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The guide to breaking up with acne break outs (DIY edition)

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asian woman popping acne in front of mirror

Acne, acne, go away! Have you ever chanted this to yourself in a desperate prayer to keep your breakouts at bay? If the answer is yes, read on – you may just get a better idea of how to rid yourself of your acne woes for good!

Acne grows when your hair follicles are plugged with oil, bacteria and dead skin cells. It’s a common problem for teenagers as their bodies undergo fluctuating changes in hormonal levels due to puberty. Unfortunately, acne problems can stubbornly persist into adulthood for some and cause much distress both emotionally and physically for your skin.

“What are the different types of acne?”

In general, there are non-inflammatory and inflammatory types of acne [1].

Non-inflammatory acne:

  • Whiteheads: White dots in the skin pores covered by skin layers, mainly due to excessive sebum (oil).
  • Blackheads: Black bumps in the skin pores caused by bacteria and dead skin cells.

Whiteheads and blackheads are the least inflammatory and least severe forms of acne. They do not cause swelling and do not appear red or painful. Thus, these kinds of acne are typically considered mild and do not cause scarring.

Inflammatory acne:

  • Papules: Bumps under the surface of the skin, causing the skin around it to be inflamed and appear slightly swollen and pinkish red.
  • Pustules (or pimples): Pimples are larger than papules, popping out of the skin with a defined centre filled with white or slightly yellowish pus. Due to infection or inflammation of the tissue in the clogged follicles, usually red and painful.
  • Nodules: Hardened, acne lesions that are lodged within the skin. These are common on the back and shoulders.
  • Cysts: Large, angry, pus-filled pimples.

Beware of inflammatory acne: even though they are not harmful to health per se, they can leave ugly scars that can be extremely difficult to treat. Cystic acne in particular, can be painful and hard to deal with.

“The No. 1 cause of acne”

There is no one exact cause of acne but in general, one of the top reasons is an imbalance in hormonal levels, for e.g. increase in androgens. Hormones are responsible for the development of sebaceous glands so an increase in hormones would also mean overproduction of sebum.

Specifically, an increase in androgens – a type of hormones – can cause the skin’s oil glands to become bigger and produce more sebum, causing pores to get clogged up by excess oil.

This can occur not only during puberty, but also during pregnancy, menstruation, breastfeeding, childbirth, menopause, ageing… And the list goes on. Indeed, women are known to be more prone to acne than men and it does seem like acne woes are here to stay throughout our lives.

 “Acne vs Blemishes vs Scars”

woman with acne skin condition

Blemishes are red, brown or purple discolouration on the skin that was previously affected by acnes. Though unsightly, blemishes can fade spontaneously over the period of a few months. However, be warned that too much exposure to the sun may cause these spots to become darker.

Acne scars, on the other hand, can be frustrating as it requires a long time to fade and can be difficult to treat. These acne scars are the result of deep inflammation left behind by active pimples and would may require the intervention of a dermatologist and other procedures to treat them.

“Help!! So how do I treat my acnes and blemishes?”

Even if you feel like all hope is lost, don’t despair! As wise men said, knowledge is power and knowing what kind of acne you’re dealing with can really put you ahead of the clear skin game.

illustrations showing 6 different types of acne

There are also so many different over-the-counter medications (aka acne cream) you could buy to treat your acne and spots.

Acne type: Whiteheads

Treatment: Typically zits with white dots in the centre, whiteheads mean you’re suffering from blocked pores. Use products with the active ingredient salicylic acid in it to combat whiteheads. The salicylic acid unclogs pores and helps to ease inflammation – you’ll find it as the main ingredient on the majority of products labelled “acne wash” or “acne treatment”.

Acne treatment products to fight whiteheads:

Acne type: Blackheads

woman using nose strips to remove black heads

Treatment: Existing as dark black dots in the centre of your pores, blackheads are similar to whiteheads as they are both blocked pores. However, what gives them its black color though, is the oil. Blackheads have larger openings at the skin surface as compared to whiteheads, so air enters and oxidises the oil sitting inside the open pore, causing the color to turn darker.

Like treating whiteheads, it’s best to use products with the active ingredient salicylic acid, tea tree oil and/or glycolic acid. Glycolic acid can help to gently exfoliate the skin, helping to remove all the dead skin cells and impurities that are clogging your pores. Add on an exfoliation product for better results.

Acne treatment products to fight blackheads:

Acne type: Papules (inflammatory acne)

Treatment: Patches of small red zits that are likely to be hormonal acne. The little red bumps on the skin are caused by the growth bacteria p acnes. Consider benzoyl peroxide your secret weapon.

An antibacterial ingredient that is most effect at killing surface p. acnes bacteria can that further aggravate your acne condition, benzoyl peroxide is common in most acne and pimple creams. However, be mindful that benzoyl peroxide can stain your pillow cases or clothing.

Acne treatment products to fight papules and red spots:

Acne type: Pustules or pimples

Treatment: If you’ve red, angry pimples filled with white or yellowish pus in the centre, that’s definitely your inflammatory pustules or pimples – also a result of bacteria. Your best bet is also benzoyl peroxide.

Try and find spot treatment products with the active ingredient benzoyl peroxide and/or sulphur that you can dab directly onto your pimples as an SOS type of zit treatment in an attempt to shrink them overnight.

Do NOT pop them however tempting it may be. Since the skin is already inflamed, they are much more likely to scar if you succumb and squeeze them.

Acne treatment products to fight pustules and pimples:

Acne type: Cystic acne

Treatment: Huge, red, angry pimples – in multiples. Cystic acne sufferers would know full well that not all pimples were created equal – and that a cystic acne can persevere on for a long time, growing bigger and even more inflamed over time despite best efforts to treat it.

Cystic acne are notoriously tough to treat and are usually caused by a mixture of genetics and also hormonal changes stimulating the skin’s oil glands.

Try products with retinoid or Vitamin A derivatives as a main active ingredient to combat severe acne as retinoids can be effective in purging pores of dirt and oil. You could also try products with a combination of active ingredients such as retinoid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid and/or benzoyl peroxide to combat severe acne. Also try pimple patches as they stop more bacteria from entering and help to draw out oil at the same time. You should use them for 6 to 8 hours, so it’s perfect for overnight use.

If it’s not working, you should consider visiting a dermatologist for oral medications such as antibiotics or a cortisone injection in addition to topical skin cream medications.

Acne treatment products to fight more severe cystic acne:

“How should I go about my acne treatment?”

Whatever the type of acne you’re treating, it is a common rule of thumb to give the treatment cream you’ve selected about 6 to 8 weeks to assess its effectiveness. Be mindful that acne treatment products are unlikely to be able to clear up your acne in just one to two days!

If your acne woes can’t seem to be solved after trying out the whole suite of acne creams out there, consider seeing a dermatologist who can help you clear up your acne quickly and effectively with a quick cortisone fix or prescribe stronger retinoids to help finally unclog those stubborn pores products.


[1] What type of acne do I have? Medical News Today Online. Published June 29, 2018.

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