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Acne breakouts range from mild or moderate to severe. If you have mild acne, you occasionally get a few blackheads or whiteheads that don’t cover a large part of your face, chest, shoulders, upper arms, or back.

The cause of acne is complex, but some contributing factors may be genetics, hormonal changes, diet, and stress. Mild acne is typically easy to treat and may respond to over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.

You can get mild acne no matter what your age or skin type. These factors may determine in part the treatments that you can tolerate.

We’ll go over the differences between mild acne and other types and discuss the most effective treatment options.

Mild acne is usually defined as having occasional minor breakouts. People with mild acne typically don’t get large areas of red, inflamed skin or acne scarring.

Mild acne breakouts may occur on isolated parts of the face or body, such as the chin, nose, forehead, or shoulders.

If you have mild acne, your skin may occasionally erupt with one or a few of the following:

  • papules: small pimples or bumps
  • whiteheads: closed pores that are plugged
  • blackheads: open pores that are plugged

More severe forms of acne may involve more areas, cause more lesions, and also result in:

  • numerous pustules: red, inflamed pimples with white tops (indicating that there’s pus inside them)
  • cysts or nodules: large bumps underneath the skin that may be painful and possibly cause scarring

Mild acne can worsen over time if it isn’t treated.

Mild acne may have one or several causes.

acne causes
  • Hormonal changes. These changes often occur during puberty or pregnancy.
  • Excess androgens (male sex hormones). This can be related to conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
  • Emotions. Depression, anxiety, and stress may all affect your skin.
  • A poor diet. Eating too many high-glycemic foods may affect your skin.
  • Dairy. In some instances, drinking milk, especially skim milk, can cause acne.
  • Using oily or pore-clogging substances. Common products that can cause mild acne on the forehead include oils used on the scalp or styling pomades.

Acne in preteens and teens is very common: 8 out of 10 adolescents experience breakouts. These can range from mild to severe. Adolescent girls and young women may notice that they get mild acne breakouts around the time of their period.

The stresses associated with growing up and those caused by becoming an adult may also make acne flare.

One of the reasons for this is the connection between stress and sebum production in the skin. Sebum, or oil, is made by the sebaceous glands. Too much sebum can clog pores, causing breakouts.

Many people can self-diagnose mild acne, but mild acne can also be diagnosed by a doctor, such as a dermatologist, through a physical examination.

Your doctor may ask you for information about your breakouts, such as when they occur and how long you’ve had them. They’ll also ask about your medical history to determine if you’re currently taking any medications that might cause or aggravate acne.

Your doctor may also recommend a blood test to check your hormone levels.

They’ll work with you to create a treatment plan based on whether your acne is mild, moderate, or severe.

There are a few things you can try at home to help improve your mild acne. If these don’t work or if your acne worsens, your doctor or a dermatologist can help find the best treatment for you.

Mild acne can often be successfully treated at home. Things to try include:

OTC treatments

Retinoids are an essential treatment for acne. Consider trying Differin, an OTC retinoid.

Also look for products such as cleansers and topical ointments that contain benzoyl peroxide.

Dietary changes

Making different food choices, such as eliminating high-carb, sugary foods can help lower the production of acne-causing androgens. It can also help minimize sebum secretion.

Eliminating milk and whey protein may also help.

Stress reduction

Alleviating stress can be as easy as watching funny movies more often. It can also include increasing time with friends or doing yoga and meditation. Here are some simple ways to reduce stress.

Facial masks

Facial masks have anecdotal success at best. There isn’t scientific evidence to support their wide use.

If you still want to try facial masks, however, choose commercially prepared products designed to reduce acne breakouts.

Or make your own with ingredients that are good for acne-prone skin, such as honey and avocado oil. These contain antioxidants that can eliminate free radicals.

Your skin care routine

Be sure you aren’t exfoliating your skin with any brushes, as this can worsen acne.

Avoid oily substances and only use products on your face that are oil-free and noncomedogenic (won’t clog pores).

If your acne doesn’t improve or gets worse, see your doctor. They may recommend the following:

Prescription medications

These may include a topical treatment such as azelaic acid, or topical antibiotics, such as erythromycin or clindamycin, if you have inflammatory acne.

Your doctor may also prescribe retinoids that are stronger than those you can buy OTC.

Light therapy

This noninvasive treatment may kill acne-causing bacteria on the skin

Hormonal treatments

In some instances, your doctor may recommend treatments to reduce excess androgens in your body, such as birth control pills or spironolactone (used only in females and used off-label for acne).

Dermabrasion and chemical peels

These treatments may be effective for reducing the appearance of minor acne scarring. Mild acne typically doesn’t result in scars, but scarring can occur if you try to pop your pimples.

When to see your doctor

Whether it’s mild or severe, acne can be upsetting. If you’re bothered by mild acne, seeing a doctor can help you eliminate breakouts sooner. Seeing a doctor can also ensure that you get optimal treatments, which will help avoid further or more serious breakouts.

If your symptoms don’t improve with at-home care, contact your doctor.

Symptoms that require a doctor’s care may include:

  • emotional distress over breakouts
  • worsening acne or acne uncontrolled with OTC treatments
  • nodules that are painful or uncomfortable
  • acne scarring
  • immediate onset of acne, which seems to be associated with a new medication or lifestyle change

Mild acne is common and can happen in adults and children. This condition usually responds well to at-home treatments, such as OTC topicals. Lifestyle changes, like modifying your diet or reassessing your skin care routine, may also help.

If mild acne doesn’t clear up, or if it gets worse or starts to cause scarring, see your doctor.