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6 Ways to Clear Acne Without Spending a Fortune

By Megan Griffith

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Jaggi Rao,
MD, FRCPC Double board-certified dermatologist

There are literally tens of thousands of over-the-counter acne treatments and dozens of prescription acne medications that usually do a fair job of clearing acne. But some of the best ways to clear acne don’t require you to buy anything at all. Before you spend a small fortune on acne treatment, why not try one of these quick and simple methods that often clear acne?

Ways to clear acne
Making changes in your diet is one way you can help clear your acne.

Summary:

  • Sometimes changes in diet can clear up acne in just a few weeks, but different diets work for different people.
  • If you are deficient in various vitamins or minerals, a supplement could improve your skin and your overall health.
  • One of the easiest ways to prevent acne caused by exercise is to shower immediately after working out and keep your exercise clothing and equipment squeaky clean.
  • Finding ways to decrease stress could be an important factor in acne treatment.
  • One of the best ways to improve your skin is being consistent with your skincare routine.
  • Wearing sunscreen every day, even if you’ll only be outside briefly or if you never burn, is a great way to protect your skin and reduce the dark spots often left behind by acne.

1. Diet and Acne: A Complicated Relationship

Diet and acne have a complicated relationship, largely due to the inherent challenges of both diet studies and acne studies. Diet studies are difficult to conduct for many reasons. For instance, it’s hard to ensure that participants are sticking to the diet mandated by the study. It’s also difficult to isolate the effects of a single food when we need to consume so many different foods every day.

This makes it difficult to determine the effect our diets have on any given aspect of our lives, but it’s especially difficult when it comes to acne because acne studies have their own challenges too. Acne is a multifactorial condition, meaning acne is caused by the combination of many different factors. This makes it difficult to study any single cause, like diet. However, based on what we know about how various foods affect the main causes of acne, we can make estimates on how changing your diet could lead to clearer skin.

As a note, all diet advice should be taken with a grain of salt, because everyone is different and has different needs. It’s also important to remember that the best way to stick to a dietary change is to make it as non-restrictive as possible. Food is meant to be enjoyed, after all, and most things are perfectly fine for most people in moderation.

The Best Acne Diet

There is no magic acne diet that will give you clear skin overnight, but there are a few foods that have been shown to reduce acne, while others are likely to increase acne. By increasing your intake of various acne-reducing foods and limiting acne-causing foods, you may be able to improve your skin through your diet.

Research suggests that plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and nuts are great for reducing acne because of their high levels of antioxidants1. Antioxidants help reduce inflammation, which is perfect for reducing acne because inflammation is one of the three main causes of acne. You may also want to increase your intake of seafood, seeds, and eggs, because these are high in omega-3 fats rather than omega-6 fats. Research suggests that omega-6 fats also lead to increased inflammation, while omega-3 fats can actually decrease inflammation2.

When it comes to foods to avoid, there’s nothing that you need to cut out entirely just for your acne. However, studies show that it might be best to limit your chocolate, dairy, and carbohydrate consumption. One study found that eating chocolate increased the likelihood of acne formation, likely due to increased inflammation3. But food doesn’t just impact acne through inflammation. Milk and other dairy products could also be a problem because they increase the amount of sebum our skin produces4. Sebum is the oily substance created by our sebaceous glands to protect our skin from irritation, but when it is overproduced, it can clog pores and lead to acne. Finally, you may also want to limit your intake of carbs like soda, bread, or cereal5. These foods release a lot of sugar into the bloodstream very quickly, resulting in a spike in sebum production.

2. Could You Have a Vitamin Deficiency?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, vitamin supplements are one possible treatment for acne6, but they only work if you already have a deficiency in a particular vitamin. If you’re on a typical Western diet, it’s unlikely that you will have vitamin A or vitamin B deficiency, but many people in Western cultures are prone to vitamin C or vitamin D deficiencies. How can you tell if your acne could be caused by a vitamin deficiency? Look for these symptoms, and if you suspect a deficiency, talk to your doctor.

Symptoms of Vitamin A Deficiency:

  • Dry skin
  • Trouble seeing at night
  • Slow wound healing

Symptoms of Vitamin B Deficiency:

  • Fatigue or feelings of weakness
  • Upset stomach
  • Confusion or depression

Symptoms of Vitamin C Deficiency:

  • Rough, bumpy skin
  • Dry skin
  • Weakened immune system (persistent illnesses)

Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain
  • Depression

3. Prevent Acne Mechanica By Showering Immediately After Exercise

If you’ve noticed that you tend to break out more after working out, there’s actually a relatively simple way to remedy the situation. Typically, you can prevent acne by showering right after working out and keeping your exercise equipment and clothing clean. A specific type of acne known as acne mechanica tends to form wherever there’s lots of friction because of the increased irritation and inflammation, and this is common with many types of exercise clothing. Sports bras, for instance, are designed to be relatively tight in order to keep the breasts in place while exercising, but this tightness can lead to friction and acne mechanica.

Showering right after working out can help prevent acne mechanica7 because it eases the inflammation caused by the friction of tight sports clothes, but it can also wash away excess bacteria that could contribute to acne. It’s also important to keep your exercise clothing and equipment clean to prevent the growth of acne-causing bacteria.

4. Stress Reduction Could Help with Acne Treatment

Several studies have found a solid connection between acne and stress levels. One study conducted on female medical students in Saudi Arabia found that when students reported higher stress levels, their acne levels were also more severe8. Another study conducted on university students found that both their stress and acne severity levels increased during examination times9. Yet another study conducted on high school and college students in China found that acne severity also increased during times of increased stress10. It’s safe to say that stress and acne are related, but why is that?

One explanation is that stress, especially chronic stress, increases inflammation11. When we experience the acute stress of an immediate threat, like a lion attack, our body releases various chemicals to decrease inflammation, like adrenaline and cortisol. However, when we are under chronic stress, like attending college, our body starts to acclimate to increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, eventually resulting in more inflammation, not less.

So how can you reduce stress and reduce acne at the same time? Well, stress reduction works differently for everyone and largely depends on what’s causing your stress. If you can remove yourself from a stressful environment, that’s always a good first step, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes we have horrible jobs that cause us a lot of stress, but we need those jobs to pay our bills. Other times, jobs we love cause us stress, and we don’t want to quit or do something else. In these cases, it’s best to work on stress-management skills. Therapy or counseling is one great way to do this, especially if you feel like you’ve been stressed your entire life. Professionals are armed with countless strategies and tools to help reduce stress.

5. Consistency is the Key to Clear Skin

Does this sound familiar: you know you should wash your face before you go to sleep, but you’re already all cozy in your bed, and surely one night won’t make that big a difference. What about this: you washed your face in the shower, but you really don’t have time to apply your acne treatment cream and moisturizer— you’re already running late for work. These things happen to all of us sometimes, but if we want clear skin, we need to do our best to minimize these occurrences and stay consistent with our skincare routine.

There are several ways you can improve your consistency when it comes to taking care of your skin. The first strategy is to simply use fewer products. For most people, the simpler your skincare routine is, the more likely you are to stick to it. Instead of using a face wash and a toner and a treatment cream and a moisturizer, see if you can combine a few of those ingredients. For instance, many face washes contain toning ingredients, so you may be able to skip that step.

If your skincare routine is already pretty simple, you just can’t seem to make yourself stick with it twice a day every day, try pairing it with other routines you’re already dedicated to. For instance, if you brush your teeth every morning and night, try pairing your skincare routine with that routine that’s already well-established. Write yourself a note on the mirror to remind yourself, or place your acne treatment products in front of your toothpaste.

Finally, you can always ask for help sticking to your routine. You can get apps to help remind you, or you can reach out to loved ones and ask them to text you at certain times to ensure you’ve done your routine.

6. Wear Sunscreen Every Day

One of the simplest ways to improve your acne is to add one product to your regimen: sunscreen. If you’re prone to burning, this is essential because sunburn causes inflammation, which leads to increased acne. But even if you never, ever burn, sunscreen is still important. The sun can still damage your skin even if it doesn’t burn, leading to skin cancer, but when it comes to acne, the sun is especially bad for something called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or PIH. That’s the dark spots that are left behind when acne heals. More common in people of color, PIH can last anywhere from a few weeks to a full year, and many people report that that PIH is even more frustrating than the acne that caused it. Studies show that daily sunscreen usage can help reduce PIH12.

If you have dark skin, you may avoid sunscreen because it casts a purple or ashy hue on your skin, which is understandable. This is an unfortunate symptom of the racism and colorism integral to the beauty industry, but happily, things are starting to change. Many brands now offer clear sunscreen products that are much better for people of color, like Murad Invisiblur Perfecting Shield Sunscreen or Elta MD UV Clear Sunscreen.

References:

  1. Clark A., et al. Edible plants and their influence on the gut microbiome and acne. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2017;18(5).
  2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. 2019.
  3. Netea S., et al. Chocolate consumption modulates cytokine production in healthy individuals. Cytokine. 2013;62(1):40-43.
  4. Ozdarska K., et al. Diet in pathogenesis of acne vulgaris. Polski Merkuriusz Lekarski. 2017;43(256):186-189.
  5. Mahmood S., Bowe W. Diet and acne update: carbohydrates emerge as the main culprit. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 2014;13(4):428-435.
  6. Beauty from the inside out: improving your diet or taking supplements may lead to younger-looking skin. American Academy of Dermatology. 2015.
  7. Is your workout causing your acne? American Academy of Dermatology. Accessed 2019.
  8. Zari S., Alrahmani D. The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology. 2017;10:503-506.
  9. Chiu A., et al. The response of skin disease to stress: changes in the severity of acne vulgaris as affected by examination stress. Archives of Dermatology. 2003;139(7):897-900.
  10. Wen L., et al. Relationship between acne and psychological burden evaluated by ASLEC and HADS surveys in high school and college students from central China. Cell Biochemistry and Biophysics. 2015;71(2):1083-1088.
  11. Schreier H., Chen E. Low-grade inflammation and ambulatory cortisol in adolescents: interaction between interviewer-rated versus self-rated acute stress and chronic stress. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2017;79(2):133-142.
  12. Passeron T. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Annals of Dermatology. 2016;143(S2):S15-S19.
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Daniella Reply

So racist!

February 5, 2012 at 8:01 am Reply

The simple reality is that different colors and skin types have different skin care needs. It might be less "typist" to give someone who has type O blood a transfusion of type A blood but it's not a good idea.

February 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm Reply
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Sinthi Reply

This site is very useful for me. After following some tips in this page I have notable difference in face. Pl can suggest me when can I stop protein rich food as must in my daily intake? Because when I stop protein rich food one or two days I can feel acne again appears. Ur reply should be a great solution for my pm. Thanks a lot for this page.

February 16, 2015 at 11:25 pm Reply
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Grumio Smythe Reply

I never tried this before, but I can confirm that a very high protein diet has done wonders for me: health, confidence and clear skin after a number of years of suffering and not knowing what my triggers are.I've also noticed that getting plenty of sleep has been beneficial (8 hours minimum) and doing lots of exercise (3-4 high intensity workouts, other cardiovascular + weight lifting x2-3 per week).Altogether I am very happy and hope that people find the solution for them quickly because it's a horrible condition and after years it destroys confidence.The minute I went to a carbohydrate intensive diet, back to square one.

October 22, 2015 at 7:18 pm Reply
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Jackie Daulby Reply

We live in Spain and my Grandaughter has Brown skin.I have tried your product but because I can't do the morning treatment because of the un it's know better.Please advise what can i do

July 24, 2017 at 1:34 pm Reply
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Aysu Reply

Considering that dairy products are high in protein and they also can cause acne because of IGF-1 everything gets way more hard to get over :(

May 6, 2018 at 7:24 pm Reply

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