Acne is a common skin condition that is often associated with teenagers, but bad breakouts and severe skin disorders can affect adults too, especially women. In fact, according to a report conducted by Dr. Bruce Hensel for NBC4 News, "more than a quarter of clinical acne patients are women aged 25 to 60." Acne is a problem in and of itself, but did you know that you could make it worse by continually touching your face and squeezing or popping pimples?
Those destructive habits not only compromise your skin’s integrity, and aggravate your acne, but even worse, picking at your breakouts can lead to severe scarring and hyperpigmentation that ends up lasting longer than the initial breakout.
"For women of color, an additional challenge relating to acne is the mark from the resolved pimple that can be visible far longer than an active pimple itself," says dermatologist Dr. Shari Hicks-Graham of Downtown Dermatology in Columbus, Ohio. "It is critical to understand how best to manage our inflamed pimples from the start so that the marks fade as quickly as possible."
Before giving in to the impulse to pop, allow Dr. Hicks-Graham to explain even further why you should resist the urge and what you can do to prevent hyperpigmentation.
"The number one reason that these acne lesions become deeper in color and even cause indentations in the skin that lead to scarring and texture irregularity is because of squeezing and picking," Dr. Hicks-Graham tells ESSENCE. "This physical manipulation of our acne—whether blackheads, whiteheads, red papules, nodules or cysts—causes trauma to the skin that often drives inflammation deeper into the skin. This inflammation causes more hyperpigmentation because melanocytes (the pigment-containing cells) flood the affected area as it works to heal itself. The deeper the inflammation, the darker the mark. The darker the mark, the longer it takes to fade away and resolve."
Okay, so now that you know prevention is the best remedy, you’re probably wondering what you can do to keep hyperpigmentation and acne scarring from worsening, right? The short answer: adopting a daily skincare routine can help.
"When you know that acne can be a problem, start with a consistent skincare regimen that is gentle and sustainable," Dr. Hicks-Graham advises. "Beware of falling for anything that promises a quick fix. Avoid anything that stings or hurts your skin. Anything that causes extreme dryness of pimples can dry out surrounding skin and cause an entire zone of hyperpigmentation."
Dr. Hicks-Graham recommends the following skincare routine:
1. Use a gentle cleanser morning and night.
2. Apply moisturizer with SPF 30 or higher every morning, and a gentle facial lotion every night.
"Skin of color requires sun protection, too, so do not skimp out on the sunscreen," says Dr. Hicks-Graham. "Most moisturizers for daily use have an SPF 30 formulation available. This will help old marks fade—no question."
3. Apply an active agent with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, azelaic acid or glycolic acid to zones of the skin, particularly after moisturizing to prevent dryness. Apply a very thin layer to the skin every other day to ensure your skin can tolerate the formula.
"I recommend using adapalene 0.1% OTC (Differin gel 0.1%) at bedtime every other night after cleansing and moisturizing," she says.
4. Per Dr. Hicks-Graham, if you have a pimple or whitehead that has risen to the surface, try applying a warm and clean washcloth to a pimple for 30 to 60 seconds. Then, gently apply pressure to the side of the pimple using a cotton-tipped swab, like Q-tips, to help release the pus.
"Under no circumstances should you use your fingers or nails to squeeze or pick acne," she warns.
5. Exfoliate your skin on a weekly basis. However, if it’s drying out your skin out or causing prolonged redness, you should cut back.
Though Dr. Hicks-Graham stresses that incorporating these five steps into your skincare routine are mere suggestions and not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution for every skin type or acne condition.
"If any agents above have caused problems in the past for you, avoid them and don't try more than one agent at a time when you are starting a new routine," she recommends. "Begin with one new active in the evening, then add one new active agent for morning, one to two weeks after that. This way, you will be able to tell what is working or not without abandoning the entire plan."
The most important thing, according to Dr. Hicks-Graham, is to remember to be patient with yourself and the results.
"Acne can be a normal part of life, and skin of color demands gentle action," she says. "It is our response to it that can change the course of how it affects our skin for the long term."