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Unless you have the uncanny ability to gaze into the future, all breakouts are “sudden,” in a sense. Read: When you have clear, smooth skin, you might not think much about it until a blemish creates a bumpy terrain. Then comes another, and another, until you have an ensemble of zits that feels like a surprise attack.
Rather than slathering on any spot treatment you can get your hands on, we suggest you pose a question: Why? Why are you breaking out all of a sudden? Because when you get to the root of the issue, you can figure out the best plan of action—and, better yet, keep those pimples from popping up in the future.
To help you get to the bottom of your breakout, we tapped derms for their expert advice.
What might cause a sudden breakout?
These are the most common culprits:
We could dedicate pages to how hormones affect your skin (in fact, we already have!), so we’ll keep it brief: Hormones (your sex hormones, as well as others like cortisol and melatonin) can increase sebum production; they can affect how “sticky” skin cells are, which makes shedding more difficult and can lead to buildup and clogged pores; and they can cause increased overall inflammation.
When it comes to hormonal fluctuations, many point fingers at the menstrual cycle (two-thirds of acne-prone women report having flares before or on their menses), but acne can also crop up during pregnancy and menopause as well.
Technically a member of the hormonal fluctuations family, but stress deserves its own moment. See, stress releases the hormone cortisol, which then increases the levels of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which actually tells your sebaceous glands to produce more oil. When sebum production rises, it creates an ideal environment for bacteria and clogged pores—both of which are a recipe for blemishes.
Not to mention, stress can slow down the healing process after the breakout: “[One study on stress and wound healing] has shown that stress can slow down healing, which may worsen acne and acne scarring,” says board-certified dermatologist Jaimie Glick, M.D.
If a skin care (or hair care!) product contains comedogenic or irritating ingredients, your skin may greet you with a string of blemishes. Red flags differ for everyone, though, so you may have to play detective to figure out what might be clogging your pores; some experts even recommend a skin care journal to keep track of any new developments.
If your pimples tend to come and go with the seasons, your environment may very well be to blame. For example, when the weather heats up, increased sweat and oil production can clog pores and lead to blemishes. (Consequently, winter skin stripped of moisture may produce even more oil to compensate.)
Additionally, “Environmental pollution may cause acne breakouts,” says board-certified dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D., co-host of The GIST Show. The tiny particulate matter in the air can sneak into your skin, block your pores, cause inflammation, and reduce oxygen. That’s why experts say washing your face every night is nonnegotiable (which we’ll explain more later).
Says Downie, inflammatory foods (like processed snacks, sugary sweets, and other high glycemic foods) can exacerbate acne.
Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN, agrees: “Blood glucose and insulin could affect the skin in a couple of different ways,” she tells mbg. “First, this spike in blood sugar causes the release of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Insulin then stimulates the production of androgens (male hormones) that can then lead to higher sebum production in the skin and then lead to acne. Secondly, high amounts of insulin in the blood before or after a meal may make the skin create more skin cells, making acne that’s already present worse.”
What you can do regularly to prevent breakouts.
Rather than treating each and every zit like a never-ending game of Whack-A-Mole, here’s how you can regularly keep your skin clear:
While everyone can benefit from a cleanse-treat-moisturize regimen, everyone’s skin is entirely unique—and if you’re dealing with acne, you might want to see a professional who can give you specific treatments for your individual needs.
2. Use targeted topicals.
On that note, there are a few topicals that derms regard as acne-clearing mainstays. There are retinoids, perhaps the buzziest of them all, which increase cell turnover and make it more difficult for said cells to stick together and clog pores.
Then you have benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid: The former actually kills acne-causing bacteria, P. acnes, “and it also helps to break up and remove dead skin cells that clog our pores,” board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, M.D., FAAD, founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics once shared with mbg. Salicylic acid can also penetrate deep into your pores and unclog them at the source, but the BHA also has anti-inflammatory, skin-calming properties, which makes it a bit gentler than BP.
3. Swap your skin care with the seasons.
When the temperature changes, so should your skin care routine. Again, heading to the derm may be your best bet, as a professional can take a long look at your skin and offer the right swaps; however, generally experts recommend opting for a lightweight moisturizer in the warmer months (perhaps washing your face more frequently, too) and a denser cream once the weather turns crisper.
4. Follow a balanced, antioxidant-rich diet.
What you consume shows up on your skin. If diet is an acne trigger for you, try filling your plate with hydrating, high-fat foods chock-full of antioxidants. (See here for our master list of foods for supple skin.) If there are certain foods you know don’t sit well with your skin, perhaps limit those as well.
5. Manage sleep and stress.
Other lifestyle interventions, like sleep and stress, can affect the look and feel of your skin. We discussed stress at length already (and here are some ways you can manage everyday anxiety), but sleep (or lack thereof, rather) can affect your levels of melatonin and cortisol, as well—hormones that have a delicate relationship with skin.
Specifically, “Melatonin is critically important for your skin and plays a significant role in skin repair from environmental exposure, UV light, stressors, pollution, and so on. We know that production is only at night—so sleep hygiene is crucial for your skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D., on an episode of Clean Beauty School. “If you’re not resting, you’re not generating that melatonin, and your skin isn’t repairing itself.”
How to treat sudden breakouts.
For a quicker fix, these treatments are key:
For angry pustules, benzoyl peroxide spot treatments can work wonders (if your skin can tolerate it; some find the ingredient way too drying). In fact, it’s hailed for shrinking inflammatory, painful pimples: Tap the product onto your blemishes and let it seep in overnight.
If you have a serum, mask, or spot treatment formulated with salicylic acid (or willow bark extract, the BHA’s all-natural cousin), dab a pea-sized dollop on the blemish and let it sit overnight. Again, the BHA can unclog the pores at the source while remaining relatively gentle on the skin.
In a pinch, aspirin can also help with inflammatory acne: As board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., told us about holistic blemish treatments, “Aspirin contains acetylsalicylic acid, a cousin to salicylic acid, and is thought to have direct anti-inflammatory effects.” So while the salicylic-acid-like active can shimmy into the pores and unclog the blockage, the anti-inflammatory effects of the drug can calm down the pimple and promote healing.
To make a spot treatment, Zeichner recommends crushing the aspirin and mixing it in warm water. Next, take a cotton ball or cotton tip applicator, soak it in the mix, and apply to the blemish for three to five minutes.
“Topical use of green tea reduces sebum production, gets rid of oiliness, and protects against acne-causing bacteria,” licensed acupuncturist Antonia Balfour, LAc (who specializes in skin care), once told mbg about the best teas for acne. In fact, one study found that a topical 2% green tea lotion was an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne.
Not to mention, green tea has immediate skin-soothing effects, as the caffeine acts as a vasoconstrictor (meaning, it constricts blood vessels) and helps deflate those tender, inflamed pimples. To make a DIY acne treatment, brew a cup of tea, let the bag cool, and place it directly on your breakout for a few minutes.
Another age-old remedy for shrinking a pimple fast: ice. Ice is another vasoconstrictor, as the cold temperature constricts blood vessels—which effectively dials down the redness and inflammation. Wrap a cube in a napkin or paper towel and place it on the blemish for a few minutes; you don’t want to place the freezing block directly on the skin, as the intense chill can cause even more redness.
Our favorite tips for covering up blemishes (if you want to).
When all else fails, there’s always makeup. You do not have to cover up your blemishes by any means, but we understand how stubborn breakouts can affect your mood and self-esteem. If a pimple or two bothers you, mind these tips:
- With concealer, less is more: Loading up on product can turn cakey quickly. Rather, use precise movements to conceal blemishes: Swipe the product directly over the zit and spread the formula until the surrounding area is all covered. Take a moment to let it dry down fully before layering on any more product.
- Use powder to nix shadow: Sure, a concealer can cover up discoloration, but if you have an angry, raised mound, grab a setting powder: Not only does it help your concealer last longer, but it can also mattify and blur the area, so you’re less likely to see the raised zit. With a clean eyeshadow brush, take a bit of powder and press it onto the pimple.
- Use a zit patch: OK, not a makeup tip, but we’d be remiss not to mention the quick-fix nature of acne patches. These hydrocolloid dressings suck all the gunk trapped in your pores, and some options include ingredients to soothe or treat the blemish simultaneously, like salicylic acid or niacinamide. Some even come in fun shapes and colors to take away some of the frustration associated with a blemish: Slap on a star-shaped sticker and call it a day.
Sudden breakouts are a special kind of sneak attack. While you may not be able to catch them every time (hence, the “sudden” in “sudden breakouts”), there’s a whole lot you can do once the blemish pops up.