Anyone with acne knows how much of a struggle it can be to try to heal your skin. But while you’re trying to soothe the pimples you have, you can also prevent new ones from forming, breaking the often vicious breakout cycle.

Pimples can appear anywhere on the skin, but they most often occur on the face. While the skin microbiome is complex, scientists have identified a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes, appropriately named because it can cause acne breakouts. This bacteria causes inflammation when it turns sebum (the oil found naturally on our skin) into fatty acids.

While there’s no completely foolproof way to rid your skin of acne forever, you can reduce your breakouts and help keep your skin as healthy as possible. Here are 14 ways to prevent pimples and be on your way toward clearer skin.

What causes acne?

Breakouts can be triggered by hormones, specifically androgen, which stimulates sebum production. Genetics, diet, overuse of skin products, and environmental factors (like pollution) can also cause skin irritation, including acne.

Other common causes include:

  • puberty, pregnancy, and the menstrual cycle
  • squeezing or picking at existing pimples
  • cleaning or rubbing your skin too harshly
  • pressure from things like hats, helmets, and backpack straps
  • high humidity
  • cosmetics, like oil-based products
  • some medications

What’s the difference between acne and pimples?

Although acne and pimples are terms that are often used interchangeably, acne is considered to be a skin condition, while pimples are a symptom of it. Acne refers to an ailment that affects the skin’s hair follicles and glands.

Different symptoms of acne can indicate the cause of breakouts. These may include:

  • blackheads (plugged pores on the skin’s surface that are open)
  • whiteheads (plugged pores under the skin’s surface that are closed)
  • papules (small, tender red or pink bumps)
  • pustules (papules with pus on top)
  • nodules (large, painful lumps deep under the skin’s surface)
  • cysts (painful, pus-filled lumps under the skin’s surface)

How to prevent acne

1. Properly wash your face

To help prevent pimples, it’s important to remove excess oil, dirt, and sweat daily. Washing your face too much may make acne worse, however.

“When we strip our skin of its natural sebum with excess washing, it actually causes the skin to produce even more oil in order to rebalance your skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikailove, MD. “Thus, washing your face excessively can indeed make acne worse, as does using cleansers or astringents that dry out the skin too much.”

Mikailove suggests using cleansers that are sulfate-free, fragrance-free, and gentle enough for twice-daily use, rather than using harsh physical scrubs or drying foaming cleansers.

To wash your face:

  1. Wet your face with warm, not hot, water.
  2. Apply a mild cleanser in a gentle, circular motion using your fingers, not a washcloth.
  3. Rinse thoroughly, and pat dry.

2. Know your skin type

Knowing your skin type is generally helpful so that you’re able to know which products to use and avoid. You can use the following parameters to identify which skin type you may have (but you can also consult a dermatologist for help if you’re still unsure):

  • Dry: Your skin often feels flaky and tight.
  • Oily: Your skin tends to look shiny by the end of the day.
  • Combination: You have both dry areas and oily areas (your oily area is usually the T-zone — your forehead, nose, and chin).
  • Sensitive: Your skin is easily irritated and prone to redness.

In general, oily skin types are more prone to acne, Mikailove says, but anyone can get pimples, no matter their skin type. Having your skin type information on hand will help you choose the right acne regimen to help your skin clear up.

“For example, if your skin is sensitive and acneic, using too many actives that target acne like a salicylic acid wash, a salicylic acid exfoliating toner, and a retinol cream may be too much for your skin and lead to more breakouts due to a damaged skin barrier,” Mikailove. “If your skin is on the oilier side, using a moisturizer formulated for dry skin may be too occlusive and lead to clogged pores.”

3. Use a moisturizer

Moisturizers help the skin stay hydrated. Even if you have acne, moisturizer is important because if your skin gets too dry, it will produce oil (sebum) to counterbalance — and an excess of sebum causes pimples.

However, many moisturizers contain oil, synthetic fragrance, or other ingredients that may irritate skin and cause pimples. Be sure to check the ingredient list before purchasing a moisturizer and check that it’s fragrance-free and noncomedogenic. When it comes to any product for acne-prone or sensitive skin, the fewer ingredients, the better.

4. Use over-the-counter acne treatments

Over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatments can help heal pimples or even prevent them in the first place. These OTC treatments can sometimes cause redness, irritation, and dryness with overuse, so it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s usage instructions. Here’s what you should know about the most common active ingredients you’ll find in OTC acne treatments:

  • Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide works best on inflammatory acne — like cysts and red bumps — because it kills acne-causing bacteria.
  • Salicylic acid. This ingredient is ideal for blackheads and whiteheads because it works to unclog pores and reduce inflammation.
  • Sulfur. Sulfur is a natural ingredient that’s often gentler than the two mentioned above. It can dry out dead skin cells to unclog pores and absorbs excess sebum.

If you’re not sure which OTC acne treatment is best for your skin or your specific skin goals, it may be worth visiting a dermatologist for an expert opinion on your skin.

A dermatologist can provide a professional recommendation for which product to use and give you advice on any interactions you should be aware of. For instance, using a beta hydroxy acid (like salicylic acid) along with retinol can cause redness and excessive dryness, so it’s best to not mix products with these ingredients.

5. Stay hydrated

If you’re dehydrated, your body may signal your skin’s oil glands to produce more oil. Dehydration also gives your skin a dull appearance and promotes inflammation and redness.

To keep your body well-hydrated, drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day. Drink more after exercise, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or you spend time in a hot, humid environment.

6. Limit makeup

It’s tempting to use makeup to cover up pimples. However, doing so may clog pores and trigger outbreaks.

It can be tough to nix makeup from your daily routine. If you still decide to apply products, you should choose a foundation or concealer that’s noncomedogenic and fragrance-free so your skin doesn’t become even more irritated. (A tinted moisturizer with salicylic acid, like this one from Neutrogena, can be a good option for coverage and acne-fighting power in one.)

Be sure to gently wash any makeup off when you’re done wearing it, especially before you go to sleep at night.

In addition to limiting makeup, you should be mindful of any other products you might be using near your face, particularly hair styling products. Hair spray, dry shampoo, and texturizing products can come in contact with your skin and cause outbreaks. Look for oil-free, noncomedogenic options for these products as well.

7. Try not to touch your face

This can be a tough one, but touching your face can transfer bacteria — and those pore-clogging impurities — onto your skin. Try to be mindful of how often you’re touching your face and catch yourself in the act as best as you can.

Do your best to wash your hands regularly so that if you do touch your face, your hands are clean.

8. Limit sun exposure

Catching some rays may dry out pimples in the short term, but it causes major problems in the long run. Frequent sun exposure dehydrates the skin, which, over time, causes it to produce more oil and block pores.

It’s important to wear sunscreen to help protect your skin year-round. However, many sunscreens are oily. For both sun and pimple protection, opt for a noncomedogenic, oil-free sunscreen.

9. Don’t be a pimple popper

As tempting as it may be to squeeze that larger-than-life whitehead on the tip of your nose, don’t. Popping pimples may cause bleeding, severe scarring, or infection. It may also increase inflammation and clog surrounding pores, making your pimple problem worse.

10. Try tea tree oil

Tea tree essential oil is a popular natural remedy for pimples. Tea tree oil contains a compound called terpinene-4-ol, which has been shown to kill certain bacteria, viruses, and fungi, as well as increase white blood cells to promote healing.

To use tea tree oil for pimples, apply a couple of drops to the inflamed area. You can also add a few drops to your daily cleanser or moisturizer.

Prior to using undiluted tea tree oil on your face, do a patch test to see if it irritates your skin. Apply a few drops behind your ear or to your forearm, and wait several hours. If irritation occurs, dilute the oil with water using a 1-to-1 ratio before using.

11. Use antibiotics

If OTC acne treatments don’t clear up your skin, your dermatologist can prescribe antibiotics to help reduce inflammation and bacteria on the skin. They’re available in both topical and oral forms and work by reducing the amount of Propionibacterium acnes bacteria on your skin, which can help ease breakouts.

Topical antibiotics like clindamycin (known as Cleocin) are typically prescribed for more mild cases, while oral antibiotics like doxycycline are used in more severe cases. Your dermatologist will usually suggest using benzoyl peroxide gel along with your prescribed treatment.

One important thing to note is that over the long term, your body can become resistant to antibiotics, making them less effective. This is why it’s important to follow the regimen your dermatologist outlines for you from the get-go so you can get the most out of your prescribed treatment. Also, talk with your doctor about other medications you’re taking to ensure there won’t be any harmful interactions.

12. Apply French green clay

French green clay is an absorbent, mineral-rich clay with healing properties. According to 2010 research, French green clay has potent antibacterial properties. It helps draw out impurities, reduce inflammation, and absorb excess oil that may lead to pimples.

French green clay is available in powder form that you mix with water to make a face mask. You can also add other skin-soothing ingredients such as yogurt or honey to French green clay for a more dynamic natural mask.

13. Avoid certain foods

Your diet can also be a factor in causing acne. Processed foods, dairy products, alcohol, and refined sugars are the common culprits causing skin issues. Reducing your intake of these foods may help ease your breakouts.

If reduction doesn’t seem to help your acne flare-ups, you can try an elimination diet to more clearly identify the cause. Typically, the common protocol for an elimination diet is to cut out gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, fast food, and alcohol for 23 days. This can sound pretty extreme, but after 23 days, you can start introducing these foods back into your diet, one at a time, and record any changes to your skin that occur. This allows you to identify if any of these foods truly are acne triggers for you.

Prior to beginning any new type of diet, you should talk with your doctor to make sure you’re still consuming a healthy amount of calories and nutrients each day.

14. Try stress-busting activities

Stress doesn’t cause pimples, but it may make them worse. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, research has shown that when you’re stressed, your body produces more oil-stimulating hormones.

Some options to help you manage stress are:

  • yoga
  • meditation
  • journaling
  • massage
  • aromatherapy
  • exercise

Managing acne

Many of the ways you prevent pimples can also help you manage them. For instance, eating a healthy diet, reducing stress, and not popping pimples may help contain them and reduce how long they stay around.

If you have bad acne despite taking steps to prevent it, you may need a prescription-strength treatment such as:

  • topical retinoids (derived from vitamin A) to help prevent clogged pores
  • oral contraceptives or antiandrogen agents to reduce hormones that increase sebum production
  • oral isotretinoin (Accutane), a retinoid that helps prevent clogged pores, and reduces sebum production, inflammation, and skin bacteria

Prescription-strength treatments may cause serious side effects. Your dermatologist can help you weigh the pros and cons and determine which treatment is right for you.

Takeaway

Everyone gets pimples now and then. Many factors may cause pimples, such as hormones, stress, genetics, and diet. Some medications may even trigger breakouts.

At their best, pimples are annoying. At their worst, they may cause permanent scarring, serious anxiety, or depression. Prevention efforts may help, but they aren’t foolproof.

Whatever pimple prevention plan you choose, patience and consistency are key. A dab of benzoyl peroxide may shrink a single pimple overnight, but most treatments take several weeks to produce results.