When it comes to pimples and acne, the more you know, the better you will look and feel. We asked an expert dermatologist to answer our toughest pimple-related questions—and separate fact from fiction in the name of clearer skin.
You can find a lot of things on the internet about pimples and acne—including everything from home remedies for acne to more pimple popper videos than any one person should watch. But when it comes to searching for expert, proven advice on how to get rid of pimples, how to get rid of acne scars and more, it can be hard to decipher what’s true and what’s bogus. That’s why we turned to Dr. Kenneth Howe, a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology, to answer every pimple- and acne-related question we've ever had...in hopes that this will prevent anyone from ever slathering toothpaste all over their face again.
Do Home Remedies for Pimples and Acne Really Work?
You can find home remedies for pimples and acne, like apple cider vinegar and honey, on almost any lifestyle or beauty site—but that doesn’t mean they’re always the best fix. “Apple cider vinegar is occasionally touted as a home remedy for acne but the science is just not there,” says Dr. Howe. “While vinegar or acetic acid can kill bacteria, the bacterium that causes acne lives deep in our hair follicles. Apple cider vinegar applied to the surface of our skin will not reach the bacteria inside the follicles.” As for honey? It's a sweet idea, says Dr. Howe—but probably not all that effective. “Honey is purported to have some anti-inflammatory activity, so it may reduce the redness and swelling of acne,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t think it helps much.”
As for household items like toothpaste and antibacterial soap, Dr. Howe has this to say: “Yes, by irritating the skin the toothpaste may cause a wet, juicy pimple to dry out faster—but it can also make a pimple get redder and swell more.” Umm, no thanks. Howe goes on to explain that antibacterial soap will stop the colonization of surface bacteria on your skin, but it doesn’t kill the bacteria living in the hair follicles—making it pretty much ineffective when it comes to getting rid of an existing pimple.
What Causes Acne? Can Cystic Acne Start Later in Life?
Many people think they’re in the clear once they leave their teenage years—until they hit their 20s and the mirror says otherwise. “It’s very common in my experience to see young adult women from their mid-20s to mid-30s coming in with new-onset cystic acne,” said Dr. Howe. “There are many reasons for this: they have a new stressful career, they've stopped or started birth control pills or hormone-releasing IUDs; or sometimes it's a recurrence of cystic acne treated in their teens with Accutane, because the effect of the Accutane eventually wears off.” (File that last one under, Good To Know.)
Some people still believe the old wives’ tale that bad hygiene can cause acne, but Dr. Howe shoots that theory down. “The events that lead to pimples occur inside our follicles," he explains. “Any dirt on the surface of our skin doesn’t influence those changes.”
Is Acne Contagious?
Concerned that sharing makeup or even sleeping on the same pillow with someone who has acne can cause you to experience a breakout? Not to worry, says Dr. Howe. “Pimples and acne are not contagious at all,” he says. “Use the same pillow, share makeup, do whatever—you’re not going to get acne from someone else.”
How To Get Rid of Pimples?
Possibly the biggest question of all: How to get rid of pimples?!? Here's Dr. Howe's best piece of advice: “Don’t pick your pimples! It only makes things worse. If you’ve already done the deed, then the most important thing is to stop picking.” Put your hands down—he knows what you're thinking: “Don’t re-pick the same spot, in a vain attempt to fix the damage you’ve already done. People do that all that time, and it can get really ugly.” says Dr. Howe, “Picking can cause scars, and it will induce blemishes—those red-to-purple discoloration of the skin that lasts for months after the original pimple goes away.”
If you’re prone to acne, you might find using a face wash containing salicylic acid to be helpful. If you’re looking to prevent, use a salicylic acid face wash around types of high stress or during menstruation, when your hormones are fluctuating. “The good thing about salicylic acid is that it penetrates hair follicles well, and thus helps prevent the plugging that leads to acne,” says Dr. Howe.
Witch hazel is another good preventive measure. “Witch hazel lifts away excess oil and dead skin cells but it doesn’t strip healthy skin” says Dr. Howe, making it helpful in the fight against pimples and acne. Still, he encourages you to read the fine print. “People should be wary of witch hazel products that also contain alcohol, as the latter ingredient makes excessive dryness more likely.”
Bottom line: Don’t pick, don’t stress, and be patient. While salicylic acid, witch hazel, and some TLC can help, if acne persists, make an appointment with your dermatologist, who’ll know exactly what you need.