The Real Reason You’re Dealing With Inflamed Acne—and a Derm’s 3-Step Plan to Fight It

Photo: Stocksy/Guille Faingold
An untold number of things cause acne: stress, a product your skin doesn't agree with, what you're eating, your pillowcases... how much time do you have today? And there are just as many ways to deal with it as an adult. But inflamed acne, the kind that's super red and irritated, doesn't like too much attention. The more you try to get rid of it, the madder it gets—and the longer it lingers.

When you have a pimple, you're temped to pick it, pop it, and cover it with a product in the hopes that it will magically disappear. Unfortunately, over-treatment is the number one reason why you're dealing with inflamed acne in the first place. "Almost all of my patients come in on 10 different skincare products. Taking almost all of them away and simplifying my patient’s routine is a huge part of treating acne," says board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, MD.

Too many trendy products can create a recipe for disaster, she says, especially things like facial oils, oil-based cleansers, and physical exfoliants. "I've seen so many patients improve when they eliminate them," she says. You're going to hate hearing this, but sometimes the best thing you can do to fight inflamed acne is almost nothing at all.

Your 3-step plan to calm inflamed acne

1. Use a simple spot treatment

Don't pick, pop, or pile on products. Instead, opt for a simple spot treatment. At-home options include Acnomel ($10), an over-the-counter spot treatment that contains sulfur (a natural anti-inflammatory) and resorcinol, which serves as a disinfectant, says Dr. Campbell. "Topical steroids like hydrocortisone can also be used as a spot treatment and used during the day, but it's a terrible long-term treatment for active acne lesions, as topical steroids on the face can actually cause acne. That said, in a pinch, it can help calm some inflammation."

If you're dealing with painful cystic acne, you can also go to your dermatologist for a cortisone shot. It immediately helps reduce inflammation and swelling to allow the spot to heal faster. "It's the quickest fix for acne lesions that are firm, ball-like spots under or above the skin," she says.

2. Use an anti-inflammatory face wash

Make sure you're not using a face wash that will irritate your acne further. "Go for washes that contain sulfur, which can help calm inflammation," Dr. Campbell says. She recommends the Sulfo Lo bar ($15), which is available over-the-counter. "Cleansing once a day can help."

3. Remember less is more

Acne takes time to heal, and as it does, it's important to remember less is more. "Stick to moisturizer and sunscreen. And once your acne is cleared, add an antioxidant serum. That's all most people need for optimized skin," says Dr. Campbell. "Don’t buy into all the hype and you'll save your time and money."

Everything you need to know about adult acne:

Here's the single-most important thing to remember when dealing with acne, according to a dermatologist. And if you're trying to figure out how to treat acne scars, here's exactly how it's done.

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