Acne 101

6 weeks.

That’s the amount of time it takes to see a change in your skin from your new acne plan.

Why six weeks?

It takes time for oil and hormones to plug pores and bacterial to multiply and make pimples. It takes time for the body to clean this up, and it takes time for creams and lotions and prescription medications to limit new pimples. Nothing works overnight, but sticking to a skin plan—it doesn’t have to be super complicated or time consuming—can make a difference.

Skin oils, bacteria and hormones work to clog your pores. The washes and creams and lotions and sometimes pills work against them to keep your skin the best it can be until acne passes and your skin settles down again.

Acne isn’t a problem unless you think it’s a problem. If a few pimples don’t bother you, then just wash your face in the morning, after school or sports, and before you go to bed. Some acne is so bad it can scar—and that’s a problem to work with your doctor to prevent.

There are lots of things to wash your face with. Pick something mild that doesn’t dry your skin out. Most things you can use for your acne have an annoying habit of drying out your skin. Avoid antibacterial soaps.

What the best Over-the-Counter acne product?

Over-the-counter (OTC) means you can buy it without a prescription, and the two active ingredients in OTC acne products are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. OTC acne products, kits and systems may contain various ingredients but always the same active ingredients: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. They come in different forms like washes, lotions, gels and creams. They also come in different strengths. Check the label and start with a lower strength to make sure it doesn’t irritate and dry your skin out too much. Generally, gels are most drying. Remember: lots of companies make effective OTC acne products and don’t overlook store brand generics. These products don’t have to be super expensive.

If you have mild acne and are keeping your skin clean, you can try a product with benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient fights oil. It comes in different strengths and you guessed it: it can dry out your skin.

The other active ingredient, salicylic acid, whittles away the top layers of skin (it’s also in OTC wart medicine). If your acne wash has this ingredient and it’s making your face is red and dry, try a gentle cleaning wash that doesn’t contain oils or moisturizers instead. The label should say non comedogenic which is an over-fancy way to say it doesn’t promote pimples.

If you can’t get your acne the way you want it with OTC products, consider seeing your doctor. Your pediatrician and family doctor treat acne all the time. We know it bothers you. We also know that sometimes it bothers your parents more than it bothers you. My rule is that if you are okay with your acne and it’s not going to cause you problems or scar, that’s okay with me. You don’t need a complicated skin care plan.

If you aren’t happy with your acne, doctors can prescribe antibiotic lotions or gels that you apply to your face to cut down on the bacteria that plug pores and cause pimples. For large pimples, pustules and cysts, antibiotics taken as pills may be needed for a short time.

Doctors can also prescribe a class of creams, lotions and gels in the retinoid family. You and your friends may know them by their brand names: Retin A, Differin, and Epiduo. These turn the skin over faster so pores don’t plug with bacteria and oil.

Remember the basics:

  • Keep your skin clean and oil free.
  • Keep your hands and hair away from your face.
  • Avoid hair and skin products with oils that may plug pores.

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About Lisa M. Asta, MD

Lisa M. Asta, M.D. is board-certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, for which she is also a Media Representative (she has been interviewed for “Kids Health” on Health Radio, and quoted in Parenting Magazine, USA Today, and the New York Times, among other publications). She is a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco and past pediatric chair at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. She graduated from Temple University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Asta is also a writer whose fiction has appeared in Inkwell, Philadelphia Stories, Schuylkill, and Zeniada. Her essays have appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hippocrates, the San Jose Mercury News, and The New Physician Magazine. She is an occasional contributor to KQED public radio’s Perspectives series, and has written articles for Bay Area Parent, Valley Parent, Parents’ Press, and Parents Express, as well as online at,, and She wrote a chapter in The Field Guide to the Normal Newborn, ed. Gary Emmet, M.D. currently has two how-to videos for parents in production which feature Dr. Asta. For more on Dr. Asta’s writing, visit
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1 Response to Acne 101

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