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Top 8 Acne Treatment Mistakes

Common ways people go wrong in treating their acne.
By Anna Nguyen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD

For the nearly 50 million Americans affected by acne, the many available medications and treatments can be confusing and overwhelming.

It's easy to make mistakes treating acne or even make it worse, despite the best intentions.

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Here, experts list the most common mistakes. In most cases, a dermatologist can help undo the damage.

Mistake No. 1: Not Trying an Acne Treatment Long Enough

Skin reacts slowly to treatment. Even if the acne came on fast, it still requires time to heal. That usually takes between 6 and 12 weeks, says Barbara R. Reed, MD, a dermatology professor at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.

April W. Armstrong, MD, MPH, is an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of California Davis Health System. She tells patients to give a product 1 month and then keep using it if they notice any improvement.

In some cases, your skin might feel a bit irritated the first couple of weeks of treatment, says Diane S. Berson, MD. She is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Ithaca.

“It's not an infection, it's an inflammation. It can even get worse before it gets better,” Berson says.

Mistake No. 2: Trying Too Many Products at Once

People usually layer on products when they don't get results in the first few days of treatment, Reed says.

“What then happens is that they start trying different products, abandoning them very quickly if they do not see results in a day or two. They also add one product to another. Sometimes the products can cause irritation of the skin and add further insult to the owner,” she says.

When someone self-treats their acne, they may accidentally distress their skin. This can make the acne lesions bigger, more likely to pigment, and heal with spots and scars, Berson says.

Mistake No. 3: Over-Scrubbing or Over-Cleansing the Skin

Scrubbing the skin will actually worsen acne, as it can compromise the skin's protective barrier and increase irritation, Berson says.

Instead, gently wash with a nonirritating, pH-balanced cleanser to lessen inflammation. It's also important to thoroughly rinse off the cleanser, because the residue can be irritating, she says.

“Acne is not from dirt," Reed says. "Many people tend to over-wash and over-scrub when they get acne. As one of my teachers used to say, 'If acne were from dirt, you would have it on your feet!'"

Mistake No. 4: Choosing the Wrong Products for Acne-Prone Skin

Harsh cleansers, alkaline bar soaps, and alcohol-based products may worsen acne, says Berson, who has consulted for skin care product-makers Galderma Stiefel, Procter & Gamble, and Neutrogena.

Reed says she advises patients to look for “noncomedogenic” or “for acne-prone skin” products. Noncomedogenic products don't contain ingredients that tend to clog pores in people with acne-prone skin.

Certain ingredients found in products such as cosmetics, sunscreen, and moisturizers are more likely to clog pores. They include isopropyl palmitate, isopropyl myristate, butyl stearate, isopropyl isostearate, decyl oleate, isostearyl neopentanoate, isocetyl stearate, myristle myristate, cocoa butter, acetylated lanolin, and D & C red dyes. Products containing oil can clog pores and lead to breakouts.

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