The Acne Treatments Dermatologists Use On Themselves
Dermatologists reveal the acne treatments they use for dealing with the occasional breakout and offer tips for how to keep acne at bay.
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.
How dermatologists treat their acne
You wake up in the morning after a full night’s sleep feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day until you stop and look in the bathroom mirror. Spotted: A huge zit on your chin. Despite your best efforts to cleanse your face, apply your acne medication, and get good shuteye, your acne has come back with a vengeance. So, what should you do? (Here’s how to get rid of a pimple overnight.)
It may be tempting to turn to Google and see what your favorite celebrity or skin care influencer recommends. However, with acne, it takes knowledge and patience. Believe it or not, some dermatologists deal with acne too, including those pesky breakouts. But, they’re able to bring down the redness and inflammation from breakouts with a few of their go-to’s.
Read on to learn what dermatologists do for acne flares up and how they keep breakouts at bay. Remember, it’s best to consult your dermatologist to determine what acne treatment is right for you.
They hit it with Rx-strength acne medication
To tackle a flare-up at home, dermatologists don’t head to the corner drugstore. Instead, they use Rx-strength treatments (that you can order online). “I use our Vanish Spot Treatment, which contains a potent blend of salicylic acid and other pore-clearing ingredients,” says Eric Schweiger, MD, New York-based dermatologist and founder of Schweiger Dermatology Group. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that’s FDA-approved to unclog pores. “It goes on clear so can be applied during the day.”
For really painful red pimples, Sandra Lee, MD, also known as Dr. Pimple Popper, reaches for a topical corticosteroid and/or a topical acne spot treatment with benzoyl peroxide, like her SLMD Spot Treatment. Benzoyl peroxide works by killing P. acnes bacteria, which causes acne, and by preventing pores from becoming blocked over time. (Don’t miss Dr. Pimple Popper’s best acne-fighting advice.)
For daily prevention, Nicholas Perricone, MD, board-certified dermatologist, nutritionist, and founder of PerriconeMD, recommends using a superstar blend of five acne-fighting ingredients: alpha-lipoic acid, DMAE, glycolic acid, zinc, and salicylic acid. “This keeps skin fresh and clean and prevents build-up of excess oils,” he explains. You can find these ingredients in PerriconeMD’s Intensive Pore Treatment.
(These are the sneaky reasons you could be breaking out.)
They go under the needle
You’ve got a big date or an important presentation in two days and wham: A ginormous red pimple takes up residence in a not-so-obscure place on your face. Put down the DIY recipe and don’t even think about taking care of it yourself. Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist STAT. “If a zit arises before I have an important event, and I need it to be GONE in 24 hours, I’ll reach for a cortisone injection which I inject directly into the culprit,” admits Dr. Lee. Dr. Schweiger is also a friend to the cortisone injection. It’s the quickest way to bring down inflammation from an oncoming blemish in about 24 hours.”
They shine a light
If their acne gets a bit more serious and they need some additional expert muscle to clear up a breakout, Dr. Schweiger will head into his office for photodynamic therapy. “I’m a big fan of this therapy, which uses a blue light to activate a medication called 5-aminolevulinic acid (ALA),” he says. “It shrinks the sebaceous, or oil-producing glands of the skin, which in turn reduces acne by decreasing the amount of oil in each pore.”
They turn to peels
Chemical peels come in a range of strengths, from mild over-the-counter versions to deep in-office treatments. They can correct acne, age spots, discoloration, tone, fine lines, freckles, melasma, sun damage, and more, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. For acne, consider an at-home peel, which tends to have the same ingredients as in-office peels but at much lower concentrations, such as Glytone Rejuvenating Mini Peel Gel and Exuviance Daily Acne Peel. At-home peels take about 10 minutes—you apply gel or pads to the area, and then wash it off. “Doing lighter peels on a regular basis is wonderful because the lighter the peel, the less down time there is,” says Dr. Lee. And when done regularly, it can keep pores clear. (These are the myths about large pores that will change your face.)
They fight everyday germs
When it comes to prevention, this strategy is simple but critical. While we understand that pretty much anything the public touches—ATMs, door handles, subways—is a breeding ground for acne-causing germs, dermatologists know that your personal items are also a bacteria battleground. “I regularly wipe down my cell phone with an alcohol swab to kill any potential bacteria lurking on it,” Dr. Schweiger says. “Since cell phones touch your face, you want to make sure they’re clean.” The same goes for your hands, which are constantly all over your face without your realizing it. “I wash my hands any time I’ve touched anywhere you might find the P. acnes bacteria living,” he adds.
They limit “breakout foods”
You might not think twice about adding cheese to your turkey sandwich or dousing a salad with creamy dressing, but dermatologists do. “There is a very strong correlation between consuming dairy products such as milk or yogurt and skin breakouts and aging,” says Dr. Lee. “This is due to the farming methods, as hormones such as progesterone and insulin growth factors can make their way into the milk, leading to inflammation, which is a trigger for rosacea and other skin issues.”
Elevated levels of the hormone cortisol (also referred to as the stress hormone) are also very destructive to the body, adds Dr. Perricone. Elevated cortisol levels cause an increase in blood sugar, which in turn causes an instant response from our cells as they enter an extreme pro-inflammatory mode. Because acne is a systemic, inflammatory disease, any increase in inflammation will result in an increase in the length and severity of the outbreak.
One likely culprit? Coffee—of any variety. Turns out that coffee contains several organic acids that affect blood sugar and cortisol levels. And guess what, it’s not specifically because of the caffeine. Drink a cup of decaffeinated coffee at 8 AM and your cortisol levels will still be measurable at 10 PM—the same effects as a cup of regular coffee. Make the swap to green tea for clearer skin and so many other health benefits.
Next, here’s how to treat summer acne.