What I Wish I Knew About Acne (Before I Started…

Updated December 04, 2014.

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com’s Medical Review Board.

Acne is a complicated problem, and one that is still not fully understood. I didn’t realize just how tough it is to have acne, until I suddenly started breaking out. And I just as suddenly came to appreciate how hard acne is to treat.

Looking back on my personal experience with acne, I can see some things I would have done differently, knowing what I know now. So, I hope by sharing these thoughts with you, you’ll get better results from your treatments.

Acne needs to be treated aggressively, immediately.

This is probably the most important piece of advice I could ever give you. Even if acne is relatively mild, it can progress quickly. And once it takes hold, it’s tough to get rid of.

You could spend months or years trying many over-the-counter options, and still not get results. Instead, give yourself three months with OTC products. At the end of those three months, if your skin isn’t reasonably clear, go see a physician. (Yeah, that soon.) You’ll save time and money in the long run, and you’ll also save your skin from worsening acne and possible scarring. Treat acne aggressively as quickly as possible.

One treatment (usually) doesn’t cut it.

Here’s the thing: acne is caused by several different factors all occurring at once. So, to really get good results you’ll often need to use more than one treatment. Each treatment should address one cause of acne .

For example, your doctor may prescribe a topical retinoid to help keep pores from becoming clogged and an antibiotic to reduce acne-causing bacteria. If you’re treating acne with over-the-counter products, you might consider using a cleanser that contains salicylic acid (a good pore-unclogger) as well as a benzoyl peroxide lotion (to reduce bacteria).

Of course, using more than one treatment at a time can up your chances of getting dry, peeling skin. So just start off slowly to allow your skin to adjust. But combining treatments this way is hugely effective. In fact, lots of prescription treatments contain combos of two different acne medications (Epiduo, Ziana, and Duac are some examples).

Acne waxes and wanes.

I remember trying a new product. My skin would start looking better and I’d be thrilled, only to find a few weeks later that the product “stopped working” and I’d be breaking out again. So, I’d switch to a different acne treatment and get results, again temporarily. This would repeat itself over and over.

If I had only known that it’s natural and normal for acne to get better and worse, all on its own. What I was attributing to products probably just was the natural progression of acne.

There are times when your skin is going to go through a big breakout, and times when it will look better. Often, there is no rhyme or reason to a bad breakout. They can happen for apparently no reason at all. But it’s normal.

That’s why it’s important to keep using your treatments, even if it looks like acne is getting worse. It sometimes takes a few of these normal “acne cycles” for you to notice a real difference. (And another reason to stick with treatment, even after acne gets better.)

Even the pros need time to build an effective treatment plan.

We know what works in general. But we don’t know exactly how a treatment is going to work for you until you actually try it. Everyone’s skin is a little different. Everyone’s acne is a little different. What works wonders for some people may not have much of an effect on others. This can be a hard thing to cope with, especially when you’re spending time and money to see a dermatologist and seeing results that aren’t so stellar.

But try to be patient, use the treatments you’ve been prescribed as directed, and keep your dermatologist in the loop. If you’re not getting results you want, don’t immediately dump your dermatologist for a new one or, even worse, stop seeing a dermatologist for your acne altogether. Let your derm know you aren’t seeing results, and let them adjust your treatment plan accordingly. It can take a few tries to get that effective treatment plan in place.

Effective treatment doesn’t mean no acne ever again.

Effectively treating acne is about controlling breakouts, so it’s unrealistic to think that you’ll never get another pimple again. In fact, you’ll probably get breakouts occasionally. It is reasonable to expect relatively clear skin most of the time. So, keep working with your dermatologist to find a treatment that works for you, and don’t give up.