How to Clear Hormonal Acne
Whether you’re 47 or 17, male or female, whether your breakouts are once a month or multiple times a week, the reason everyday, noncystic acne comes back and back is frustratingly simple: Human error. The minute a breakout clears, suddenly, you’re a person with clear skin—one who no longer needs to be quite so vigilant with their skincare routine. But the only way to keep skin blemish-free on any sort of long-term basis is to constantly treat it as an active, broken-out complexion. The right products make a serious difference, but the key is unwavering consistency.
Are Hormones Causing my Acne?
Caused by a bacteria that lives on our skin, acne comes to life at any age when our hormones cue our body to produce excess oil, essentially throwing fuel on the fire. “Our skins’ oils are a wonderful environment for acne bacteria to thrive in, unfortunately,” says Dr. Robert Anolik, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine. Add dead skin cells, dirt, stress, irritation from everything from diet to skin products, and a breakout is going to result unless you (constantly) work to prevent it.
You’re a typical hormonal-acne patient if, well past puberty, you’re breaking out around your period, usually in the jawline area, says Anolik. A consistent routine is key—as is enduring a waiting period of two to three months for said routine to work, he continues: “Even powerful prescription treatments can take a few months to really clear things up, and that’s our biggest challenge. People who get frustrated and don’t stick to their treatments get stuck in a cycle of trying and quitting too early, and feeling like nothing works.”
Find a System—and Stick to It
This is true of even very mild cases. “One of the main reasons things like ProActive work is because they’re systems,” says Anolik. Faithfully follow a routine of cleanser, mild exfoliation, and treatment product every day, and breakouts should improve; switch products, or use them sporadically, and they will return.
OTC Products for Acne
While over-the-counter products don’t treat the hormonal component of acne, salicylic acid—a.k.a. willow bark, a.k.a. what aspirin is made of—addresses all other aspects involved in a breakout. “It works,” says Anolik, who recommends using salicylic acid-based products in conjunction with benzoyl peroxide preparations that target acne bacteria with greater strength. Benzoyl peroxide can definitely cause dryness and irritation; if you decide not to use it, know that you’ve got to be even more vigilant about the bacteria on your skin, so cleanse and treat more often. Tea-tree oil preparations like Tammy Fender’s Clarifying Dermagel ($72, goop.com) help. Burt’s Bees Natural Solutions Acne Spot Treatment ($10, burtsbees.com) combines tea tree and salicylic acid for powerful (yet easy on skin) results.
Over-the-counter retinol or vitamin A can also help. Anolik says retinols can be incredibly effective, especially higher-strength prescription retinoids: “They’re the gold standard in acne and aging treatments.” The prescription versions, from Tazorac to Differin, are usually covered by insurance in the case of acne. Vitamin C can also treat pores and exfoliate; Tammy Fender’s System ($165, tammyfender.com) comes with a vitamin C toner.
Clays—especially in the form of overnight masks or spot treatments—can treat oil and smooth away dead skin cells. Tata Harper’s Resurfacing Mask ($62, goop.com) mixes pink clay with salicylic acid (white willow) for a one-two punch. Charcoal is fantastic, too—for example Herbivore Botanicals’ Bamboo Charcoal Soap Bar ($12, goop.com).
Alcohol-based toners have been an anti-acne step since forever, but are so harsh and drying on skin that they can cause skin to produce even more oil, and they can irritate; as with benzoyl peroxide or any other irritant, they can further inflame a case of acne. But dabbing skin with witch hazel or non-alcohol toner (we love S.W. Basics’ toner with witch hazel and raw apple cider vinegar, $9.99, swbasicsofbk.com) can serve as a mild exfoliant, to unclog pores and deposit ingredients like tea tree oil or salicylic acid. Tea Tree Oil Facial Cleansing pads from Desert Essence ($7.99, desertessence.com) are particularly brilliant, combining both ingredients.
Diet and Hormonal Acne
Many theories about diet and hormonal acne abound; Anolik is most convinced by the ones surrounding sugar and dairy. “Dermatologists really didn’t believe in all the dietary restrictions for acne, but studies in the past ten years have convinced us a bit,” he says. “Dairy and high-glycemic foods do seem to play a part.” High-sugar diets are known to feed bacteria; any diet that increases overall inflammation in the body doubtlessly plays a part. Specific diets—from Ayurveda to low-carb to veganism—definitely work for some people.
If you’ve made a concerted effort with over-the-counter regimens and/or diet and still aren’t seeing results, a dermatologist is absolutely worth it. There are many levels of care: Prescription retinoids (Retin A, Tazorac, Differin et al) and/or topical antibiotics are the mildest, along with blue-light treatments like Isolaze, which kill bacteria and clear pores, with virtually no downtime. Light lasers like Clear and Brilliant can clear pores and treat the red and brown tones left by old acne lesions. “Some patients think they’ve got a severe problem, when they really only have a few pimples, surrounded by red and brown marks from old breakouts,” notes Anolik. Oral antibiotics represent a more aggressive (and unsustainable long-term) solution; birth control pills and hormone-mitigating medications like Spironalactone and Deldactone can get many more-severe patients’ acne under control. Most aggressive is Accutane; while it can be severely drying and can cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy, it represents a cure for truly-severe acne cases, says Anolik. “Used correctly, it is something of a miracle for people who’ve tried everything and failed,” he says.
Most situations are thankfully much less dire—and can be treated with a firm regimen and…constant vigilance. Below, our favorites. They’re more likely to work if you keep using them, over and over and over.
OILY/OVERACTIVE TREATMENT KIT
Tammy Fender, $165
YOUNGER + CLEARER™ ANTI-ACNE +
Honest Beauty, $29
THE PROBLEM SOLVER
goop by Juice Beauty
EXFOLIATING INSTANT FACIAL
Masks & PeelsMasks & Peels
Use as directed to kickstart or reinvorigate your regular routine.