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Anyone with persistent acne knows how much of a challenge it can be to try to heal your skin. But even as you work to soothe the pimples you have, you can also take steps to prevent new ones from forming, breaking a breakout cycle that often seems relentless.

While there’s no failsafe way to rid your skin of acne forever, you can reduce your breakouts and help keep your skin as healthy as possible.

Read on for 14 strategies to prevent pimples and be on your way to clearer skin.

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 that can cause acne breakouts. This bacteria causes inflammation when it turns sebum, the oil found naturally on skin, into fatty acids.

Removing excess oil, dirt, and sweat daily can help prevent pimples — but washing your face too much may make acne worse.

“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 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.”

As a general rule, you’ll want to wash your face no more than twice a day.

Mikailove suggests using cleansers that are sulfate-free, fragrance-free, and gentle enough for twice-daily use. Skip the 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.
  4. Pat dry.

Knowing your skin type can help you determine which products to use and avoid. You can use the following parameters to identify your skin type, 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. The oily area is usually the T-zone, or your forehead, nose, and chin.
  • Sensitive. Your skin reacts easily to products and is prone to rashes, discoloration, or irritation. You can have sensitive skin along with any of the above skin types.

In general, people with oily skin are more prone to acne, Mikailove says, but anyone can get pimples. Having your skin type information on hand can make it easier to choose an acne regimen that helps your skin clear up.

According to Mikailove, if you have sensitive, acne-prone skin, too many products with active ingredients — like a salicylic acid wash, a salicylic acid exfoliating toner, and a retinol cream — might damage your skin barrier and lead to more breakouts.

“If your skin is on the oilier side, using a moisturizer formulated for dry skin may be too occlusive and lead to clogged pores,” Mikailove says.

Moisturizers help skin stay hydrated, which makes a big difference for acne-prone skin. If your skin gets too dry, it will produce oil (sebum) to counterbalance the dryness. And, as noted above, an excess of sebum can cause pimples.

However, many moisturizers contain oil, synthetic fragrance, or other ingredients that may irritate your skin and cause pimples. Be sure to check the ingredient list before purchasing a moisturizer to make sure it’s fragrance-free and noncomedogenic.

Healthline’s picks for the best moisturizers for acne

When it comes to any product for acne-prone or sensitive skin, keep this rule of thumb in mind: The fewer ingredients, the better.

Over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatments can help heal pimples, and sometimes even prevent them in the first place.

Just know that overusing OTC treatments can sometimes lead to irritation and dryness, 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 absorb excess sebum.

Not sure which OTC acne treatment might work best for your skin or your specific skin goals? It may be worth connecting with a dermatologist for an expert opinion on your skin.

A dermatologist can provide professional product recommendations, along with advice on any potential medication interactions to keep in mind. For instance, using a beta hydroxy acid (like salicylic acid) along with retinol can cause excessive dryness and irritation, so you’ll typically want to avoid mixing products with these ingredients.

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 discoloration.

To keep your body well-hydrated, aim to drink at least eight, 8-ounce glasses of water each day.

Drink more:

  • after exercise
  • when pregnant or nursing
  • when spending time in a hot, humid environment

While you might feel tempted to use makeup to cover up pimples, know that doing so could clog pores and trigger outbreaks.

If you don’t want to nix makeup from your daily routine, opt for a foundation or concealer that’s noncomedogenic and fragrance-free so your skin doesn’t become even more irritated.

Be sure to gently wash any makeup off at the end of your day and especially before going to bed.

A tinted moisturizer with salicylic acid, like Neutrogena SkinClearing Complexion Perfector, can be a good option for coverage and acne-fighting power in one.

Along with limiting makeup, it never hurts to stay mindful of any other products you use near your face, particularly hair styling products.

Hair spray, dry shampoo, and texturizing products can come in contact with your skin and cause outbreaks, so you may want to consider oil-free, noncomedogenic options for these products.

Touching your face can transfer bacteria — and those pore-clogging impurities — onto your skin.

It’s tough to avoid touching your face but try to pay attention to how often you touch your face and stop yourself in the act as much as possible.

Also helpful? Washing your hands regularly. That way, if you do touch your face — and in all honesty, you probably will — your hands are clean.

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

Wearing sunscreen can help protect your skin year-round. Of course, as you might already know, sunscreens tend to be pretty oily. For both sun and pimple protection, opt for a noncomedogenic, oil-free sunscreen.

While it might feel practically impossible to resist squeezing that larger-than-life whitehead on the tip of your nose, your best bet is to avoid popping zits.

Popped pimples often bleed, but they can also make the problem worse by:

  • becoming inflamed and clogging surrounding pores
  • getting infected
  • leaving behind scars

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 drop or two to the inflamed area. You can also add a few drops to your daily cleanser or moisturizer.

Important

In most cases, you don’t want to put undiluted essential oils on your skin (they can be super strong and irritating). But for acne treatment, before putting undiluted tea tree oil on your face, you’ll want to do a patch test to make sure it doesn’t irritate your skin.

To patch test:

  • Apply a few drops behind your ear or under your jaw.
  • Wait several hours to a day.
  • If irritation occurs, dilute the oil with water, in a 1-to-1 ratio, before you use it.

While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

If OTC acne treatments don’t make much difference, a dermatologist can prescribe antibiotics to help reduce inflammation and bacteria on your skin. Antibiotics, which come in both topical and oral forms, work by reducing the amount of Propionibacterium acnes bacteria on your skin, which can help ease breakouts.

Your dermatologist might recommend:

  • topical antibiotics like clindamycin (Cleocin) for mild acne
  • oral antibiotics like doxycycline (Vibramycin, Doryx) for severe acne
  • using benzoyl peroxide gel along with your prescribed treatment

Over the long term, your body can become resistant to antibiotics, which makes these drugs less effective. It’s essential to follow the regimen your dermatologist outlines so you can get the most out of your prescribed treatment. Also, make sure to mention any other medications you’re taking to avoid any harmful interactions.

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.

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

Your diet may also factor into acne.

Some of the common culprits contributing to skin concerns like acne include:

  • processed foods
  • dairy products
  • alcohol
  • refined sugars

Reducing your intake of these foods or adopting an anti-acne diet 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, an elimination diet involves cutting out gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, fast food, and alcohol for 23 days. This may seem a little 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 can help you identify any foods that trigger acne for you.

Important: Before beginning any new type of diet, it’s best to check with a dietitian to make sure you’re still consuming the right amount of calories and nutrients for your body’s needs.

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

Some options to help manage stress include:

Many of the ways you prevent pimples can also help you manage them. For instance, eating a balanced diet, reducing stress, and not popping pimples may help shorten the amount of time they stick around.

If you have severe acne that persists even after you take steps to prevent it, you may want to try a prescription-strength treatment, such as:

Prescription-strength treatments may involve a range of side effects, some of them serious. Your dermatologist can help you weigh the pros and cons and determine which treatment is right for you.

Learn more about your options for treating 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 acne and other types of skin irritation.

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

Although you’ll often notice the terms “acne” and “pimples” used interchangeably, experts define acne as a skin condition that affects the skin’s hair follicles and glands. Pimples are a symptom of this skin condition.

Different types of acne can involve a variety of pimples, including:

  • blackheads (open, plugged pores on the skin’s surface)
  • whiteheads (closed, plugged pores under the skin’s surface)
  • 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)

Acne is very common and it’s not life threatening. All the same, it can cause plenty of discomfort, not to mention take a toll on your self-esteem.

A few pimples here and there that go away quickly may not pose much cause for concern, but it’s always worth getting stubborn breakouts, cysts, and scars checked out by a professional. You don’t have to resign yourself to simply living with acne.

The following signs can suggest it’s time to seek help from a skin care professional:

  • acne that covers a significant part of your body
  • deep, painful blemishes that cause discomfort
  • fluid-filled cystic acne
  • acne scarring
  • skin discoloration and inflammation
  • acne that doesn’t improve with OTC treatments

Generally, you should notice improvements within 4 to 6 weeks of starting any new treatment or home remedy, according to the AAD. If your acne doesn’t clear up, reaching out to a dermatologist may be a good next step. You can also discuss acne treatments with a pharmacist or general practitioner.

What foods cause acne?

Experts continue to explore the potential role food plays in acne. Recent evidence links a Western diet consisting heavily of meat, dairy, and sugar with adult acne, and 2016 research suggests high glycemic foods may worsen acne.

The link between food and acne can vary from person to person. Eating foods linked to acne, such as sugar and dairy products, may not worsen acne for everyone. You might also find that certain foods seem to help improve acne.

If you suspect certain foods might trigger breakouts, consider logging your food intake in a journal for a few weeks to note any links between specific foods and your skin health.

Can you prevent acne scars?

Many people who deal with stubborn acne go on to experience acne scarring. Preventing acne scars comes down to preventing acne. You can lower your chances of scarring by:

  • getting treatment for acne
  • caring for your skin and not popping or picking at pimples (Popping and picking can increase inflammation, which can then worsen scars.)
  • avoiding smoking and prolonged sun exposure, both of which affect how your skin heals

If you do notice some scarring, keep in mind that you do have options for treatment. Both OTC products and in-office treatments can minimize the appearance of acne scars.

Can you prevent cystic acne?

Cystic acne is caused by clogged pores that become swollen and inflamed. You can take steps to reduce your chances of developing cystic acne by:

  • keeping your skin clean
  • using the appropriate treatments for clogged pores
  • washing your face regularly to prevent the buildup of bacteria and sebum

Still, you may not be able to prevent it entirely, since you can’t change some of the contributing genetic factors, like your age, family history of acne, and hormones.

Cystic acne is more difficult to treat at home, so if you suspect you have this type of acne, a good next step involves connecting with a dermatologist or other healthcare professional.

Most people get pimples now and then. Prevention efforts can help, but they aren’t guaranteed. Many factors can cause pimples, including hormones, stress, genetics, and diet. Some medications may even trigger breakouts.

That said, you do have plenty of options for treating and managing pimples. Just know that whatever pimple prevention plan you choose, patience and consistency are key to improvement. A dab of benzoyl peroxide may help shrink a single pimple overnight, but most treatments take several weeks to produce results.