How to Get Rid of Acne in 3 Simple Steps: An Honest Answer

by | Nov 14, 2016 | Acne, Guides | 25 comments

Hi all. Not gonna lie I’ve been putting off writing this article because s*** is about to get emotional. But it needs to be done. So here it goes….. How to get rid of acne in 3 simple steps, with product recommendations and all.

before-after-main-med

For more before and after photos, read my about me.

Introduction.

Let me start off by saying something you don’t want, but need to hear: there is no one-size-fits-all product or pill that’ll get rid of your acne overnight (except perhaps, the nuclear option: Accutane. But we won’t be discussing that in this post). Anyone else that tells you otherwise, is a lying sac of balls. The sooner you realize that, the faster you’ll clear your skin.

Don’t let your insecurities con you into believing what you want to hear. This world is FILLED with deceptive marketing, and quite frankly… bulls***, with the sole purpose of turning over profit. See this photo here? That’s approximately 8 years worth of MY own products! Full story here.

 8 years of skincare products

And the saddest part is only a handful of those worked. Learn from my mistakes, follow the guidelines I will list here, and you’ll be well on your way. I have made all the mistakes so you don’t have to. I am here to help you.

Change Your Mentality Right Now.

Skincare isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Treating acne will require patience, time, and dedication. The trick is having the willpower to not jump the gun and bombard your face with dozens of arbitrary products all at once. More is not necessarily better. Often is the case, that less is more. I know you don’t want to hear this, but the difference you see in the photos above of my acne didn’t happen “overnight.” It was the result of a year long skincare routine targeted towards my unique skin with products that work.

Note: if I didn’t make additional mistakes along the way, I could of have realistically achieved that progress in less than half the time.

Just remember that consistent skincare effort paired with the right products for your unique skin, will do more for you than any magical lotion or potion promising to “cure your acne overnight” — whatever the hell that means.

Note the emphasis on UNIQUE SKIN.

Ever wonder why a product on Amazon.com can have several thousand 5 star reviews, as well as hundreds of 1 stars? It’s because everyone’s skin is different. What works brilliantly for one person may not for another, and that’s for a whole host of reasons (e.g. genetics, environment, the acid mantle, hormones, skin type, sometimes diet etc.)

If this weren’t the case, we’d all be like those amazing people who can go weeks without showering, put bacon-grease mixed with equal parts dog s*** on their face, leave it sitting for a couple days, then cleanse with a baking-soda-poison-ivy infused face wash and still have GORGEOUS skin that’s never tasted the existence of a pimple! (Those lucky sons of b******.)

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little… but you get the point. There are people out there (and yes they do exist) that literally do nothing for their skin and still have a baby’s ass on their face (case in point, my crazy ex-girlfriend).

  • The takeaway.

Everyone is unique. Some people have bad skin that requires multiple products; some people have great skin that requires minimal products; there’s sensitive skin, oily skin, dry skin, blemish-prone (ef our lives), dehydrated, balanced, aging skin, elephant skin, cheetah skin — you name it and it probably exists!

So if a person comes up to you and says, “HEY! ERH MY GAWD! I found the natural MAGIC potion secret sauce for overnight flawless skin and it only costs $100,000!!!!” You can promptly tell them to f*** off in the direction of their marketing buIIs***. 🙂

Oh, uh…. apologies about language so far. I’m just passionate about this s***! But in all honesty, it’s the only way I can adequately express how this all makes me feel: Angry. Frustrated. Sad. Disappointed.

Don’t know why? Again, read my about me.

With that said, let’s go into some time-tested, scientifically verified, clinically-sound routines, ingredients, and advice that’ll lay a strong foundation for building a skincare routine to clear your acne in no time. These 3 steps are all you need! They will realistically clear up 90 to 95% of people. And if they don’t eradicate your acne completely, then there’s a few additional steps you can implement which will get you there (I will include these too). Let’s start.

Step #1: The Cleanse.

best face wash for acne

Pretty self-explanatory.  You gotta clean your face. However, the type of cleanser you do that with is very important! You want a barebones, gentle, not-drying, pH balanced cleanser.

Let me repeat: you want gentle, non-drying, pH-balanced cleanser! So none of these harsh acne-washes with active ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide; these ingredients can be beneficial but are generally less effective in face washes.

acne cleansers that don't work

To make this easier for everyone, I’ve provided a list of great cleansers (including some of my favorite) that are very well tolerated, and most importantly — pH-balanced!

I have found all of these to be gentle, yet cleanse well enough without stripping the natural oils from the face (yes, those are important). These will go a long way in maintaining the health of the moisture barrier.

  • Best Face Washes for Acne 

Accure Sensitive Facial CleanserpH 5.5 Good for sensitive, dry, or normal skin.
Acne.org CleanserpH 5.5Good for combination, normal skin.
CeraVe FoamingpH 5.5.Good for normal to oily skin.
Cosrx Low Ph Good Morning Gel CleanserpH 5.0Good for sensitive, dry, or dehydrated skin. Avoid if you're sensitive to yeast (has saccharomyces ferment).
Hada Labo Tokyo Hydrating Facial CleanserpH 5.5 Good for sensitive, dry, or dehydrated skin.

Step #2: Treat.

This is where the bulk of the magic happens. The idea is to use something that will actively treat and prevent breakouts. Simply cleaning your face isn’t enough to get rid of your pimples all on its own. You’re gonna need some heavy duty active ingredients to come in and do the heavy lifting. You should be looking for something that has comedolytic, keratolytic, anti-inflammatory, or anti-bacterial properties to address all the major causes of acne.((1))

Now, I don’t want to overwhelm you here… but you have A LOT of options! Think of it as a good thing. To try and make this part as simple to understand as I possibly can, I’ve provided a mega-list of ingredients and products that treat acne.

I ordered the ingredients from the most to least effective. So, for example, because benzoyl peroxide is the first active ingredient listed on the table below, it is the most effective. On the contrary, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate is the last active ingredient listed meaning it’s the least effective (doesn’t mean it won’t work! It’s just simply less effective than the rest).

I also provided general recommendations to encompass all skin types, so you can make the best informed decision possible. If you’d like to learn any more about one of these ingredients specifically (for example what it is, its benefits, the science behind it, how to use it, side effects etc.) — I have written extensive articles about each one individually. Feel free to click on the links provided below if you’d like more information!

  • Best Acne Treatments

Benzoyl Peroxide2.5% as effective as 10% with less irritation. Antibacterial, unclogs pores, anti-keratinizing. Very potent! Acne.org 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide; Paula's Choice 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide
Salicylic acid (BHA)Chemically exfoliates, unclogs pores, bacteriostatic, and keratolytic agent. Doesn't cause photosensitivity (i.e. increase adverse effects of sun exposure). Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (Good for sensitive, dry, or dehydrated skin); Paula's Choice RESIST 2% BHA (Good for normal to oily skin); Paula's Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA (Good for oily, tough skin); Stridex Pads 2.0% BHA (Good for oily, very tough skin.)
Azelaic AcidPowerful tyrosinase-inhibitor. Antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-keratinizing. Well tolerated.GIGI Bioplasma Azelaic Cream 15%; Ecological Formulas Melazepam Cream; 20% Skinoren Cream; 15% Finacea Gel
Tretinoin
Anti-aging superstar. Unclogs pores, increases cell-turnover rate.Doctor's Prescription Required. But you can try Curology.com
Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (SAP)A vitamin c derivative. Comparatively better than antibiotics. Lightens skin. No side effects. Very gentle. A "natural" solution.Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum: (Full Review Here)

Step #3: Moisturize.

best moisturizer for acne prone skin

Finding a good moisturizer that doesn’t break you out is honestly one of the hardest effin’ parts about treating acne. If you can find one, you’re golden and more than halfway there! For most people this is what makes or breaks their routines.

So why do we have to moisturize?

Because treating skin with active ingredients can be quite irritating. We need to counteract this by replenishing our moisture barrier with support products. For my younger readers, this step will be of less concern (but still important!), because youthful skin is quite resilient and can handle the onslaught of therapeutic agents like tretinoin or benzoyl peroxide.

However, if you’re an adult and reading this make sure to pay particular attention to this step. The nature of the skin changes as we age, and so does its potential for irritancy. If you’re suffering from adult acne you need to be really focusing on the moisturizing aspect of your routine. I’m willing to bet the leading cause of adult acne is simply a result of excessive irritation or a ruptured moisture barrier from a damaged acid mantle. (Unless it’s hormonal, which is another story entirely.)

By the way, this is what Asian beauty is all about: moisturizing. If you’re unfamiliar with Asian skincare, you might know it as those crazy 10+ step routines you’ve seen on the TV or internet. Interestingly enough, almost every step in those routines focus on providing hydration in some form or another.

And it clearly works. Take a look at how incredible people’s skin is when they follow those guidelines — it’s because they primarily focus on the protective and moisturizing aspect of their skincare routines; treatment comes second.

Contrary to westernized advise, you don’t want to kill your acne by drying it. Trust me when I say this. Acne has to be killed gently. This means no lemon juice, no baking soda masks (read why here), no harsh scrubs etc. None of that. You ever heard of pinterest? Yeah, avoid it. 90% of the content on there is absolute nonsense, and quite frankly — stupid.

Just remember this: damaged skin has less ability to fight acne, so you want to baby your skin as much as possible, reduce irritation where you can, and be above all else — be gentle.

One final note on this: me saying this isn’t just mere hearsay. Studies have shown that a moisturizing routine treats acne faster and with less side effects than a drying one.((2))((3)) In the words of the American Academy of Dermatology,

“Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Keeping the skin properly hydrated is the key to successful acne therapy, and the daily use of a moisturizer has been shown to increase the skin’s ability to tolerate medications that often cause irritation.”

This is why so few people see success just using benzoyl peroxide or tretinoin mono-therapy, it’s simply too drying for the skin which inhibits its ability to repair itself.

With all that said, here is a list of the best moisturizers for acne prone skin. I have written extensive reviews about some of them in case you’re looking for more information. To be on the safe side, I’ve also included moisturizers that work for malassezia-induced conditions like pityrosporum folliculitis, better known as “fungal acne” — the culprit behind many adult acne cases.

Use this list accordingly, and choose what’s best for you depending on your skin and what unique concerns you have. I have tried my best to consider ALL skin types here. If there are any recommendations you think I missed, feel free to let me know.

  • Best Moisturizers for Acne Prone Skin

CeraVe Baby LotionGood for sensitive acne-prone skin. Aids in barrier recovery. Contains ceramides, cholesterol, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and 1% dimethicone. Has a cosmetically gorgeous matte finish.Full Review.
CeraVe CreamGood for acne, rosacea, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, pityrosporum folliculitis ("fungal acne"), and psoriasis. Contains ceramides, cholesterol, hyaluronic acid, and petrolatum. Great for barrier recovery.
Best for dry to normal skin.

Full Review.
CeraVe LotionGood for eczema, acne, rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, pityrosporum folliculitis ("fungal acne"), and psoriasis. A basic but great moisturizer for barrier recovery. Best for combination, normal, or oily skin.
Full Review.
CeraVe PMGood for acne, seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, pityrosporum folliculitis ("fungal acne"), psoriasis, and rosacea. Excellent for hyperpigmentation and barrier recovery. Contains ceramides, cholesterol, 4% niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid. Best for dehydrated, dry, or normal skin. Though many oily folks also report success with it too.Full Review.
Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing GelWater-based, lightweight, absorbs quickly. Works great under make up. Best for combination skin. Note: the one star reviews on amazon are old, and the imitation controversy has since been resolved.
Clinique Moisture SurgeGel-like cream best for dehydrated, dry, or combination skin. Great for winter time. Look around for different manufactures on Amazon. Depending on the time of the year, some sell it cheaper than others.
COSRX Oil-Free Ultra-Moisturizing LotionLight weight, gel-cream moisturizer. Contains hyaluronic acid, allantoin, panthenol, dimethicone, betaine, and tea tree oil. Good for all skin types.
COSRX Ultimate Moisturizing Honey Overnight MaskVery light, gel-like moisturizer that hydrates well. Doesn't actually contain honey, but has betaine, allantoin, panthenol, dimethicone, and hyaluronic acid. Best for normal, combination, dehydrated-oily, or oily skin.
Dr. Lin Daily Hydrating GelVery very similar to Sebamed Gel. Contains many extracts, arbutin (good for hyperpigmentation), aloe vera, and hyaluronic acid. Best for very sensitive acne-prone skin that breaks out from everything.Full Review.
Elta PMExcellent for hyperpigmentation and helps with barrier recovery. Contains niacinamide, linoleic acid, and hyaluronic acid. Best for dry, sensitive, normal, or combination skin.
Sebamed Clear Face GelA no-frills, very barebones moisturizer. Contains no oils or emulsifiers. Doesn't provide much hydration, but if you absolutely cannot tolerate any moisturizers this is your best bet. Full Review.

How to Build Up A Routine.

START SLOWLY DAMN IT. You hear me! >:/

The last thing you should be doing is throwing everything at your face at once. You need to build your way up slowly through PATCH-TESTING. Personally, I would start with just a cleanser, and do that for a few days to see what my skin does naturally. It’s a good way to assess your starting point.

Some people find a gentle cleanser is all they freaking need! They just never knew it because they were constantly nuking their faces with products for years, not realizing it was making things worse. This is known as “acne-cosmetica,” that is, acne caused by skincare products.

Are you skeptical? Don’t believe anyone can realistically clear their skin just by cleansing or doing nothing? Check out examples 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 — you get the point!

Wanna know why it worked for all those people? Because they let their acid mantles take a freaking break!

So yes, start with just a cleanser. Do that for about a week or so, then incorporate your moisturizer by patch-testing. Make sure to patch test it for at least a week before applying it all over your face! After you’ve established that your moisturizer doesn’t break you out, it’s time to incorporate your active ingredient of choice.

Again, start slowly with this as well! If I sound like a broken record: OH WELL. Here have some more: start slowly, start slowly, start slowly!

Which active ingredient you chose will dictate how many times you can use it weekly. For example, a salicylic acid product should only be used about 2-3 times a week when starting out, but sodium ascorbly phospate can be used twice daily because of how gentle it is. The maximum amount of times you can use any of these active ingredients is twice a day!

The best way to gauge how often you should use your treatment step is to examine your skin closely and proceed as tolerated. In other words, use it as much as you can, but once you start seeing ANY signs of irritation (be it redness, dryness, skin feeling “hot” or tight, flaking etc.) — BACK OFF. Continuing on this path will only lead you down a dark road.

Give your skin a breather, let it regroup, then pick up where you left off. Missing a day or two in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to realistically set you back. Remember: treating acne is a marathon not a sprint. The trick is to have the willpower to do less and not jump the gun. I said this already, but it bares repeating: more is not better, often is the case that less is more. Progress isn’t about speed; it’s about direction. You need balance before anything else!

I know a month or two on a consistent regimen may seem like a long time, especially when you so desperately want your STUPID stubborn acne to just die! But trust me, in the long run, a month or two to achieve significant progress or clear your skin completely is nothing in comparison to the lifelong satisfaction you’ll gain from finally having clear skin.

Repeat after me: I need balance before anything else.

Good job, young cricket. Consider that your new nightly prayer, and you’ll be well on your way.

Summary.

3 step acne routine

1. Begin with a cleanser only. Use it for about a week to assess your starting point.

2. Incorporate your moisturizer by patch-testing for at least a week before going full faced.

3. Once you’ve established your moisturizer doesn’t cause blemishes, incorporate your active step as tolerated. Any signs of irritation? Back off then resume in a couple days.

4. Repeat the cleanse, moisturize, and treat step once or twice a day (depending on your skin) for at least 6 weeks! By the 6 week mark you should know if something is working for you or not.

Ten Additional Tips to Get rid of Acne Faster.

These are not required, but in my opinion WILL significantly speed up your progress! Don’t avoid these, and try to hit as many of them as possible. If had to pick the most important tips from this section they would tips #1, 3, 5, 9 and if you’re brave enough — 4.

1. Reduce irritation whenever possible.

For example, say you are using benzoyl peroxide and it’s drying your skin out immensely. Try applying it after your moisturizer; this will provide a buffer, slow down the penetration, and increase the time it takes to reach the end point. Want to reduce the benzoyl peroxide irritation even more? Do “contact therapy” — in other words, put it on your face, let it dry, then wash it off before proceeding with the rest of your skincare routine. Doing so will only slightly decrease it’s effectiveness.((4))

If contact therapy works for you, THEN DO THAT! There is no reason you should be adding more into your routine if it doesn’t have to be there. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

Example number two, say you decided to opt out for stridex or paula’s choice BHA, but are finding your skin is dry and tight. Try using the COSRX BHA instead. It’s more hydrating, gentle, and in my humble opinion — works better anyway.

Are you finding that your skin is dry after your morning cleanse? Try a more hydrating cleanser, or skip the morning cleanse altogether and see if that doesn’t work. There are so many ways of doing this. None of them are wrong. Just experiment, and try to reduce irritation wherever you see fit.

2. Add a hyaluronic acid toner.

hada labo hyaluronic acid lotion

My favorite is the Hada Labo Rohto Gokujyn HA Lotion. This is such a basic product, but a great way to add some serious hydration into your routine. The Hada Labo Hyaluronic Acid Lotion includes three different types of hyaluronic acid.

Hyaluronic acid is a power humectant capable of holding 1000 times its water weight, that hydrates the skin by drawing water from the environment and dermis (deeper layer of skin), and significantly speeds up the wound healing process.(5)(6)(7)(8)(9)

However, just be careful if you decide to use this. Humectants work when the humidity is above 70%, anything lower and you might risk drying your skin out. So keep that in mind. Some people say this is not an issue altogether. Meh.

You can check the humidity of your location using a cell phone weather app or google.

3. Clean up the diet.

Reduce your intake of dairy, gluten (barley, rye, oat, wheat, spelt), poly unsaturated fatty acids (e.g. canola oil, corn oil, nuts etc.), and glycemic-rich foods (e.g. white rice). All of these have been implicated in systemic inflammation or acne.(10)(11)(12)(13)(14)(15)(16)(17)(18)

Hint: saying there is no link between diet and acne is buIls***.

But more importantly, focus on your gut health! The easiest hack for curing digestive problems, which will as a result clear up skin immensely, is taking high quality probiotics. I have written an extensive guide all about probiotic supplementation for treating a wide array of skin issues and concerns. Check it out! I’m serious. Probiotics did more for my skin than most skincare products I have ever tried. I cannot recommend them enough. 

And lastly on the subject of nutrition, make sure you’re not vitamin D deficient. Best way to get it: sunshine. Yes, sun protection is important, and will go a long way in preventing skin aging, but remember that avoiding the sun altogether increases all causes of mortality (e.g. heart disease, cancer)! One study found that sun avoiders had a lower life expectancy by about 2.1 years on average, in comparison to those that got a lot of sun exposure. (19)

4. Eat beef liver. Wait what????

Yes, tis true. Beef liver is the most nutritiously dense food on planet earth. 100 grams of that stuff has 53,400 IU of Vitamin A!(20) To put that into perspective, 100 grams of carrots only has 40 IU of Vitamin A.

  • Beef liver (100 g) = 53,400 IU of Vitamin A
  • Carrots (100 g) = 40 IU of Vitamin A

In case you didn’t know, vitamin A will obliterate the s*** out of your acne.(21) Ever wonder what Accutane is? A.k.a what I called the “nuclear option” at the beginning of this article. It’s just synthetic vitamin A: lots of it.

Now, before you go try overdosing on vitamin A — Chill out! Vitamin A toxicity is a thing, and its dangers are very real. If you’re going to supplement with vitamin A, talk to your primary doctor first.

Other sources of vitamin A include organ meats, egg yolks, grassfed butter and cream, salmon, and cod liver oil (among others).

Want to read a story about why I swallowed 6 pounds of raw beef liver? Click here.

Also consider taking a zinc supplement. Studies have shown it’s beneficial for acne. (22, 2324I like this one.

5. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.

The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to stop thinking about your acne as something to hammer away at. Acne is strange in the sense that it has to be killed with kindness. Find ways to moisturize your skin deeply.

For example, join us over at slug-life boulevard. In other words, put vaseline over your moisturizer as the last step in your routine. Contrary to popular belief vaseline is non-comedogenic. It’s molecules are simply too big to clog pores. It is the most effective occlusive on planet earth, and is capable of preventing 98% of transepidermal water loss (TEWL). That’s just fancy science talk for, IT’S A DAMN GOOD HYDRATOR.

6. Exercise.

Stop being a fatty. It’s good for your overall health, and sweat produces lactic acid (good for skin) as a byproduct of energy depletion.(25)(26)

7. Need to pop a pimple?

Read my guide about how to do it properly to speed up recovery time and prevent acne scarring.

8. Change your pillow cases often.

Nuff said.

9. BE GENTLE WITH YOUR SKIN.

Your skin does not serve you; you serve your skin! Imagine you just had a baby, and someone glued it to your face. Treat it accordingly.

10. Avoid stress.

Pssssh, yeah. Easier said than done. But uh… avoid that stuff. It’s not good.

Here are some ideas: listen to music, write music, paint, go to a park, take a hiking adventure, write a poem or letter to someone you hold dear, do some deep breathing exercising, get a massage, talk to friends, make yourself a nice dinner, watch a good movie or T.V. show…. Stranger Things, anyone?

stranger-things

If all else fails, watch this video for more ideas.

11. Be an Eleven.

eleven

Final Words.

I’m going to leave you all with a quote from a woman I absolutely admire. She said what I want to convey better than I ever could.

“I’ve learned that you pretty much have to let acne runs its course. If you get a breakout, there’s only so much you can do until your skin pushes the blockage out on its own. Topical skin care products definitely help to refine your skin, but only to a certain extent. Along with acne treatments, you just have to figure out what other things you can do to make your skin happy. You have to be calm (not-frustrated or angry), level-headed (mind-over-matter), and even somewhat scientific about treating your acne.”—Skinacea

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and found it useful. Much love.

Very warmly,

—f.c.

I got nothing witty to say this time. Just, please share this. It might change someone’s life.