8 things I did to clear up acne fast
And they worked
There are breakouts, and then there are breakouts so bad that make me, a grown woman, literally hide under a blanket. My confidence hit an all-time low. I cancelled plans. I stared unhealthily often at a mirror, examining the colony of cystic zits on my chin and jawline. How did I get here? Actually, the answer to that is easy: work stress, late nights, junk food, my insatiable sweet tooth, not drinking enough water — around the holiday season I really gave no f*cks. It just all caught up to me. But, I was determined to do everything I possibly could to clear up acne fast.
I pulled out all the stops and created a super-regimen that ended up actually working for me. While there is no such thing as a quick fix for acne (it’s all about getting treated by a dermatologist, eating healthy, and having a lot of patience), ahead are all the steps I incorporated into my routine that made the biggest difference.
8 steps to clear up acne fast
1. I QUIT DAIRY
Ugh, I know. This is the first piece of advice every dermatologist, esthetician, and nutritionist has told me time and time again, yet I've resisted. I'm aware that dairy is known to cause inflammation and increased sebum production, but I just love cheese (and ice cream, and milk chocolate) so damn much, okay? Because I was at my most desperate, I decided to swallow my cravings and go dairy-free for a very doable three weeks. After just one week into the experiment, my cystic bumps died down significantly, and I cursed everyone for being right.
2. I STARTED DOUBLE CLEANSING
I wear a full face of full coverage makeup every weekday for work. To get it all off, I used to rely on makeup wipes before face wash. I later realized the wipes, while convenient for nights you're ready to PTFO and must, were kind of just sliding product around my face instead of truly cleaning it. Thankfully, a facial with celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau introduced me to the idea of double cleansing.
The process involves first removing makeup with an emollient formula—I use her Soothing Aloe Cleansing Milk, which looks and feels like lotion—on dry skin for 30 seconds, then rinsing and follow with another cleanser. Rouleau's AHA/BHA Blemish Control Cleanser has been my lifesaver, it's a blend of salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acids, plus jojoba beads for physical exfoliation. It sloughs away residue and oil and targets pimples, blackheads, and leftover scarring. I always followed this with Roleau's Balancing Skin Tonic before applying any other layers.
3. I GOT SMARTER ABOUT PUTTING OILS ON MY FACE
Rouleau also enlightened me about another culprit making my skin care routine less effective: using oil-based products at the beginning of my skin care routine. As Rouleau explained, oils have a large molecule size and, therefore, should go at the end of a skin care routine because it almostWhen you use a cleansing oil or balm first (as I used to do along with makeup wipes), you're basically creating a barrier that makes it more difficult for other skin care products to penetrate and do their job.
"Anything applied over an oil may be offering no benefit to the skin and is wasting your money," Rouleau also explained on her blog. Plus, cleansing oils tend to leave behind coating on the skin even if you rinse and wipe it off—which prevents active ingredients from all my other steps from seeping deep into skin as they should be.
4. I USED A LACTIC ACID EXFOLIATOR
Because I'm constantly testing out new products, I don't often end up with "empties" (as in, products so good you've emptied out the bottle). However, I loved Sunday Riley's Good Genes so much I literally twisted the pump off and stuck my finger in it to try and get every last bit. The magic potion's main ingredient is lactic acid, which exfoliates away dead skin cells — key for clearing pores, fading scars, and revealing fresh skin on the surface.
Like any acid, it stings when applied and might need some easing into (it can also be used as a mask worn for just 10 minutes), but I diligently put it on every single night before moisturizer and felt it dramatically retexturized my skin. Red bumps flattened out almost immediately in just seven days.
5. I TURNED TO LIGHT THERAPY
I was first introduced to light therapy for acne when I tested out (and fell in love) with Neutrogena's Light Therapy Spot Treatment, which treats a zit for two minutes. However, this breakout from hell was too far gone to be treated one pimple at a time. That's why I used the full-sized mask every single night.
A quick primer on light therapy: red light is known to promote circulation and reduce inflammation while blue light targets acne-causing bacteria and makes oil glads produce less sebum. What this mask helped me most with was preventing new breakouts from forming on top of the cluster already invading my chin. It stopped what was previously a never-ending cycle of acne.
6. I USED PIMPLE STICKERS FOR POPPED ZITS
What you do when a pimple dies down is just as important as what you do when it's just beginning its life. When my zits came to the surface as whiteheads, I'd carefully, gently pop them using two clean cotton swabs (not fingers!) and immediately apply one of these dots. I know popping is the number one sin for skin care, but these dots work best when the zit is punctured because it's made with hydrocolloid, which extracts debris out of the pore (so there needs to be an opening). It also infused with salicylic acid and vitamin A to treat and ease down redness. When the stickers are worn overnight, pimples totally flatten out by morning.
7. I USED A PRESCRIPTION SPOT TREATMENT
I couldn't just let the worst breakout ever live on without a visit to the dermatologist, so I went to BeautyRX founder Dr. Neal Schultz. He gave me this incredible "Z Stick" spot treatment that contains mild cortisone (the same substance derms use to inject pimples to make them die down in 24 to 48 hours), and Clindamycin, an antibiotic. I applied this every morning and evening to all my spots and it acted like an extra layer of armor against further inflammation. Sadly, it's prescription-only and/or only available through Dr. Schultz's practice in New York—but he's working on making one for consumers.
8. I TOOK A LOT OF UNFLATTERING SELFIES
People trying to lose weight or build muscle are often encouraged to take photos along their journey—there's nothing more motivating than visible progress. I applied the same logic to my breakout. I took a photo of it at its worst to start, then continued. The second photo you see is one week after doing all of the above—you definitely see remnants of the breakout but they are not as active nor as inflamed (they're also flat and easy to cover up with my BFF, concealer). The last photo is four weeks later after me following these tips religiously—all clear.