How to Get Rid of Acne Blemishes
Unsightly whiteheads and blackheads can mar beautiful skin. And when whiteheads and blackheads occur on beautiful brown, black, or Asian skin, they can leave lasting discoloration even after acne has been treated.
This article will tell you how you can remove acne blemishes safely from any kind of skin. The techniques in the article are safe enough for dark-toned skin, but effective—and far less irritating than many other treatments—for even the fairest skin. Let’s begin with an understanding of what blemishes are and why they tend to leave discoloration even after acne has healed.
- Acne blemishes are caused by a combination of1 clumps of dead skin cells, excess oil on the skin, and acne bacteria.
- Anything that inflames your skin can cause it to produce even more oil.
- The gentlest treatments are best for acne blemishes on all skin types.
- Acne blemishes on brown, black, or Asian skin often leave brown spots that last months or years after acne goes away.
- Anything that heats your skin can make acne worse.
- Hair care products can cause blemishes.
- Steroid creams can thin your skin and leave it even more susceptible to inflammation.
- The best way to prevent and treat acne blemishes is with a complete skin care system.
What Causes Acne Blemishes?
Every pore in the skin lies on top of a follicle containing sebaceous glands. These tiny glands produce sebum, the lubricating oil of the skin. Without enough sebum, the skin is tight and wrinkly. Sebum does the work of lubrication while it is still in the pore, but it also carries dead skin cells up to the surface. In the mix of dead skin cells and sebum waiting to emerge at the opening of the pore there are bacteria. These bacteria in small numbers actually help maintain the health of the pore2, by breaking down sticky sebum into less viscous fatty acids.
Sometimes the dead skin cells clump together and clog the pore3. Sometimes the skin experiences inflammation, and the nervous system in the skin responds to stress hormones. One way the skin deals with stress is by creating even more sebum. The combination of clumped skin cells and extra sebum can clog the pore, sealing acne bacteria inside.
If you scrub and rub the already-inflamed pore, it will spill its contents on the surface of the skin. The immune system, however, will act to prevent other bacteria, fungi, molds, viruses, and dirt on the skin from entering the skin and causing infection or toxic reactions. Squeezing or teasing a blemish often creates a pimple that looks even worse. But on brown, black, or Asian skin, that’s not the end of the story.
Everybody’s skin contains melanocytes, the skin cells that make the pigment melanin. This pigment can be brown, black, or gray. If your melanocytes produce a lot of brown or black pigment, you will tend to have brown or black skin. If your melanocytes only produce brown pigment, you will tend to have Asian skin tones. There are no hard and fast divisions of color on the basis of heredity, however, and everyone’s skin can produce more or less of certain pigments in response to stress.
If your skin naturally produces lots of brown or black pigment, it will produce even more when your skin is irritated4. The antioxidants in melanin put the brakes on inflammation induced by the immune system, healing acne faster. The problem is that pigments stay in the skin even after acne has healed. Most people who have brown, black, or Asian skin find spots to be worse than pimples, but spots can also occur on fair skin.
What You Can Do to Stop Blemishes Before They Start
The best way to deal with blemishes is to stop them before they start5. Especially if you have darker skin tones, you need to make sure that oils and hair products don’t drip down from your hair onto your face. Hair spray, hair gel, hair mousse, pomades, and even shampoo and conditioner can activate acne.
It is also important to remove6 makeup every night. Makeup can clog pores. Sebum can dissolve the oils in makeup up to a point, but if the pore is already clogged with skin cells, the combination of old makeup and skin matter can cause a blackhead or a whitehead.
Heat and friction cause blemishes7. Staying out in the sun too long or visiting the sauna or steam room can trigger an anti-inflammatory response in the skin. The skin protects itself from heat by making extra sebum, potentially clogging pores. The skin also responds to friction from your hair, from the side pieces of your glasses, or from rubbing your skin too hard when you wash by making more sebum that can clog more pores.
Steroid creams you put on your skin to stop inflammation can, ironically, cause it8. When your skin senses stress, or when your whole body is stressed, it releases a substance called corticotrophin stimulating hormone. When you put steroid creams, for example, hydrocortisone creams you can buy in any pharmacy, on your skin, the skin is temporarily less inflamed, but the next time it is stressed, it releases more corticotrophin releasing hormone. The result is greater inflammation the second time around, causing more blemishes, more pimples, more melanin production, and greater damage to the skin.
Seven Simple Guidelines Anyone Can Follow to Prevent Blemishes
The anti-acne techniques used on skin with color9 are especially gentle for fair skin. Even if your ancestors came from Iceland, the skin care techniques used for preventing and treating blemishes on darker skin may work best for you. And if you have naturally brown, black, or Asian skin, you simply have to use these techniques to prevent blemishes prevent spotting.
1. Gently exfoliate your skin every day to remove hardened oils and to prevent spotting, but check with your doctor before you use a medicated cleanser that contains alpha-hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, or sulfur. Beta-hydroxy acids (the only beta-hydroxy acid used in skin care is salicylic acid) are OK.
2. Don’t use rough washcloths, alcohol-soaked pads, or sponges on your skin10. These can cause irritation that increases production of oil and creates new blemishes.
3. Moisturize your skin with an oil-free and alcohol-free moisturizer every day after you rinse off11 your cleanser, and, if you use makeup, before you put on makeup. A moisturizer with alpha-hydroxy acids may be good for your skin, but ask your doctor first before using it. If fun in the sun or forced air heating in winter dries out your skin, low-cost options for additional moisture include Cetaphil and Olay.
4. Don’t poke, probe, squeeze, or otherwise manipulate blemishes or pimples with your fingers, especially not with dirty fingers. Let your cleanser and exfoliants do the work of keeping your skin clear.
5. Never use over-the-counter corticosteroid creams (for example, Cortizone 10 or Cortaid) to treat acne. These will always cause rebound inflammation if you miss a treatment, and they make the skin thinner.
6. Never use any acne blemish product, not even vitamin creams containing retinol or ascorbyl palmitate, without doing a patch test on your arm first.
7. For a skincare emergency, soak a clean washcloth in warm salt water and rest it on your skin. This will help relieve inflammation. Or apply concealer, followed by a layer of foundation makeup, followed by powder to conceal pimples you have not yet treated. Don’t use toothpaste or baking soda to conceal pimples.
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- Acne Pathogenesis: History of Concepts. Dermatology 2014;229:1-46.
- Chaowattanapanit S, Silpa-Archa N, Kohli I, Lim HW, Hamzavi I. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview: Treatment options and prevention. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017 Oct;77(4):607-621.
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- Washing | American Academy of Dermatology. Aad.org. 2019
- Mazhar M, Simpson M, Marathe K. Inner thigh friction as a cause of acne mechanica. Pediatr Dermatol. 2019 Mar 18.
- Abraham A, Roga G. Topical steroid-damaged skin. Indian J Dermatol. 2014 Sep-Oct;59(5):456-9.
- 10 tips for clearing acne in skin of color | American Academy of Dermatology. Aad.org. 2019.
- Stringer T, Nagler A, Orlow SJ, Oza VS. Clinical evidence for washing and cleansers in acne vulgaris: a systematic review. J Dermatolog Treat. 2018 Nov;29(7):688-693.
- Chularojanamontri L, Tuchinda P, Kulthanan K, Pongparit K. Moisturizers for Acne: What are their Constituents? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014 May;7(5):36-44.
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