Does that new friend on your face need to be left alone, or can you harness the power of salicylic acid?
So you’ve got a pimple. Not ideal, but not the end of the world. And as a regular reader here, it’s safe to assume you’re pretty into skincare and therefore have a medicine cabinet full of products meant for this exact situation. But a stocked skincare arsenal is only helpful if you know how and when to use each product. Does that new friend on your face need to be left alone or can you harness the power of salicylic acid? Should you consult someone, or can you (very safely!) pop that sucker on your own? It all depends on the type of acne, so read on to decode what you’re dealing with so you know how to treat it.
When bacteria, dead skin cells, or excess sebum get trapped in a hair follicle, the result is comedonal acne in the form of bumpy skin or non-red, non-inflamed blemishes. The most common types are ones you’re probably already familiar with: whiteheads and blackheads. The root of both is the same, but the former has a layer of skin over the follicle (closed comedone) whereas the latter is open (the “black” you see is when the contents of the clogged pore are exposed to air and oxidize). This type of acne is fairly harmless in that it’s often only noticeable to you (thanks, magnifying mirror) and rarely painful the way cystic acne can be.
How to treat it: While you can’t change the size of your pores, you can treat comedonal acne with ingredients like salicylic acid (removes dead skin cells and sucks of excess oil), benzoyl peroxide (kills bacteria) and retinoids (promote cell turnover and remove dead skin cells so they can’t clog up your pores).
If your garden variety comedonal acne transforms into something red and angry, you’ve got inflammatory acne. Papules, pustules, nodules and cysts make up this category: they start as whiteheads or blackheads before morphing into red, pus-filled bumps thanks to bacteria. A lot of inflammatory acne is chronic, so you may be able to track flare-ups and figure out if there’s something specific causing it (like sleeping in your makeup or not showering after a workout).
How to treat it: While you’re going to definitely want to pop these yourself, try your very best to keep your hands off your face — picking and squeezing will only make it worse and can lead to scarring. Because the root cause of inflammatory acne is bacteria, your main focus should be a solid skincare routine you adhere to, and bacteria-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and those with anti-inflammatory properties, like niacinamide.
If you’ve ever had nodular acne, you’d know it: these guys are the ones that feel like they’re buried deep under your skin and are often painful or tender. The reason they feel like this? Well, they are buried deep under your skin and are often connected to other nodules or cysts. Both nodules and cysts are caused by bacteria deep within the pore, though cysts tend to be more severe since they’re pus-filled and can burst, thereby infecting the surrounding skin.
How to treat it: Because nodules and cysts are so deep within the skin and most acne-fighting ingredients work topically, nodular acne often requires a trip to the dermatologist and a prescription. What you can do to help prevent them is focus on ingredients that exfoliate (AHA, BHA) to keep pores clear and that promote cell turnover (retinols).
Unlike the previous three, hormonal acne isn’t so much a type of acne as it is an indicator; comedonal, inflammatory and nodular acne can all be caused by hormones. When you experience a sudden surge or drop in hormones like progesterone, your carefully calibrated oil production also changes suddenly, leading to flare ups.
How to treat it: While hormonal acne certainly isn’t fun, one silver lining is that since it’s so often associated with your menstrual cycle, you can likely anticipate when it’s going to happen. You should always be on top of cleansing your face, but especially so around your period as oil production ramps up. Regular exfoliation — physical or chemical — will also help. And if a spot manages to get the best of you, dab it with benzoyl peroxide to reduce bacteria and then treat with salicylic acid to remove skin cell buildup and clear pores.
Maya wearing the Shore to Shore Set.