From toothpaste as a spot-treatment to who can safely use acne-fighting ingredients, we asked the experts some of the most commonly held beliefs about treating acne.
MYTH: I just need to wash my face more.
You might believe, like me when I was a teenager, that the overproduction of oil you’re experiencing means you need to be cleansing more often. Cleansing is important for treating acne, so doing is more often should be a good thing, right? According to the pros, that isn’t really the case.
FACT: Twice a day is enough for any skin type.
According to New York dermatologist Jennifer Segal, MD, cleansing is definitely a key part of acne treatment, but too much of a good thing can set back your progress. “Cleansing is key when treating acne, but over-cleansing by cleansing too often or with abrasive scrubs, cleansers or toners, can trigger irritation and inflammation that worsen acne lesions,” Dr. Segal explains.
Even if your skin is oily, you should really only be cleansing twice a day. “I recommend cleansing with a gentle cleanser twice daily, in the morning and at night,” Dr. Segal says. “If additional cleansing is needed (such as after the gym or sports), I typically recommend a gentle cleansing wipe.”
MYTH: Toothpaste will work as a spot treatment on a pimple.
Some of the ingredients in toothpaste are also in acne treatments, ipso facto, toothpaste works on acne. Right?
FACT: At most, toothpaste can deter you from picking.
When it comes to spot-treating acne, toothpaste isn’t exactly what the experts turn to. For New York dermatologist Kenneth Mark, MD, there are just better options out there. “I much prefer benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid containing products for a quick-fix spot treatment,” Dr. Mark says.
That said, if you have a tendency to pick at your acne, Dr. Segal notes that toothpaste does have one potential use for you. “Picking or squeezing acne lesions only makes things worse,” Dr. Segal explains. “Anything that covers an acne lesion and prevents the temptation to pick or squeeze can help it to go away faster—and toothpaste works for that!”
MYTH: Retinol for acne scarring is not safe for dark skin.
Anything that can be used to treat hyperpigmentation, like retinols can, can draw concern. Black patients are often not the priority in product testing, which compounds the caution, leading to the belief that these ingredients are not safe for dark skin.
FACT: When used correctly, retinols are safe.
SkinSpirit aesthetic nurse specialist Taylor Bagby, RN, explains that reducing the risk of skin lightening when treating acne scarring is all about formula and strength. “Retinol, retinal, and retinoids is safe for darker skin when used correctly,” Bagby explains. “It’s important to make sure you are using the right form and strength for your skin. Over-usage and high potencies are what can lead you into trouble!”
In addition to lightening acne scars, retinols can also help directly treat acne. “Their whole job is to cause cell turn over (to allow for healthy new skin cells) and increase collagen production, which in turn helps prevent clogged pores, reduce breakouts, and improve fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation,” Bagby says. “Retinol, retinal, and retinoids can also bring drying, so using a good moisturizer is key to keep the skin hydrated.”
MYTH: Blackheads are trapped dirt, so I should scrub and exfoliate well to remove them.
If you’re not supposed to pick at your face, the second best thing should be exfoliating well. How else are you supposed to get all that dirt and grime out of your face?
FACT: Scrubbing can be just as bad as picking.
“Scrubbing too hard can lead to skin damage just as much as picking your face,” Bagby explains. “It can cause you to prematurely remove the protective barrier of your skin, which can lead to your skin feeling dry, flaky, irritated or red.”
Lasting damage can be done as well.
“You can also cause hyperpigmentation, increased sensitivity, or an increased buildup of skin cells,” Bagby says. “It’s always best to consult with your dermatologist or skin-care specialist before seeking DIY blackhead removal. A good skin-care routine is an excellent way to prevent blackheads.”
Additionally, there are plenty of gentle chemical exfoliants that provide the benefits of exfoliation without injuring the skin.
MYTH: I can do an extraction by myself without hurting my skin.
If you’ve seen enough videos, eventually you start to feel like you can take matters into your own hands. They even sell the nifty little stainless-steel tools you see aestheticians use! Sometimes a pimple hurts, and it just needs to go. For those times, you can perform an extraction on yourself. Right?
FACT: An unhygienic extraction can lead to infection and scarring.
While it isn’t impossible to do a safe extraction at home, you need to be careful.
“It depends. If you can easily remove the pimple in an antiseptic manner, then it could be fine,” Dr. Mark explains. “However, if you do not do it properly (i.e. do not prep the skin with alcohol) you could cause an infection and if you dig unsuccessfully, you could cause more inflammation and risk scarring.”
If the pimple is simply too painful to bare and you have the right tools, you can pop it. But it’s still possible to injure your skin this way.
“If you can use warm compresses and it easily drains, then for sure it is beneficial to extract a pimple,” Dr. Mark says. “But if you do not pop it in an antiseptic manner and do not pop all of it, you have risks of scarring and infection. Similarly, if you don’t have the proper instruments and are attacking it yourself, even if you do pop it and drain all of it, you may cause significant inflammation and scarring.”
MYTH: A pore vacuum can get the gunk out without hurting my skin.
Pore vacuums are a popular option to suck out dirt and grime without directly picking at your face. The idea is to remove the excess sebum and oil from blackheads without traumatizing your skin by picking.
FACT: Pore vacuums still traumatize your skin.
Unfortunately, pore vacuums are not the answer to removing blackheads.
“For pore vacuums, if you are not careful, you can cause a lot of irritation and trauma to the skin,” Bagby explains. “Especially when using the suction at a high setting, which can create bigger problems such as redness, broken blood vessels and bruising. It’s best to consult a professional who can safely extract the pimple if necessary.”