How To: Become Your Own Acne Expert
Managing breakouts can be stressful—which is why you should start by understanding what’s causing the breakout first, before moving on to treatment. Maskne should be handled differently from stress acne; don’t heal papules with salicylic acid, and hydrocortisone won’t treat a whitehead either. Once you can successfully pinpoint what you’re dealing with, the road to clear skin is, well, clear.
Below, our guide on becoming your own diagnostician on acne breakouts.
Is your skin purging or is it just a regular breakout?
If you’re new to the concept of ‘skin purging’, it essentially means your skin is adjusting to a new product, likely retinol or an acid. Exfoliants like AHAs, BHAs and retinol slough off dead skin cells, allowing new ones to regenerate, which causes all the clogged pores to surface in one epic breakout. It can come in the form of whiteheads, blackheads, papules and/or cysts, and usually in the areas where you usually experience acne.
Now before you give up on the product, you should know that persevering will eventually make your skin better—in fact, the sudden bout of acne means that it’s working. These are pimples that would have sprouted anyway, sooner than later.
The good news about purging is that it’s temporary; the process of purging generally follows the skin renewal process which is about 28 days. While it may differ for everyone, purging should not last more than six weeks. Plus, the acne from a purge will heal much quicker than in a typical breakout.
Ultimately, it’s a sign that the products you just introduced to your face are working.
Unlike a purge, a regular breakout happens when your skincare product doesn’t contain active ingredients; acne is appearing in areas where you don’t usually get them, and they last for more than a month. It’s likely a reaction to your product, maybe a hydrating oil, sunscreen, or a comedogenic makeup formula.
So keep in mind:
If your skin is purging, keep going. If your skin is breaking out, stop using the product.
Whiteheads are basically a mixture of dead skin cells, sebum, and dirt clogged in your pores. They’re also known as a closed comedo (all types of pimples start off as comedones) and often show up on oilier skin types.
Unlike blackheads, which can be pushed out, whiteheads are closed within the pore, which can make them a little harder to get rid off.
Treatment: Ironically, the first step is to do nothing — that is, don’t touch. Picking and poking at it will only invite more pore-clogging dirt and bacteria. It can also cause irritation and permanent scarring. Make sure to cleanse your face well every night and incorporate exfoliating products into your routine.
You know what these are; those pesky little black bumps on your nose and cheeks. Blackheads are similar to whiteheads in that they’re a buildup of sebum, dead skin cells and dirt, only, in this case, the comedo is open and it has oxidised, making it black.
Treatment: You’ll treat these similarly to whiteheads—through regular, thorough cleansing and chemical exfoliation. Clay masks can also help, and if you’re extra prone to blackheads, make sure all the products you’re using are non-comedogenic.
Papules are red, painful blemishes that do not quite reach the surface. It’s the stage past a whitehead where bacteria has caused inflammation, resulting in a blemish that’s red in colour and swollen.
Treatment: When dealing with papules, you want to calm your skin, rather than dry it out with acne treatments. Calm down the inflammation by using soothing products and ice compresses. These will reduce the inflammation until the whitehead reaches the surface and can be gently extracted.
These are your traditional zits; red, inflamed blemishes containing pus. They’re also more likely to cause hyperpigmentation and scarring if you don’t care for them properly.
Treatment: To get your zit to the popping stage, try hot compresses to draw the infection to the surface. Then you can carefully extract the infected pus and dry it out with a spot treatment or let an acne patch do its job. Look for spot treatments with antibacterial ingredients like sulfur and zinc oxide.
Cystic pimples are honestly the worst. They lie deep within the skin and are often caused by hormones. They form when the pores become blocked and lead to infection, which makes them painful and slow to heal.
Treatment: Your best bet is to 1) don’t pick, 2) chemically exfoliate, and 3) fight the infection. It’s really important to not pick at it; it’s not meant to come out through the surface and you might end up with a scar in the end. Apply ice to reduce swelling and soreness, and use an acne treatment to help speed up the healing process.
If you’re in need of a quick fix, your best bet is to see a dermatologist for a cortisone injection. If you have cystic acne regularly, especially around the chin and jawline, consider cutting back on dairy, which is the cause for some people.
Like cysts, nodular acne is one of the most severe forms of acne. They’re similar to cystic acne, but not quite—they form a hard bump deep within the skin, can be flesh-toned and are often painful at the surface. It also doesn’t come to a “head” like other forms of acne might.
Treatment: Over-the-counter treatments probably won’t cut it for this type of acne, since they only target the surface of the skin. Nodules can take weeks to go away and need pretty intensive treatments like antibiotics and other medications, so making a trip to the dermatologist is probably the best idea.