How to banish any type of breakout

You see them pop up on your cheeks, your forehead, your chin and even your body. But why? From stress to sweat, your diet to lack of sleep, surging hormones to that one night you forgot to take off your makeup—breakouts have a lot of causes.

"But basically, they all start as a clogged hair follicle under the skin," explains dermatologist Dr. Zenovia Gabriel, founder of Zena Medical in Newport Beach, Calif. It's normal for your skin to excrete oil. But production revs up when you hit your teens and it can easily get caught up in hair follicles. When oil can't make its way out, this causes a comedone (aka blemish) to form. And that's how pimples are made.

So now that you know what you're up against, how do you cut through all the clutter, conversation and supposed cures to find out what will actually clean *your* skin? We talked to the experts so you can figure out exactly what works for your personal pimple problem. Thank us later!

ID Your Breakout

Sure, most breakouts start as a comedone, "but they can look totally different based on a few key factors happening within your skin," says Dr. Elizabeth Hale, a professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center. Here, she breaks it down...

Whitehead: You know those bumps that look like they have a white dot on top? That's a whitehead (or closed comedone). It's your most basic breakout, aka a pore clogged with sebum and skin cells.

Blackhead: Blackheads are pretty much the same as whiteheads, except the gunk in the hair follicle is darker because the air caused it to oxidize. PSA: Those clogged pores on your nose are simply plugged-up pores, not acne.

Papule: Any time you get a raised, red bump on your skin, it's considered a papule.

Pustule: A type of inflammatory acne, which is caused by bacteria that actually ferments the oil and sebum trapped in your skin and creates a red bump with a head on top. It's basically an angry whitehead.

Cyst: Think of those pimples you get deep down under your skin that look like big red or white lumps filled with pus. They don't have a head, but they're lurking under the surface.

Nodule: You're most likely to see nodulocystic acne later in life (surprise, acne never takes a break!). They pop up on your chin and jawline as firm, painful cysts.

Manage your maskne

The Aftermask, $9

Wearing a face covering is super important, but once you're home, treat your mask-weary mug to skincare made just for your lower face, like The Aftermask, which has breakout-busting witch hazel plus calming aloe.

Find your best skin saver

These superstar ingredients work overtime to help clear your complexion. 

Image: Anastasiia Ostapovych on Unsplash

Warning: Don't use all of these at once or you risk overdoing it and making your zits worse. Moderation is key.

Words of Wisdom: You should be wearing sunscreen all year-round, but it's especially important when you're using acne products as they increase sensitivity to the sun.


"Our skin repairs itself constantly, and that's why you get dead skin cells piling up and getting clogged," explains Dr. Hale. "Retinol speeds up cell turnover to avoid the buildup that causes acne."

Best for: Preventing comedones.

Just make sure to: Go easy! Start by applying a pea-sized amount all over your face twice weekly and gradually increase it over time.

Try: Differin Gel, $15,

Salicylic Acid

"It removes the debris that builds up on your skin and unplugs the oil glands and hair follicles," Dr. Hale says.

Best for: If you have oily skin, try using salicylic acid before bed.

Just make sure to: Resist over-exfoliating. Don't combine this with a scrub or another chemical exfoliant. Less is more.

Try: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser, $9,

Benzoyl Peroxide

"It deeply penetrates the skin to remove buildup from clogged pores and eradicate blemishes," Dr. Gabriel says.

Best for: Inflammatory acne, including papules, pustules and cysts, since it kills blemish-causing bacteria.

Just make sure to: Use it sparingly, and if you get too dry and flaky, back off.

Try: Dr. Zenovia's 5% Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Spot Treatment, $25,

Hydrocolloid Patches

They absorb bacteria trapped under the skin and protect zits from external bacteria while you wear them.

Best for: "Pop on surface-level acne, like whiteheads and blackheads," advises Dr. Gabriel.

Just make sure to: Use them solo, i.e., not over top of another treatment. Hydrocolloid patches are typically used for wound healing.

Try: Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch Original, $13 for 36 patches,

Ditch post-zit dark spot spots

Once you clear a breakout, it can still leave its mark (aka post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation). Add vitamin C to your routine to even out your tone over time. Try Hyper Clear Brightening Clearing Vitamin C Serum., $36

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that a version of this story originally ran in our August/September 2020 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

Slider image: Cheyenne Doig on Unsplash. Top image: @barefacedfemme. All GIFs via Giphy. Edited for digital coverage by Kathleen O'Neill.

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by Erin Reimel | 3/1/2021