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your ultimate guide to acne
Zits suck (we feel you), so here’s everything you need to know about your pesky breakouts.
By Claire Fontanetta
Paid for by
what's the deal
Acne and your usual zits are very different — here’s how.

We’ve all experienced blemishes in one form or another. But what even is a zit, anyway — other than a huge pain, literally and figuratively? Well, there are two types of zits: non-inflammatory blemishes (whiteheads and blackheads) and acne, an inflammatory condition caused by four main factors (we’ll get to those later).

of the population has had acne at one point or another.

If you’re one of those people who struggles with acne, thank the clear-skin gods that there are tons of treatment options that can help — from gentle (yet powerful) sulfur-based formulas that reduce acne and help fight future breakouts by absorbing excess oil, like Kate Somerville EradiKate™ Acne Treatment, to blue-light devices that work their magic by killing acne-causing bacteria.

Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone — acne affects more than 50 million people in the U.S.
why me?
This is why you break out — and no, it has nothing to do with that slice of pizza you ate last weekend.

Here are the four main reasons you’re going through tubes of concealer like no one’s biz.

Excess Oil — A Greasy, Hot Mess

Finding yourself constantly reaching for blotting papers? Your body may be producing too much oil due to Sunday-scary stress or even your summer travel (sorry).

“Dirty linens or towels — and even your cell phone — are swarming with bacteria that can make acne worse.”
Dead Skin Cells = Tiny Enemies

Dead skin cells are not our friends, but you know what is? Exfoliation. In fact, according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, it can help treat your breakouts. “Exfoliating prevents dead skin cells from clumping together and clogging your pores,” says Dr. Zeichner. Opt for treatments with ingredients like salicylic acid to help exfoliate and reduce oil. Our fave? Murad Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment, which reduces blemish size (yas) and redness in as little as four hours.

Later, P. Acnes

The real culprit here is the overgrowth of P. Acnes bacteria — not just the presence of it. “Everyone has the P. Acnes bacteria in their hair follicles at all times,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD. To combat said bacteria from getting out of hand, try an at-home blue-light device or topical antibiotics. Bye, Felicia.

Inflammation: Kind of a Problem

You know how acne looks red and angry all the time? Well, that’s inflammation for ya. And while there are many causes of inflammation, dairy and sugar are two main culprits. But before you purge your fridge of all its goodness, know that not all dairy is created equal. “Skim milk is the only type of milk that’s been shown to cause acne breakouts,” says Dr. Zeichner. May we suggest tweaking your morning latte order?

treatments irl
The key to treating your acne.

Banishing zits might seem simple at first, but turns out, it’s not so black and white. “Dermatologists often recommend a combination of treatments; we want to target all four causes,” says Dr. Shah. (See the previous tab for more on each cause.) Adopt a well-rounded approach (sort of like, say, your college electives) via these six rock-star treatments.

What's what:
Fights the P. Acnes bacteria.
Absorbs oil.
Reduces inflammation.
Exfoliates away dead skin cells.
Salicylic Acid

This beta hydroxy acid gently exfoliates and removes excess oil deep in your pores.

Blue Light

This bacteria-fighting technology targets the P. Acnes bacteria — and it actually works. For an at-home version that won’t cost your entire paycheck, try the Foreo Espada Acne-Clearing Blue Light Pen. Simply use it a few times per week, and reap the benefits.


This gentle treatment draws out oil from clogged pores.


This vitamin A derivative sloughs away dead skin cells. Bonus: The multitasking ingredient also boosts collagen levels.

Benzoyl Peroxide

This topical antibiotic kills the P. Acnes bacteria. Fair warning: It can be harsh on sensitive skin.

Tea-Tree Oil

This essential oil’s antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties will fight bacteria and, you guessed it, reduce inflammation in pimples.

go-to routine
What should be on your vanity — and in your flat lays on IG.

We’ve covered what acne is, why you get it, and how you can treat it. Now, you’re probably wondering what the heck your routine should look like. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

Cleansing Is Key

Keeping your skin clean and ridding it of dirt and sebum is obvs important, but if you have sensitive skin, be careful not to overdo it with formulas featuring ingredients like benzoyl peroxide. Instead, look for cleansers containing salicylic acid — an active that’s gentle, yet effective.

Acne is the most common skin condition in the U.S.
Treat Yo’ Self

Kick acne’s ass with treatments that’ll work (see the previous tab for a full list). Here’s our rec: Start with blue-light therapy to kill sneaky bacteria. Then, try an oil-free, salicylic-acid-based gel like Clinique’s Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel, which can be used all over (or as a spot treatment) to exfoliate dead skin cells and prevent future breakouts. You can thank us later.

Moisturize It Up

Even though you have acne, don’t skip out on one of the key components of any skin-care routine: hydration. (Yes, we’re even talking to you, oily skin types.) Try an oil-free gel moisturizer (sans fragrance if you have sensitive skin) and consider it done.

Protect, Protect, Protect

Pretty much every derm will tell you to use SPF 30 or higher to protect against the bright fiery ball we like to call the sun (and the UV rays that come along with it). For acneic skin — and especially oily types — use oil-free formulas or lightweight mists that won’t feel greasy or heavy.

your beauty haul
Our favorite buys for acne prone skin. Check ‘em out.
Kate Somerville EradiKate™ Acne Treatment
Available at Sephora
This millennial-pink spot treatment is not only super pretty, but it’s also super effective seeing that it’s formulated with sulfur and zinc oxide to absorb excess oil and salicylic acid to exfoliate and reduce the appearance of pores.
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Murad Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment
Available at Sephora
This one-and-done spot treatment features 2% salicylic acid to gently exfoliate, oat extract to soothe irritated blemishes, and witch hazel to cut through excess oil. Oh, and did we mention it works in as little as four hours? Yeah, that too.
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Foreo Espada in Magenta
Available at Sephora
Kill the P. Acnes bacteria in as little as 30 seconds with this handy, FDA-approved blue-light device that’ll make you feel like you’re in a sci-fi movie. Use it daily or whenever your skin could use some extra TLC.
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Clinique’s Acne Solution Clinical Clearing Gel
Available at Sephora
This salicylic-acid gel works wonders on acne-prone skin. Not only does it help clear existing acne, but it also helps prevent future breakouts. Plus, it dries down super fast so you can use it under makeup, no problem.
Shop Now