips. Make sure not to scrub your face, as this can cause irritation and worsen acne breakouts.
If you have oily hair, wash it regularly with shampoo. Oil from your hair can make its way onto your face, potentially causing acne breakouts. Make sure to wash your hair on a regular basis, especially if it’s oily.
Avoid popping your pimples. This can make your acne worse by pushing the contents of your pimples deeper into your skin, as well as by transferring bacteria that may cause your acne to become infected, inflamed and painful.
Instead of popping your acne, treat it using the science-based methods above or contact a dermatologist to have it extracted professionally.
While mild acne may not have the same effect on your appearance as severe nodular or cystic acne, it can still be frustrating to deal with.
Luckily, mild acne breakouts are usually treatable with over-the-counter products or prescription acne medications such as tretinoin.
To get started treating acne, you can view our selection of acne treatments online and access proven products to prevent breakouts and improve your skin.
You can also learn more about the most effective options for getting rid of acne in our detailed guide to the best acne treatments backed by science.