When Should You Treat Acne? Right Now

The most common skin condition in the United States? No surprise that it’s acne, which affects up to 50 million Americans every year.

But even though it’s so prevalent, it can be hard to get accurate information about it. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), many teenagers and young adults think they should let acne “run its course” without treatment. Others turn to “home remedies” like applying diaper cream or toothpaste to pimples.  But if acne is left untreated, it can result in significant physical and psychological problems, such as scarring, poor self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

“As a dermatologist who treats patients with acne every day, I’ve seen firsthand the effects that acne can have on a person’s life, both physically and emotionally,” said board-certified dermatologist Dee Anna Glaser, MD, FAAD, a professor and interim chair of dermatology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

If irritation occurs, apply moisturizer bef0re applying medication. The medicine will still be effective.

Effective treatments include medications that are applied to the skin, antibiotics and in-office procedures. Some over-the-counter products include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or adapalene.

However, whether a person is using an over-the-counter treatment or prescription medication, Glaser said it’s important to be patient regarding results. For example, it usually takes four to eight weeks to see improvement after using a topical medication — a treatment that is applied to the skin — and once acne clears, she says, it’s important to continue the treatment to prevent new breakouts.

To get the greatest benefit from topical acne medications, Glaser lists common strategies:

Use a gentle face wash. A common misconception is that people need to use a strong face wash while also using topical acne medication. However, using a face wash that is too harsh while also using acne medication can dry out and irritate your skin. Instead, look for a mild, gentle face wash that says “oil-free” or “noncomedogenic” on the label, as these won’t clog your pores. Gently wash the affected areas twice a day and after sweating.

Use a pea-sized amount of medication. If you’re using too much, you skin will become irritated; too little, and the medicine won’t have any effective results. To make sure you’re using the right amount, put a pea-sized amount on your index finger and dot the medication on your forehead, cheeks and chin. Once dotted, rub it around to cover your whole face.

basket of acne products (creams and lotions)

Ease into the medication. Since it can take time for your skin to adjust to a new medication, start by applying the product every other day instead of daily. If you don’t experience any negative side effects after a few weeks, like increased burning or redness, you can start applying the medicine every day.

If irritation occurs, apply moisturizer before applying acne medication. Studies have shown that applying moisturizer before applying topical medication helps prevent the medication’s negative side effects — like peeling and redness — without changing its effectiveness. Make sure your moisturizer says “oil-free” or “noncomedogenic.

”Protect your skin from the sun. Many acne medications cause increased sensitivity to sunlight, which can increase your chance of sunburn. Before going outdoors, apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to all exposed skin, including your scalp, ears, neck and lips. Remember to reapply every two hours or immediately after sweating. You can also protect your skin by seeking shade and wearing protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection.

“Acne is a complex skin condition that can have many causes, including skin care products, fluctuating hormones, family history and stress,” says Glaser. “Further, not everyone’s acne can be treated the same way. If you have acne and over-the-counter medications aren’t bringing relief, make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist.”


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