Something that adds to the frustration of having acne is that it can be tricky to get rid of. The internet is full of suggestions for so-called acne ‘miracle cures’, but it can be frustrating and disheartening if these cures don’t work for you the way you hope they might.
We investigated some of these commonly-suggested cures to see what effect they can really have on your skin.
It’s long been suggested that the way to make a pimple vanish was to cover it in toothpaste before bed. Overnight, the toothpaste was said to ‘dry out’ the pimple so that by morning, it would be gone—or at least, much smaller.
Unfortunately this isn’t true. Toothpaste does include some anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredients, but the multitude of other ingredients mean it can be highly irritating for our skin1. Also, even on oilier skin, pimples aren’t something that need to ‘dry out’ so they can disappear. While excess sebum getting trapped in the hair follicle can cause a pimple, oil plays an important role in the function of our skin and we don’t want to get rid of it completely.
Replace it with: a ‘spot treatment’, which is a serum designed to be applied only to the site of a pimple. Look for one containing ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or sulfur. They can help reduce pimples without harming the skin.
READ MORE: The Dermatologist-Approved Guide to Acne.
Similar to toothpaste, lemon juice is often suggested as an at-home acne cure because of the drying effect it has on the skin. The fruit’s anti-bacterial properties also mean it’s been suggested as something that can kill p.acnes, the acne-causing bacteria that breeds in our sebum.
It’s true that lemon juice does have antibacterial properties, but that makes it a nice addition to a disinfectant spray, not something you should put on your face.
Lemon juice, and any juice from citrus plants, can cause phytophotodermatitis when put on skin that’s exposed to sunlight. The symptoms of phytophotodermatitis include redness, blistering, irritation, and hyperpigmentation2.
This reaction has become so common that it’s been dubbed ‘Margarita burns’, presumably after people who cut up lemons to make margaritas during an outdoor party. Lemon juice is definitely not something you should ever apply to your face!
Replace it with: a serum or lotion containing azelaic acid, which has been proven to kill p. acnes bacteria3 and reduce hyperpigmentation—unlike lemon juice, which causes hyperpigmentation.
We know that follicular keratinization – when skin cells inside the hair follicle aren’t properly expelled onto the skin’s surface – can be a big cause of acne4.
These clogged follicles can develop in to comedones—blackheads and whiteheads—or acne lesions and become painful, red, and inflamed.
Exfoliant scrubs are often suggested as a treatment for this, and the internet is full of DIY recipes for thick, all-natural scrubs that can lift off our dead skin cells using gritty ingredients like salt, sugar, and coffee. Likewise, abrasive exfoliants are often sold in stores as ‘anti-acne’ products that promise to scrub away pimples and leave us with fresh, new skin.
These products are fine—but for our bodies, not our faces. Harsh scrubbing and rough ingredients are okay for the tough skin of our legs and hands, but not for our delicate facial skin5. Scratchy ingredients can cause micro-tears to our skin which can lead to further irritation, and exfoliating mitts and cloths can cause similar damage.
Replace it with: a product containing chemical exfoliants like glycolic or lactic acid. These acids will gently remove old, dead skin cells from the skin and help coax out clogged pores without tearing or damaging the surrounding skin6.
You know those little white strips you put on your nose to pull out blackheads? Pore strips have been a mainstay of skincare for years, and we’ve all been fascinated by videos of people ripping them off of their face and showing off the gunk that’s attached to the strip.
Pore strips definitely work7 on comedones, especially blackheads, but they do pull and tug at the skin as you rip them away. They also only make a cosmetic change: removing a blackhead might improve the look of your skin, but it doesn’t do anything to make sure that pore won’t become clogged again in the future. To properly address clogged pores, you need to fix what’s causing them.
Replace them with: a cleanser containing glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid, which will gently exfoliate the skin and remove what’s clogging the pores. Retinoids can help prevent pores re-clogging, and niacinamide can shrink the appearance of pores too.
Honey has been suggested by some skincare forums as a replacement for more traditional acne treatments, and some influencers rave about the difference it has made to their skin. Honey has been a staple of traditional medicine for centuries, and medical-grade honey has been used with some success to prevent bacteria from breeding on skin8. But can it cure acne?
It looks like the jury is still out on that. Some studies have been done showing that honey may have an effect on acne-causing bacteria like p. acnes9, but more research needs to be done to prove this conclusively. As it stands, we won’t advise you to slather your skin in honey. Especially for more severe cases of acne, and acne caused by hormones, the bacteria-killing abilities of honey may not be enough to make a real difference.
Replace it with: retinoids, which are one of the most powerful anti-acne treatments available. Antibiotics may also be prescribed by a dermatologist to help treat severe acne.
At the end of the day, there’s no secret trick to curing acne. There’s no ‘miracle product’ that can banish all of our skin woes, either—if such a thing existed, it surely would have made front-page news by now.
Unfortunately, acne isn’t something that’s curable in the traditional sense. There’s no one tablet or medicine that you can take to get rid of it for good: a broken arm or a headache can be cured, but acne isn’t as easy to get rid of.
But the good news is that there are many treatments that are scientifically proven to work against acne. Whether you seek out some of the over-the-counter products listed above, or start using more powerful prescription ingredients with custom treatments like Software, you should know that with a bit of time and effort, acne is treatable and acne-free skin is achievable.