10 things to try when acne won’t clear

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Popping a pimple: While this may seem like the fastest way to get rid of a blemish, popping often worsens acne.

Do you feel you’ve tried just about everything to get rid of your acne but still see blemishes? Don’t despair. To see clearer skin, you probably just need to make some changes.

The following tips from dermatologists can help you get started.

  1. Give an acne treatment at least 4 weeks to work. Using a new acne product every few days may seem useful, but that approach can worsen acne. Acne treatment needs time to work. Using a different product every few days can also irritate your skin, causing new breakouts.


    If a treatment works for you, you should notice some improvement in 4 to 6 weeks. It can take 2 to 3 months or longer to see clearing.

    If you notice improvement, keep using the treatment. Even when you see clearing, you'll want to keep using the acne treatment. This helps to prevent new breakouts.


  2. If you have severe acne, you'll need a dermatologist to help clear your skin. Acne products you can buy at the store won't clear severe acne.
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  3. Attack the different causes of acne. If you don’t see improvement after 4 to 6 weeks, add a second acne product to your treatment plan.

    This approach can help attack the different causes of acne. Bacteria, clogged pores, oil, and inflammation can all cause acne.

    Of course, the second treatment should attack a different cause of acne. For example, if you are using an acne treatment that contains benzoyl peroxide, the second acne treatment should contain another acne-fighting ingredient. To help you select another product, here’s what the different active ingredients work on:
  • Benzoyl peroxide decreases P. acnes bacteria
  • Retinoids, such as adapalene gel, unclog pores and reduce oiliness
  • Salicylic acid eases inflammation and unclogs poors

You can buy acne treatment that contains any one of these ingredients online or at a store. You don't need a prescription.

Try 1 or 2 products, and give them time to work. Trying too many products can stress your skin, worsening acne.
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  1. Follow directions. While using an acne treatment can seem pretty straightforward, how much you use and how often you use it can make a huge difference. Be sure to follow the directions.

    If a dermatologist created your treatment plan, follow your doctor's instruction and use everything your dermatologist included in the treatment plan.

    Using only some of the acne treatment that your dermatologist prescribes could be the reason you still have acne.
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  2. Wash your face twice a day and when you’re sweaty. Acne-prone skin is sensitive. Washing more than twice a day can irritate your skin, making acne worse.

    For best results, dermatologists recommend washing your face when:
  • You wake up
  • You're ready to go to bed
  • It gets sweaty

  1.  Stop scrubbing your face and other acne-prone skin. If your skin feels greasy, dirty, or grimy, you may be tempted to scrub it clean. Don’t! Scrubbing can irritate acne-prone skin, which worsens acne.

  2. Use skin care products and cosmetics that don’t cause acne. These products are labeled. On the package, you may see one of the following:
  • Won't clog pores
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Non-acnegenic
  • Oil free

Because some of these skin care products may still cause acne in a few people, you may need to try different products before you find ones that don't cause you to breakout.

  1. Resist touching, picking, and popping your acne. Popping a pimple may seem like the fastest way to clear it, but popping it can actually make things worse. Every time you touch, pick, or pop, you can worsen acne.

  2. Spread acne medication on all acne-prone skin, not just your blemishes. Applying a thin layer on your acne-prone skin helps treat existing acne and prevent new breakouts.

  3. Wash your pillowcases, hats, and other things that touch your acne-prone skin. Dead skin cells, bacteria, and dirt will build up on these surfaces, which can clog your pores. Washing what touches your acne-prone skin can prevent this.

    Changing your sheets every week and your pillowcase 2 or 3 times a week can make a difference.

  4. Enlist a dermatologist's help. If you still have acne after trying these tips — or you have acne cysts or nodules (deep blemishes that leave scars when they clear) — a dermatologist can help.

    With today's acne treatments and a dermatologist's expertise, virtually every case of acne can be cleared. A dermatologist can tailor a treatment plan to your unique needs.

Now that you know what can help clear acne, what changes are you going to make?

Additional related resources

Acne myths: Are any preventing you from seeing clearer skin?
Pimple popping: Why only a dermatologist should do it


Images
Severe acne: Image used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides

Other images: Getty Images


References
Draelos ZD, DiNardo JC. “A re-evaluation of the comedogenicity concept.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2006;54:507-12.

Harper, J. “Acne: The Basics.” May 2003. [The tips in this article came from a dermatologist, Julie Harper, MD, who wanted to help her patients and others get better results from their acne treatment.]