8 Clever Tips for Avoiding Acne Before It Happens

The best defense is a good offense.

As someone who has suffered from acne since puberty, I have come to accept that my face will always have at least one blemish. I've also realized there isn't just one cause of my breakouts. Usually, it's a perfect storm of stress, hormones, poor diet, little sleep, and maybe even bad luck that makes my skin a battleground.

I've tried everything from skipping dairy to red light therapy in my quest to achieve clear skin. Not everything has worked, and there certainly hasn't been one life-changing product. But like the cocktail of factors that lead to acne, a combination of tactics is necessary to fight it.

By practicing good habits and taking the right precautions, I'm at least able to reduce the severity and duration of my breakouts and enjoy a few good skin days here and there. Here are the most effective dermatologist-recommended habits to avoid acne in the first place.

01 of 08

Regularly exfoliate.

Acne happens when pores get clogged with oil, dead skin, and/or bacteria. So the first step to preventing acne is keeping the skin clean and free of excess oil and dead skin cells. Beyond washing your face regularly, you can incorporate ingredients like salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acids that work to remove dead skin cells and prevent clogged pores. Retinol treats acne by increasing cell turnover. By revealing newer, healthier skin, these ingredients can also help fade acne scars and smooth the skin's texture.

02 of 08

Clean surfaces.

You may not realize it, but your face comes in contact with a lot of surfaces, from pillowcases to cell phones to makeup brushes. To maintain a clean, bacteria-free slate, it's best to wash and disinfect these surfaces regularly. Even sunglasses, which can get greasy from sunscreen and sweat in the summer, can be a culprit. And while you're at it, remember not to touch your face with dirty hands.

03 of 08

Pay attention to your diet.

Your skin is a reflection of what you put into your body, and certain foods can trigger acne.

"Diet can absolutely be a culprit for acne and many skin conditions," says Julie Russak, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan. "Gut health is extremely critical for our overall well-being, including skin health. Restoring gut health reduces overall inflammation and stimulates healthy gene expression."

Refined grains, sugar, dairy, and high glycemic foods are known to cause acne in certain people. Even wine and cocktails can lead to pimples as alcohol converts to sugar in the body, which sets off an inflammatory cascade that's a known acne trigger, says Dr. Russak.

Before you drop an entire food group from your diet, though, remember that everyone's skin reacts differently. While ice cream may cause your bestie to break out, it might have no effect on your skin. Dr. Russak suggests that her patients undergo food sensitivity testing in order to understand their bodies clinically and implement lifestyle changes to feel their best. Talk to your doctor to determine your triggers.

04 of 08

Don't stress.

You may have thought your acne would be gone once you passed puberty, but two main causes of acne remain for most of adulthood: stress and hormones.

"Much adult acne is also due to hormones and stress," says Dr. Russak. "Stress leads to increased cortisol levels, and that, in turn, can influence hormonal distribution. Stress-induced acne can show up as just one big pimple in the middle of your forehead, or as hormonal acne, which is usually located in the lower face along the jawline where we have the highest concentration of oil glands with hormonal receptors on them."

Compared to whiteheads that typically come from external inflammation, acne from stress is caused by internal inflammation and results in inflamed, large cysts, says Dr. Russak. To treat these deep cysts, Dr. Russak recommends colloidal bandages, retinol, and warm/ cold compresses. Harsh drying products such as benzoyl peroxide will only dry out the surface of the blemish and further irritate it.

"Stress-related acne needs to be treated with two types of routines—one that controls the current breakout and a maintenance routine to control the excess oil (that occurs with stress) to prevent future breakouts," says Kavita Mariwalla, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.

Destressing is easier said than done, but start by considering the sources of it Take stock of your current situation. Are you experiencing emotional stress or physical stress, like not sleeping enough? What are small ways you can relax during the day, like exercise, meditating, or simply scheduling some downtime? Your skin and mental health will thank you.

05 of 08

Outsmart your hormones.

You can't completely avoid hormones and the ways they affect your skin. But by knowing the timing of your monthly cycle and the way your skin reacts, you can alter your routine and prepare for the potential onslaught of acne.

Breakouts typically occur seven to 10 days before your period. This is when estrogen (which keeps skin clear) drops while testosterone and progesterone spike. This combination leads to increased production of sebum, so your skin gets more oily and is prone to clogging.

"Right before ovulation and during your period, make sure to get enough sleep, stay hydrated, and avoid known acne triggers, such as gluten, sugar, and dairy," says Dr. Russak.

If your hormonal breakouts are still out of control after taking these precautions, Dr. Mariwalla suggests consulting a board-certified dermatologist about taking medications like spironolactone or certain birth control pills known to regulate the hormonal flux and keep acne at bay.

06 of 08

Prioritize sleep.

We've all heard that not getting enough sleep is bad for the body, and studies have found a correlation between poor sleep quality and the severity of acne. Researchers discovered that when you get less than eight hours of sleep, you might have trouble avoiding negative thoughts, fueling the cycle of stress and increased cortisol levels that breed breakouts.

Plus, sleep is the time when the body repairs and restores the skin, so logging in a few extra hours will ensure your skin looks healthy all around.

07 of 08

Work out and wash up.

Exercise is crucial for your health and great for managing stress. But clean your skin immediately after your sweat session to avoid pore-clogging sweat and dirt. Take a shower soon after your workout or pack cleansing wipes in your gym bag for when you're in a pinch.

And remove your makeup before your workout. Exercise can open up your pores, allowing the makeup and bacteria that you've built up over the day to enter and clog them. Don't forego sunscreen for outdoors workouts, though. Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid Lotion Sunscreen for Acne-Prone Skin is Real Simple's top pick for not clogging pores.

If you're prone to bacne, especially around your sports bra straps, you'll know the importance of regularly washing your gym clothes to ensure you aren't spreading the bacteria. Start with moisture-wicking fabrics like wool, polyester, and nylon. And don't forget to clean your equipment like yoga mats to prevent pimples from popping up along your body.

08 of 08

Find the patterns.

Everyone's skin reacts differently, so a variety of triggers can wreak havoc on your skin. To best understand yours, try keeping a journal in a physical or digital diary about your habits and the way your skin looks. Over time, you'll start to see patterns, like how you always have a new pimple after a weekend of drinking, or your skin does not take dairy well.

Sarah Perkins, founder of the skin journal Skinstory, says journaling and discovering her triggers has made her feel in charge of her acne. "Before journaling, I would panic when I got a breakout. But now I know what's going on," she says. "So I can get back on track."

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