All products featured on Teen Vogue are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
It can take years — and dozens of trips to the dermatologist — to discover how to get rid of acne (fast) in a way that works for your skin. And no matter how much you’ve invested in your skin care routine, most of us will still battle the occasional breakout anyway. (Thanks, hormones!)
In sum, we all get pimples. But outside of that one unifier, how to actually deal with acne is going to look different from person to person. Everyone has unique skin types, skin tones, lifestyles, and genetic histories, and that makes it tough to identify general tips for acne, let alone a single piece of one-size-fits-all advice. Here at Teen Vogue, though, we’ve pretty much made it our life mission to figure out the best acne tips from the pros and at least point you in the right direction. We’ve seen it all — including on our own faces (and, sometimes, on our backs and other unideal body parts) — and we won’t recommend skincare products or acne treatments unless they’re backed up by experience and science.
That said, a word to the wise: Although you may be tempted to try out multiple remedies at once, so that you can land on a zit-zapping system and get rid of acne in a week (or quicker), this isn’t such a good idea. Irritating your skin with an onslaught of products isn’t likely to get you the clear complexion you’re after, and it may leave your skin in a spottier state than it was to start with. Try to introduce new products to your skincare regimen one at a time¹. For certain items, like cleansers, you’ll be able to gauge how your skin takes to them pretty quickly, but for most other products, you’ll need at least a couple weeks of use — if not a full month² — to make a call.
In this article:
What causes acne?
It’s important to understand the underlying cause of acne and how it all works. According to the Mayo Clinic, acne occurs when hair follicles become clogged. While there are different types of acne (more on that soon), clogged pores are the main cause unifying them all. Clogged pores can manifest in different ways: blackheads, whiteheads, under-the-skin acne. We may associate acne with puberty the most often, as this is the time in life when your hormonal glands are working overdrive and produce an excess of oil. But there are plenty of other acne causes that can cause blemishes.
Stress is a major contributor to breakouts. An interesting study titled “The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia³” in the Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology journal studied the impact of stress on breakouts. The experiment asked participants to fill out a questionnaire with questions tackling “confounding factors involved in acne severity.” The findings were that students with a higher reported stress level correlated with an increase in acne. So, why does this happen? Stress isn’t directly causing the acne to pop up, but it can kick your hormones into overdrive. When this happens, you produce cortisol and excess oil—more on hormonal acne to come—resulting in more acne.
Acne is caused by clogged pores, so when there’s anything in your environment that can help contribute to this, acne can follow. If you live in a place with lots of air pollution, this can contribute to build-up. This also rings true for makeup and skincare—some formulas can leave behind trace amounts of product, leading to clogged pores. It’s important to clean your face thoroughly when removing makeup to avoid breakouts. Another sneaky factor? Sun exposure. Sunburns can dry out the skin, which can also lead to acne. The lesson here is that skin can be sensitive, so make sure to cleanse and wear a lightweight sunscreen for acne-prone skin to protect it.
Sometimes breakouts just can’t be avoided (and that’s ok!). There is no single gene that can cause extra acne, it’s more of a product of other genetic markers. For example, some people overproduce dead skin cells, which can contribute to build-up in the pores. Others may have overactive sebaceous glands, producing excess oil that builds up in the pores.
The different types of acne
The important thing to know is that there isn’t one single best way to get rid of acne. Why? Because there are different types of acne, all with different causes. Each one appears slightly different and requires different kinds of treatment.
According to the Cleveland Clinic⁴, fungal acne occurs when there’s a build-up of yeast in the system. This type of acne is generally itchy and appears inflamed (red and swollen). More often than not, fungal acne appears in clusters of small red bumps with some turning into whiteheads. It’s easy to mistake this with any other generic breakout, but the main difference is that fungal acne will be itchy.
If you experience scarring after a pimple has retreated, it was likely a bout of cystic acne⁵. These are deep, pus-filled pimples—sometimes they don’t even result in a whitehead, they’re so deep. Cystic acne can be really hard to treat without the guidance of a dermatologist or other professional—oftentimes antibiotics can help tame breakouts. While regular acne is the result of oil clogging pores, there’s also bacteria in the mix with cystic acne. Because of this, swelling and extra redness can occur. Hormonal changes can also cause cystic acne breakouts.
While hormonal acne can show up as regular-feeling breakouts and/or cystic acne, the underlying cause of this type of pimple is excess sebum. This oily substance is produced in the skin glands, according to the Cleveland Clinic⁶, and clogs pores. When we talk about breakouts as they play into puberty, sebum overproduction is the most common culprit.
Of all acne types, nodular acne can be the toughest to kick. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it can’t be treated at home and you need to see a doctor for a treatment plan. So how do you know if you have nodular acne? These breakouts appear as red bumps on the skin and hard, painful bumps underneath the skin.
How can I tell what kind of skin I have?
One of the biggest mysteries in trying to clear acne is figuring out what type of skin you have. There are three main categories: oily, dry, and combination (a mix of oily and dry). Depending on which one you are, the acne treatment will vary. The best way to figure this out is to visit a dermatologist or esthetician who can confirm your suspicions—and make recommendations on how to treat your acne. Here are some general guidelines about each skin type:
Itchy, flakey, and/or scaly skin can indicate that you have dry skin, according to the Mayo Clinic⁷. While you may naturally have dry skin, there can also be environmental impacts like cold weather, sun damage, overbathing, or the use of harsh soaps. Moisturizing is a good way to balance out your skin, but this can get tricky if you’re experiencing acne as over-moisturizing can make the problem worse.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology⁸, environment issues like stress and humidity can cause oil build-up on the skin. Most commonly, you can tell if your skin is oily because it will have a shiny or greasy appearance, pores will appear larger, you may have blackheads, and the skin may have a rough appearance.
As the name suggests, combination skin is a mix of both dry and oily skin symptoms. More often than not, the face’s T-zone—which is made up of the forehead, nose, and chin—will display one set of symptoms while the rest of the face will have the others. You can tell you have combination skin if your T-zone feels oily or greasy and the rest of your face is dry (or vice-versa). It’s important to also remember that the symptoms may not stick exactly to the T-zone; every person is different.