When it comes to acne, there’s a massive wealth of information out there about what causes it, what works to clear it, and what doesn’t work at all. It can certainly be helpful in some ways, but it can also be overwhelming and, in some cases, ineffective. Here’s the thing: We can all read that ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, retinoids, and certain oils can do wonders when it comes to preventing and banishing breakouts. But, it’s possible to try all of those magic fixes and find that your skin isn’t getting any better — or even that it’s getting worse. Why, exactly, is that, though? We talked to experts to find out.
You’re using them too much.
When you’re faced with a breakout, it can be tempting to load on the acne products, but that could actually be counterproductive. Certain blemish-busting ingredients “tend to be drying, and the most common mistake people make is overusing them, either too often or too much,” NYC cosmetic dermatologist Sejal Shah, the founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology, tells Teen Vogue. “When they are overused they can overly dry or irritate the skin, leading to more breakouts.”
For example, salicylic acid, which works to unclog pores, is also a “mild chemical irritant,” meaning it also works as a drying agent and can cause skin redness and flaking if used too much, Kathleen Suozzi, a dermatologic surgeon at Yale School of Medicine, tells Teen Vogue. Other common acne-fighting ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide and sulfur, can have the same effect. If you go the benzoyl peroxide route, Dr. Suozzi recommends using it in the form of a “creamy wash, such as PanOxyl 4% Acne Creamy Wash or DCL B Prox 10 Anti-Blemish Wash,” because they’re less drying than other forms and not as likely to irritate your skin.
As for frequency, Dr. Shah suggests using leave-on products containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acids, and sulfur two to three times a week at first and gradually increasing until you’re using them once daily as your skin tolerates. For cleansing products that you rinse off, she says you can use them as often as twice a day every day (because they tend to be “more readily tolerated”), but if you have sensitive skin you you may want to try every other day at first. If you’re using masks, Dr. Shah says, start with once a week and don’t use them more frequently than three times a week, as they can be fairly drying.
You’re not using them enough.
On the flip side, if you’re using a retinoid, you may need some more time to see results. In fact, when you use this ingredient — which Dr. Suozzi says is the best for preventing and treating comedones, or clogged pores that result in blackheads and whiteheads — your acne may get worse before it gets better. “After starting a retinoid, some patients may experience a flare in their acne,” she says. “The acute expulsion of the comedones by topical retinoid can trigger a flare, but once the comedones are expelled and the retinoids have had a chance to normalize the turnover of skin cells in the follicle, the acne will improve.” The time frame varies from person to person, so it could be anywhere from days to weeks, but Dr. Suozzi stresses that it’s important to continue using the retinoids through that flare up. Eventually, it’ll resolve itself. “It is important that retinoids are used continuously,” she says. “Strict compliance is key for acne prevention. Retinoids are not to be used for spot treatment or to start during an acne flare, because…they prevent the first step of acne formation.”