As someone who’s experienced acne for 10 years straight, some of the Google results for the term ‘how to clear acne’ made me feel a little, well… underwhelmed.
Put apple cider vinegar on your face — tried it, it stings. Wash your face every night — are you insinuating we don’t? Drink more water — wow, revolutionary. Don’t wear make-up — have you tried going to high school with 20 actual cysts on your face? Yeah, yeah, thought not.
Sarcasm aside, I wanted to offer my tips and advice on how to clear acne. Sure, I’m no dermatologist, but I’ve been through the entire process myself and know that getting rid of acne (I’m talking long-term, red, uncomfortable, painful, I-can’t-remember-the-last-time-my-skin-was-clear kinda acne) is not an overnight, quick-fix process or something that can be fixed with toothpaste treatments. But on the bright side, there is an end in sight and there are plenty of things you can do to speed up the process.
If you’re at your wit’s end, are feeling a little bit crappy (I’ve been there) and are wondering how to clear acne in a realistic way, I’ve got you covered. I’m here to help. With that said, here’s my ultimate guide on how to clear acne; and equally, help you to realise you’re equally perfect until that moment comes.
And before we get started, just in case you don’t believe me, here’s a before and after of my skin.
Realise that you’re more than your skin
If I could give every single acne sufferer in the world one single tip, it’d be this: you’re more than your skin and you shouldn’t let it define you.
In my experience, my mood seriously affected my acne and my acne seriously affected my mood — a vicious circle. And it’s no coincidence. Scientifically, it makes sense that stress and low mood are linked to acne. According to Dermalogica, high stress levels throw your adrenal glands into overdrive. Adrenal glands stimulate your oil glands to secrete more sebum and it’s this excess oil that can make acne worse.
Anyway, my point is that if you’re wondering how to clear acne, your mindset matters. This is both in terms of avoiding long-term, acne-inducing stress but also just because you should simply feel good about yourself, despite having a few spots. I know it’s easy to say and harder to take on board, but try not to let acne dampen your self-worth.
You’re still yourself; you’ve still got the same personality, traits, quirks, eccentricities… and countless other wonderful attributes. Acne is so small in the grand scheme of things. It’s a part of you for now, but it’s a very minor part in comparison to all the other incredible things about you. I’ve been through the staring at my acne in the mirror, pointing out every scar and flaw and feeling completely incapable of seeing past the red cysts on my face phase too. I’ve had really low self-esteem. I get it.
But I can see now that I should have believed in myself regardless—because in reality, spots didn’t change my worth as a person—and all my true friends and family knew that all along. In fact, if you try and spin things around and look at the positive, having acne might even shape you into a stronger and more resilient person. It certainly did for me!
Book a doctor’s appointment
This might sound a little obvious, but it’s seriously important. I feel like way too many people—especially adults—spend far too long trying expensive skincare regimens and making huge lifestyle overhauls, only to end up suffering for way longer than they should have.
I’m not saying that skincare and lifestyle changes can’t help at all. And I’m definitely not saying that a few spots here and there means you need to run to see your doctor immediately. My point is simply that moderate to severe cystic acne normally clears up much faster with the help of a qualified doctor and/or dermatologist.
Plus, finding the right treatment can take quite some time. I tried countless treatments, from prescription topicals and oral antibiotics, to the final winning combination of spironolactone and Accutane. The right treatment took years on end to find, which included months and months of waiting time to see a dermatologist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super thankful to have access to free healthcare. I’m just trying to say that, if your acne is becoming troublesome, get in there sooner rather than later.
Book that damn doctors appointment. Do it now.
Give some thought to your contraceptive
You’ve probably heard about a friend’s skin miraculously clearing up after switching her pill. And you’ve probably read equally as many stories about certain pills and contraceptives making someone’s skin break out like never before. Most contraceptives are hormonal, so it should come as no surprise that they can have a humongous effect on our skin.
There’s no single answer for this—and I’m not here to advise you on contraceptives, as it’s so very personal—but I will say that it deserves some careful thought. Do some research into your contraceptive and consider whether it could be that which is causing your breakouts in the first place. It could save you a lot of hassle down the line. For example, Progestin-only pills, also known as the ‘mini pill’, are well-known for increasing hormonal acne. And, according to OB/GYN Omnia M. Samra-Latif Estafan, women who tend to get an acne outbreak before their period are more susceptible to acne from hormonal IUDs.
I’ve been prescribed a few ‘acne-friendly’ pills in the past. Dianette cleared my skin completely, but seriously (and I mean seriously) affected my mood. It’s actually banned in some countries due to its links with depression and increasing the risk of blood clots. In all honesty, I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve also tried Yazmin, which benefited my skin but still affected my moods, though not as much. The pill I was happiest on was Gedarel 20/150, but I still had acne whilst taking it. It’s really hard to get rid, so now I prefer to simply not be on any.
Anyway, if you’re Googling how to clear acne but haven’t thought about your current contraceptive yet, it’s a good place to start. Discuss it with your doctor and try to figure out whether the one you are currently on has helped or hindered your skin. Then, it might be worth switching it up—or perhaps using a non-hormonal contraceptive—if you think it’s a better option for you.
Do be aware that post-pill acne is unfortunately extremely common, so make sure to do plenty of research and talking with your doctor before making any changes.
Muster up some patience
As I mentioned earlier, before writing this article I took a sneaky read through some of the articles that are currently ranking for ‘how to clear acne’. One thing that didn’t make much sense to me is the amount of clickbaity ‘how to clear acne fast’ and ‘how to clear your acne today’ headlines. I mean, have these people ever actually experienced acne?
I’m yet to meet someone who has experienced moderate-severe acne and managed to get rid of their breakouts in a single day or even a week. The truth of the matter is, your skin needs time to heal and many (if not most) acne treatments—topical or not—need several weeks to even begin working their magic.
While it might not be what you want to hear, acne isn’t something that’ll disappear overnight. Sure, you might be able to ease an angry spot overnight (I’ll recommend some quick-fix treatments later), but acne as a condition generally takes some time to figure out treatment-wise.
On the brighter side, there’s an army of other people in the same boat as you. Connecting with other people on Instagram—try the hashtags #AcneCommunity and #FreeThePimple—and sharing your journey is a great way to ride the wave as you try out a new treatment. I’ve connected with so many amazing people in the acne community, that it’s actually made me glad to have experienced acne. Yep, I said it.
Resist the pick
I know, I know, it’s far easier said than done. When you’ve got a red, swollen spot on your face, it’s hard not to want to squeeze the hell out of it, in the hope it’ll magically flatten. But I’m speaking from experience when I say that this rarely makes the situation better. In fact, it usually makes it a whole lot worse.
You’ll probably go from having a red and swollen spot to a red, swollen, oozy, impossible-to-cover-with-makeup cyst which is 10x more swollen than it was in the first place. And, you’ve heard it before, but I’m about to tell you again: picking at your spots will make them way more likely to scar.
The solution? I’d recommend investing in some Hydrocolloid patches. These are essentially tiny, translucent stickers that you can pop over those super angry spots. As well as promoting healing, they’ll help you to keep your goddamn hands away from your spots.
The best ones I’ve found are the Dots for Spots, which I’m also happy to say are vegan and cruelty-free. I’ve actually worn them underneath makeup before and no one noticed.
Adjust your skincare routine
Personally, I never found a skincare line or product that completely cleared my skin—only medication worked for me—but lots of products have helped to keep it somewhat under control. The right acne skincare routine can certainly help your skin to heal and minimize breakouts, but if your acne is severe, you might need medication to clear it completely.
I personally believe that everyone’s skin is different, so it’s hard for me to recommend an entire skincare regime. You need to listen to your own skin. However, I would recommend steering clear from the classic ‘spot’ isle in the shops. While scrubbing at your face with chemical-ridden Clearasil products might feel productive, they usually do your skin more harm than good. They’re usually very drying, which (contrary to popular belief), can actually make the entire problem worse. When you dry out your skin too much, your skin reacts by producing more oil, which can then lead to more congestion and more spots. I think this is insanely common, but most people aren’t actually aware of what’s happening.
I’m not saying you should skip the acne treatments altogether. It’s just about finding the one that’s right for you, and avoiding the super harsh formulations. I’ve tried a million different acne products, so here are a few stand out products to try out rather than wasting your money on Clearasil and the like!
Acne treatments & serums
Avene Cleanance Cleansing Gel
Hands down, this is the best acne cleanser I’ve ever tried! I still use it to this day, post-accutane. It’s soap-free so it won’t strip your skin, but does an amazing job at removing makeup and lifting oil, without feeling drying. This product comes with a huge recommendation from me, so try it and I promise it’ll become your new favourite too. Read my full review of the Avene Cleanance Cleansing Gel.
Alpha-H Liquid Gold
This is probably one of my all-time favourite skincare products, whether I have acne or not. I use this every other night and it really helps to prevent congestion. It also leaves my skin incredibly shiny and smooth come morning! This is a pricey one, but I really enjoy the results and would recommend giving it a try. If you’ve got acne scars/hyperpigmentation, it’ll help to fade them too.
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
This gentle formula really helped to even out my skin tone and fade hyperpigmentation from previous spots. I also found it helped to balance out my skin (which, apparently, is down to the zinc) and make it less oily, without being drying. I apply this in the AM.
The Ordinary Salicylic Acid Solution
Although it never cleared my acne completely, my skin seemed to love salicylic acid during a breakout. If I put this on in the PM before bed, my breakouts would be much less angry when I woke up. There are plenty of salicylic acid products on the market, but I like how this is just the pure stuff in a bottle, minus all the other junk. It might be a little drying at first—so I’d use it sparingly, but your skin will adjust.
The Ordinary Retinol
To be honest, I only started using these towards the end of my acne journey, but I know they’re meant to be brilliant for acne, too — which is why I’m including them here. Summed up, retinol is a form of Vitamin A that encourages skill turnover and boosts collagen production. It helps to prevent your pores from becoming clogged, helps to fade acne scars and even has anti-ageing side-effects. Retinol can be quite irritating to the skin at first, so I’d recommend starting with the lowest concentration (linked above) and working up to the higher concentrations.
Mario Badescu Drying Lotion
If you’re looking for an on-the-spot treatment to ease a particularly angry spot, this is the one I’d recommend. I’ll be honest, I only ever tried this once (it’s expensive and when I had acne, I was a student, then recent grad, then traveller with little spare cash), but got through the bottle lighting fast. It significantly reduced the appearance of my spots when I applied it overnight, so it’s a good one to have in the cupboard. I haven’t tried any of the other products from this brand, but have heard lots of great reviews.
Acne moisturisers & hydration
Your acne skincare routine shouldn’t just be about spot-fighting active ingredients. In order for your skin to heal, you should be hydrating and moisturising your skin every day. I’ve tried dozens of moisturisers and serums, but here are a few of my favourites for acne-prone skin:
La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo
When I was in Vietnam and didn’t have access to The Ordinary, I used Effaclar Duo as my everyday moisturiser/spot treatment. Sure, it didn’t cure my acne — but I do think it helped keep the inflammation down and clear away breakouts and marks quicker than they otherwise would have. This has Salicylic Acid, Niaminicide and Zinc in, so it’s essentially all my favourite spot fighting ingredients in one. It’s a bit pricier than The Ordinary, but if you can afford it, it’s a fantastic everyday acne moisturiser.
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic Acid has been all the rage recently, but I can totally see why. This serum is so lightweight but really seems to quench dehydrated skin. I used this when I had acne and have stuck with it ever since. I think it’s particularly good for acne-prone skin types as it’s very lightweight, won’t clog your pores and won’t sting your skin if your acne is raw and sore (I’ve been there) — but at the same time, will deliver a boost of skin-soothing hydration. Make sure to apply this while your skin is damp to reap the full benefits.
The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA
I’ve tried plenty of moisturizers in my time, but this has recently become a firm favourite. As I have sensitive skin, I find that some moisturising products end up breaking me out or just making my skin feel clogged. This one doesn’t. It’s light, but packed with fancy ingredients like amino acids, fatty acids and even my fave, hyaluronic acid. If I use this consistently, my skin seems glowier and more balanced. In all honesty, I didn’t discover this until after Accutane—but I’m including it because I feel it’s the perfect moisturiser for acne-prone skin. Plus, I’ve read tons of reviews from acne sufferers who claim it’s their holy grail.
Science of Skin Rescue No. One
I bloody love this stuff—no joke! This won’t treat your active acne, but I’d highly recommend introducing it into your routine as a recovery cream anyway. This product is specifically formulated for scars caused by acne, spots and blemishes—and it made a significant difference to mine. If you’ve had a particularly bad breakout and are concerned about lasting scars, pop this on consistently. I promise it’ll speed up the healing process and prevent scars from forming. It’s also super moisturising and works really well under make-up! Read my full review of Science Of Skin Rescue No. One.
La Roche Posay Anthelios SPF
Repeat after me… acne-prone skin still needs SPF (you’re basically asking for more skin damage if you don’t wear it). I’ve heard from so many girls who’re scared to apply SPF in case it aggravates their acne, but Anthelios is the perfect one. It’s non-comedogenic (that basically means it won’t block your pores) and super lightweight, so won’t affect your make-up application.
I’ll write up a full skincare product recommendation blog soon—but in the meantime, just remember to remove your makeup thoroughly, apply your chosen spot treatment/serum and always follow up with a dose of moisture and SPF. While aisle-bought skincare products are unlikely to cure severe acne, they definitely help to ease inflammation and prevent long-lasting damage. It’s worth investing in some good skincare and helping your skin out as much as possible.
Switch up your make-up products
Ugh, how many times have you been told “you have acne because you wear makeup” or “makeup causes acne!”? I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to wear makeup. Makeup has played a significant part in my acne journey and gave me a boost of confidence when I needed it the most. The thing is, you just have to use the right products and make sure you’re removing it thoroughly at the end of the day.
So, if you’re wondering how to get rid of acne but still want some day-to-day coverage, it might be a good idea to switch up your makeup products. There are plenty of non-comedogenic (a posh word for non-pore-blocking, which means the product won’t contribute to breakouts) and acne-fighting foundation/BB products on the market. Here are a few I’ve tried over the years:
bareMinerals Bare Pro
This is probably my all-time favourite liquid foundation for acne. Okay, it doesn’t contain any acne-fighting active ingredients like the ones I’ve listed below, but it’s free of oil, parabens, sulfates and fragrance and is non-acnegenic and non-comedogenic, so it won’t make acne worse or cause future breakouts. I personally didn’t mind the lack of active ingredients, as I’d always apply a treatment underneath my foundation anyway and didn’t want to overdo it. I love this foundation as it’s insanely long wearing (I used to struggle washing it off my hands!), gives amazing coverage (I didn’t even need concealer with it) and seemed to make overall skin tone more even. If you have the budget for it, I’d highly recommend investing in it! Read my full review of the bareMinerals barePro foundation for acne. If you prefer a powder foundation, they also sell a really well-rated Skin-Clearing Powder Foundation—I’ve just never tried it personally.
Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions
This was my favourite as a teen. I vividly remember my Mum buying me the foundation, a powder and an eyeshadow palette from Clinique for my 16th birthday and I used the foundation for years afterwards. It’s obviously non-comedogenic, but also contains Salicylic Acid and other skin-clearing ingredients to fight your breakouts whilst you wear it. This one also gives great coverage and lasts all day, so it’s definitely worth a try—it’s very slightly cheaper than bareMinerals, too.
Collection Anti-Blemish BB Cream
If you’re on a budget and live in the UK, this lightweight BB cream is a winner. I remember picking this up with low expectations (I’ve always loved Collection’s products, but had never tried one of their base products before) and was really surprised at how nice it looked after an entire day out and about. It’s obviously lighter coverage than a foundation, but that’s often a better option for school, work or uni. The active ingredient in this is Witch Hazel, an anti-inflammatory astringent which is believed to be beneficial for acne. If you wear makeup on a daily basis and are on a budget, it might be worth grabbing this for your day-to-day life, but opt for one of the higher-end foundations above for special occasions and evenings out.
And as for concealers? I’m insanely picky over the stuff, but here are my holy grails:
Collection Lasting Perfection
Okay, so sue me. This stuff isn’t non-comedogenic (at least, I haven’t seen any claims that it is)—but hear me out. I’ve been using this stuff since I was 13 or so and I haven’t found anything that covers an angry red blemish quite so well. It’s really affordable, covers amazingly yet somehow blends until it’s invisible and lasts all day. I personally didn’t find that this aggravated my skin, so long as I removed it thoroughly at the end of the day. If you’re looking for an affordable acne coverage concealer, this is the one. Collection, if you ever read this, I’m a true fan girl of your concealer—please never discontinue it! Read my full review of the Collection Lasting Perfection Concealer.
bareMinerals Blemish Rescue Spot Concealer
If you’re looking for a concealer that’ll fight the blemish as it covers, this is a good one to use. I’ve only ever had one stick of it (like I said, I’m a sucker for the one above), but I did really like it. It covered very well and had a really creamy, blendable texture despite being full coverage. It’s got Salicylic Acid in, so will seriously help to fight inflammation throughout the day, as well as Licorice Root Extract, which helps to fight blemish marks. Again, if you’ve got the budget. bareMinerals is a complete winner for acne prone skin.
Check your diet and lifestyle (but not too much)
You’re probably wondering why I added the ‘not too much’ onto this subheading. Well, if you’re wondering how to clear acne, lifestyle and diet changes can only help so much (in my experience, anyway) —and over restricting can actually lead to disordered eating.
Don’t get me wrong here. I do believe that a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet can do wonders for your skin health, as well as your mental health. Ideally, everyone should try to eat plenty of wholefoods, drink plenty of water and exercise when they can. And I’m not doubting anyone who’s successfully cleared their acne through lifestyle changes alone—props to you, because I tried, and didn’t succeed.
But I’ve spoken to countless girls who became obsessed with their diet due to having acne. They’d spend hours researching inflammatory foods and trying to find out which foods can cause acne, before immediately cutting out countless food groups; namely dairy, gluten and sugar. But then they’d become so obsessed, that they’d limit their food too much, resulting in weight loss and a generally problematic relationship with food.
So, my advice would be to consider your lifestyle, but try not to be too harsh on yourself. If you’re concerned that a certain food is triggering your breakouts, why not keep a journal? For a month or two, quickly jot down what meals you eat each day, along with the state of your skin and frequency/severity of your breakouts. See if you notice a pattern.
The one food group I’d consider limiting is dairy. Numerous evidence-based studies agree that dairy can aggravate acne—it’s packed with hormones, after all. While cutting it out for a while might not have a noticeable effect on your skin, it’s worth a try. Plus, with so many amazing plant based milks and cheeses now, it’s actually a good chance to try out new things! And I might be biased as a vegan, but cow’s milk is so old school, guys—oat milk is where it’s at.
I personally took and still take a few supplements for my acne and general health, too. I always take a multivitamin (who knows if it’s doing anything, but I will say that my hair and nails grow at the speed of light), but the two I’d recommend for acne sufferers are:
There’s been a bit of a buzz around turmeric recently, but I really do believe in the stuff. It’s seriously anti-inflammatory—and we all know how inflamed and sore acne can be. I genuinely believe this helped to ease the severity and swelling of my breakouts and often use it topically too. Regardless, it’s a herb and has numerous health benefits, so giving it a go definitely won’t do any harm.
Put simply, probiotics promote the growth of healthy bacteria in our bodies. Yep, like Yakult (but who wants to drink them?!). When consumed regularly, they can significantly improve your gut bacteria (which, if you’ve taken lots of antibiotics for acne, may be a little worse for wear) and microbiome—and therefore reduce inflammation throughout the body. Considering the fact that an unbalanced gut and inflammation can both contribute to acne, it makes total sense to include them in an anti-acne lifestyle.
Confide in friends and family
I know that acne can wreak havoc with your emotions and self-esteem. With flawless-skinned selfies filling our Instagram feeds and models without a flaw popping up on every makeup and fashion advert, it’s hard not to feel inadequate. The truth is, you’re not inadequate in any way, shape or form. But I know it can be hard to realise that at first.
Anyway, one of the best things I ever did was open up to my friends and family about my acne and how it made me feel. My parents knew from the get-go, as did my sister who went through the exact same thing as me – and I don’t know what I’d have done without them. They’re the people who nagged me to book another doctor’s appointment, who rushed out to the pharmacy to ask for advice when I was feeling low, who told me I was pretty even when my skin was at its worst (and meant it) when my skin was swollen and inflamed.
It took me a while longer to open up to my friends about it, but I wish I’d been honest earlier. It’s not that I didn’t trust them – I just got into this horrible rut where I felt I had to hide my acne from everyone outside of my family at all costs. In fact, throughout my four years of college and university, I didn’t let a single housemate (aside from my boyfriend, Jack) see me without makeup. Considering we shared a bathroom, that was a lot of work. I don’t even know how I managed it. And dating with acne is a subject in itself (hence why I’ve written that blog, go on, have a read).
I remember going on holiday with some of my oldest girl friends. The night before we went, I got a major breakout. The first night in our Airbnb, I was terrified of taking my makeup off. It was making me feel so anxious. God knows why, as they’re the loveliest girls in the world and clearly don’t care about what I look like – we’ve been friends for years. Anyway, I came out of the bathroom and told them how I felt. One of my best friends said “well, it’s okay, because we don’t care! It really doesn’t matter!”. That’s all I needed to hear, and it hasn’t been an issue with them since.
If you’re feeling low during your quest to clear acne, or are feeling insecure of showing your real skin around friends or family, my single piece of advice would be this: tell them how you feel. I can guarantee that 99% of people will be lovely and remind you that it literally makes no difference to what they think of you. And if someone was to judge you? Well, they’re definitely not your true friend – and it’d be a lucky escape, if you ask me.
How to clear acne: I promise, you’ll get there
I know that acne can be difficult to deal with. And I know that it’s easy to feel like there’s no way out, that ‘this must be my skin forever’ and that clear skin isn’t a possibility for you.
But it is. I promise it is, because I felt the exact same way, and have come out the other end. Sure, it might take a while to find a treatment that works for you, but don’t give up.
And while you’re waiting to clear up your acne? Don’t waste your time or miss out on opportunities because you’ve got a breakout. You’re absolutely perfect and valid just as you are—with acne or not. If anyone doesn’t see your worth during this time, say goodbye. Your true friends love you for who you are, not how clear your skin is!
Anyway, I do hope these tips helped all you ‘how to clear acne‘ googlers out! If you’d like to hear more from me, or just want to have a chat or ask a question, you can find me on Instagram at @notesbyalice.