Don’t Make These Acne Treatment Mistakes

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on January 17, 2019
3 min read

Pimples aren’t just for teens. You can still get acne well into your 30s, 40s, and beyond. In fact, 15% of adult women have acne. Just like when you were younger, causes include hormones, stress, and pores clogged by oil, skin cells, and bacteria.

There are many treatment options, from your drugstore to your dermatologist’s office. But you don’t want your quest for clear your skin to do more harm than good. Be sure to avoid these common treatment mistakes.

Many people with acne feel they should vigorously wash their faces. But this can irritate the skin, making it harder to use over-the-counter or prescription acne medications. Don’t use acne scrubs that might cause more inflammation, and don’t use cleansers that strip the face of its natural oils.

“When the skin is dry and inflamed, people find it harder to tolerate acne medications, and that’s ultimately counterproductive,” says Maral Skelsey, MD, director of dermatologic surgery at Georgetown University Medical Center.

“Most people, unless they are perspiring heavily after sports or other activities, only need to wash their face twice daily.”

Skip the scrubs and sudsy soaps, and use a gentle cleanser in the morning and at night instead.

It may be tempting to pop that zit, but don’t. It could lead to a scar or infection, or worsen your breakouts. Acne pustules and papules can extend deep into the skin, and squeezing them can cause long-term redness and a permanent depression in the skin. “It can also lead short-term to infection and an even larger pimple,” Skelsey says. If you just can’t leave that pimple alone, try a warm (not hot) compress on it to encourage the pimple to heal faster.

Acne-prone skin can be dry, especially if you use retinoids to treat it. But many people with acne are wary about using moisturizer for fear it will worsen their breakouts. Use a “noncomedogenic” moisturizer to help keep your skin healthy as you treat your acne. (Noncomedogenic products don’t clog pores.)

“That’s a big mistake for many reasons,” Skelsey says. For one thing, your skin needs protection from the sun’s UV rays. And some acne meds make your skin more likely to burn.

Just like with face moisturizers, there are plenty of noncomedogenic sunscreens available. Some are designed specifically for acne-prone skin. So wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day.

Don’t forget about your scalp. Untreated dandruff (aka seborrheic dermatitis) is a sneaky contributor to acne. Use a fragrance-free dandruff shampoo that has zinc, ketoconazole, or salicylic acid to help get rid of flakes on your scalp and breakouts on your skin.

You can still use this antibacterial ingredient that targets acne- and inflammation-causing bacteria. But check the dose you’re getting. Studies show that products with lower concentrations of benzoyl peroxide are just as effective as products with higher doses of the ingredient. The difference is that lower doses, such as 3% instead of 10%, will zap zits without drying and irritating the skin.

Some products claim results overnight, but you shouldn’t believe the hype. Acne treatment is not a 24-hour fix. At-home plans require 6-8 weeks to see improvement. And after your complexion clears, experts suggest continuing the routine to prevent future breakouts. A dermatologist can tell you when you can stop using acne treatments on your skin.