Although acne is an extremely common skin condition, your confidence and self-esteem can take a big hit when you have to deal with persistent pimples. Whether you’re facing the occasional pesky zit or a full-blown breakout, you can incorporate a weekly face mask on top of your anti-acne cleansers, serums and spot treatments to give your skin a purifying boost. Here’s everything you need to know about how to choose the best face mask for acne.
Types of Acne & Scarring
Types of acne range from uninflamed blackheads to angry red bumps filled with pus, some of which are even painful. On a scale of bad to worse, blackheads would probably be in the bad section with nodular acne and cystic acne in the worse category. Blackheads can still be frustrating, however, because they are often very stubborn. They can get embedded deep inside a pore and be almost impossible to extract. What’s worse, they can ultimately become infected and turn into a full-blown pimple, and leave behind a post-inflammatory scar, or dark spot.
Nodular and cystic acne, though, is the type that can leave behind very disfiguring scars. These types of scars can look like raised bumps (keloids) or deep grooves (ice-picks) that completely ruin skin’s smooth texture. It can take a lot of exfoliation and sometimes even laser treatment to treat these types of scars.
Which all brings us to the fact that acne is best treated right away to prevent as much scarring as possible. Even small dark spots can take up to six months to fade if you don’t address the issue immediately. These dark spots form as a result of inflammation that causes cells in your skin to produce more melanin. Though these types of scars are flat and often small, they can still cause dullness and uneven tone that you then have to cover up with some type of makeup.
If you treat a pimple as soon as it rears its ugly head, you will not only limit its lifespan, but also help prevent a scar from forming. Now you probably already know this, but it bears repeating: never, ever, EVER pick at a pimple. Do not try to “pop” it or prod at it or poke it. Quite frankly, do not even touch it.
The reason being that touching a pimple can spread even more bacteria from your finger to your skin, making the infection potentially worse. The other reason to not attempt to pop a pimple or extract a blackhead is that you can cause a scar to form. In the case of blackheads, you can also turn it into an inflamed, infected pimple when it was simply a comedone. In short, it’s just not worth it.
In your search for an effective treatment for acne, you will stumble again and again on salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. These two are the standards for over-the-counter treatment. They work in different ways to fight acne by helping to unclog pores, eliminate bacteria, and thus shrink pimples in size and ultimately get rid of them pretty fast. Benzoyl peroxide, for example, can eliminate a breakout in as little as five days.
Salicylic acid works by unclogging pores by dissolving the debris of dead skin cells and oil inside them. This allows the root cause of the pimple to disappear. Salicylic acid is also an anti-inflammatory and can help with redness and swelling. Pimples will often get smaller even after only 24 hours of treatment with salicylic acid.
Benzoyl peroxide literally kills the P. acnes bacteria that resides inside pores and feeds on sebum to cause pimples. Without this bacteria pimples would not form. Thus, benzoyl peroxide is good for treatment and as a preventative measure. You can use it as a spot treatment and apply all over your face to prevent new pimples from forming. Essentially, you will be nipping them in the bud by doing so. Salicylic acid can also be used as a preventative treatment.
Keep in mind, however, that both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid can be irritating if used too much. Redness, flakiness, and peeling can occur. Benzoyl peroxide has also been known to bleach fabrics and hair, so be aware of that.
Another popular acne treatment that may be less well-known as an over-the-counter treatment is retinol. This is a vitamin A derivative that is milder than retinoids that might be prescribed by a doctor. Nonetheless, OTC retinol can be very effective in unclogging pores by helping to slough away dead skin cells. Retinol serums and creams are becoming more and more available to purchase from various brands.
Fun fact: Because of its exfoliating prowess, retinol is also good for fading away dark spots caused by post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles. It is often used as a dual acne and wrinkle treatment. With more and more adults experiencing acne far past their teen years, it makes sense to have this type of treatment, and it’s really quite helpful to be able to target both problems at once.
Acne Risk Factors
Risk factors for acne may be helpful in knowing in order to more accurately target the problem and seek the right kind of treatment. Some risk factors may have to be eliminated entirely in order to also eliminate the kinds of acne they cause. Risk factors for acne range from certain types of medications to hormonal changes and even your diet can have an influence. Identifying your particular risk factor that worsens the acne you have is crucial in understanding why and how you develop these lesions. It is also essential in providing a special treatment just for you with the right ingredients.
- Hormonal Fluctuations – These can be a risk factor for acne because certain hormones called androgens influence the amount of oil that is produced by skin glands. The more oil produced, the oilier your skin, and the likelier that you will develop clogged pores that can turn into whiteheads or blackheads. Moreover, if these clogged pores become inflamed, they will turn into papules or pustules. Hormonal fluctuations typically occur most often in the teenage years as the body is going through some very profound changes. This is why a lot of teenagers suffer from acne. Some women may also experience these hormonal changes during their monthly courses, and pimples may commonly form around the chin and jawline because of this. In some cases of pregnancy, women may also develop acne because the body is once again going through rapid hormonal shifts.
- Medications – Corticosteroids and certain birth control pills can be risk factors for acne. Corticosteroids can cause a type of acne known as “steroid acne.” They can also exacerbate existing acne or lead to an acneiform eruption (papules and pustules). Sometimes acneiform eruptions can be cystic or nodular as well. This makes them even more difficult to treat as these types of acne are very stubborn and occur deep in the skin. When it comes to birth control, some types can actually help eliminate acne. However, progestin-only birth control pills don’t contain estrogen, and these can thus lead to hormonal acne by causing hormonal changes in the body.
- Genetics – If your parents had acne, chances are you will have it too. There is no gene mutation directly linked to acne, however. Some specific gene mutations may simply make you more susceptible to developing acne lesions. Moreover, there may also be a hereditary tendency to create dead skin cells in excess amounts. This will lead to more clogged pores, and thus more acne as well. Some people also have skin that is oilier than others, and this may come down to genetics as well.
- Diet – Dietary factors can come into play when dealing with acne. In fact, there is also a connection between your gut and your skin health. There are a variety of bacteria located in our gut. They are both “good” and “bad” bacteria and they tend to balance each other out. An imbalance in this delicate ecosystem of bacteria can lead to problems like the formation of acne on the face. Probiotics like kefir and sauerkraut provide “good” bacteria and can help rebalance the microflora of your gut, bringing equilibrium and thus helping to reduce acne or temporarily eliminate it. A healthy gut can go a long way in giving you clear, beautiful, glowing skin. Other foods that should be avoided include refined sugars and carbohydrates, such as cookies and chips. It has been suggested that a low-glycemic diet may be helpful in reducing acne. A low-glycemic diet includes fresh vegetables, beans, steel-cut oats and certain fruits. In contrast, a high-glycemic diet includes all those “guilty pleasure” foods like greasy burgers and French fries, donuts, cake, milkshakes, white bread, sugary drinks, potato chips and white rice. Researchers say a low-glycemic diet is helpful in treating acne because it reduces spikes in a person’s blood sugar levels. Spikes in blood sugar levels cause inflammation, which also happens to be a root cause of acne. Still, more research is needed before this is conclusive. However, you may want to err on the side of caution and stick to more low-glycemic foods than not. Milk, on the other hand, is a low-glycemic food, but it may be linked to acne nonetheless. There are studies that suggest that drinking milk may exacerbate acne. In one American study, it was found that women who drank 2 or more glasses of milk a day were 44% more likely to have acne. As far as other dairy products like cheese and yogurt are concerned, however, studies did not show any correlation between the consumption of these foods and the prevalence of acne. Another popular “guilty pleasure,” chocolate, has been found in some studies to worsen acne. In one study, it was found that 25 grams of 99% dark chocolate eaten by 25 acne-prone males over the course of four weeks exacerbated their acne, leading to the formation of more comedones and papules. The reason why chocolate worsens acne is still not clear. Finally, any food you’re sensitive to should probably be avoided as it can cause inflammation in your body, and ultimately lead to acne in addition to other issues.
Acne Prevention Tips
- If your skin is particularly oil, wash it morning and night with an oil-free, acne cleanser.
- Avoid makeup that contains oil or is oil-based. Many new products will label themselves oil-free to steer you in the right direction. Mattifying foundations and concealers can also be helpful in eliminating oil and shine.
- Always thoroughly remove your makeup before bed to avoid clogging pores with debris. Removing makeup also allows your skin to breathe.
- After any type of vigorous exercise, shower and wash your face with an acne cleanser to prevent lesions.
- Reduce oil on-the-go with blotting sheets that absorb the oil and leave your face less shiny. The less oil on your face the better your chances of not developing any type of acne.
- Stress can also exacerbate acne. If you find yourself feeling chronic stress regularly, it may be helpful to practice certain techniques like breathing exercises or meditation or physical exercise to help reduce stress levels.
Best Face Mask for Acne
Face masks for acne are great because they can both treat and prevent breakouts. You usually use them two to three times a week, and you can combine them with other treatments as well, like an acne cleanser or gel spot treatments. Think of a face mask as an additional boost against acne among your arsenal of acne weapons. Furthermore, masks help deliver potent ingredients straight into your pores, sealing them in and keeping them there for as long as it takes to heal your acne lesion. The ingredients in face masks also tend to be more concentrated, which is helpful because you’ll get the strongest dose of the “medicine,” if you will, in this way.
Keep in mind that it’s best to wash your acne face mask 10 to 15 minutes following application. If you leave these masks on for too long, they can be irritating, causing skin to turn red, get too dry, start to peel and flake off. And it can be hard to reverse this type of sensitization.
Many of these acne face masks will contain ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and some plant botanicals to target the clogged pores that lead to acne in the first place. Once these pores are cleared out thanks to these powerful yet gentle acids, you will be less likely to develop a lesion.
Algenist Alive Prebiotic Balancing Mask
As previously mentioned, your gut bacteria play a big role in acne formation. But your skin also contains bacteria, numbering in the millions, that serve a similar function. If these bacteria ever get out of whack, they can cause pimples to form. This face mask from Algenist uses contains both prebiotics and probiotics to help keep the peace on your skin, so to speak.
L’Oreal Pure-Clay Face Mask with Yuzu Lemon
Clay is a great acne-fighting ingredient because it digs deep into pores to clear out all the sticky, stuck gunk inside. Once pores are clear, the chances of a pimple forming are significantly less. This mask contains three kinds of clay: kaolin, montmorillonit and Moroccan lava that team up to fully clarify skin. Yuzu lemon is added to this formula to smooth your complexion.
Caudalie Glycolic Peel
As previously mentioned, glycolic acid is great for treating acne because it is a gentle yet effective exfoliant. This mask-peel combo from Caudalie will help clear out pores and reduce excess oiliness. Papaya enzymes further help refine skin for a more even tone and give it a glow.
Herbivore Blue Tansy AHA + BHA Resurfacing Clarity Mask
The AHA family includes glycolic and lactic acids, while the BHA family includes salicylic acid. This formula from Herbivore utilizes the talents of both acid families to help refine and clarify your skin, dissolving dead skin cells and reducing oiliness for skin that is radiant. Blue tansy oil also helps reduce inflammation.
Murad InstaMatte Oil-Control Mask
Murad has been a leader in anti-acne products for years. This mask is a superstar that only needs three minutes to work its magic. The active ingredient, salicylic acid, helps control acne with its ability to unclog pores and reduce inflammation, while grapefruit extract reduces the size of large pores.
Dr. Jart+ Dermask Micro Jet Clearing Solution
This is a sheet mask that contains proven acne-fighting ingredients salicylic acid, niacinamide and tea tree oil (a more natural option). These ingredients dissolve dead skin cells, reduce excess oil and reduce redness and inflammation, packing quite a punch against common types of acne.
Origins Clear Improvement Charcoal Honey Mask to Purify and Nourish
Charcoal, like clay, also vacuums out all the gunk and debris inside your pores to render them squeaky clean. Meanwhile, honey is an antibacterial that can combat the P. acnes bacteria that resides in hair follicles and causes clogged pores to become inflamed. Honey also happens to be highly moisturizing so your skin won’t feel tight after the use of this mask.
Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Daily Leave-On Mask
A drugstore favorite, Neutrogena has been a starring brand in many a teenager’s anti-acne arsenal. This mask from the company features benzoyl peroxide in a prominent role to kill the bacteria that causes acne and keep new lesions from forming while shrinking old ones. Unlike the other masks on this list, this one does not need to be rinsed off. You can simply let your skin absorb it and go about your day. You can even layer moisturizer and makeup over it.
SkinCeuticals Clarifying Clay Masque
Bentonite and kaolin clay are the top ingredients in this mask. Together, they balance oil production and help clear out debris trapped inside hair follicles. Other ingredients include aloe to soothe and other fruit extracts to nourish and impart an overall glow.
Aveeno Clear Complexion Pure Matte Peel-Off Face Mask
Another drugstore find, Aveeno’s peel-off face mask is so satisfying to use. It contains lactic and glycolic acids to dissolve surface oils and dead skin cells. As you peel it off, you can actually feel all that gunk and junk coming out of your pores for a clearer and more radiant look.
Origins Out of Trouble 10 Minute Mask
This one from Origins is great because it contains two powerful anti-acne ingredients – sulfur and salicylic acid. Recommended more for mild acne, it nevertheless has the ability to treat and prevent, often shrinking lesions overnight.
Tata Harper Clarifying Mask
If you’re into more natural skin care, this is the one for you, and it’s a top dermatologist pick to boot. It contains salicylic acid to calm inflammation and clear out pores, as well as wintergreen extract and meadowsweet to reduce redness.
Sunday Riley Sulfur Acne Treatment Mask
This one is recommended for all types of acne, even the most tenacious. It targets multiple acne symptoms including clogged pores, hormonal acne, inflamed acne lesions and even rosacea. Sulfur is a great ingredient for going deep into pores to eliminate the debris of dead skin cells and hardened oil plugs inside. It will also help prevent new lesions from forming with regular use.
Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask
This mask is great for thorough exfoliation that will leave you glowing. Pumpkin enzymes can often be found in acne treatment products because they too help exfoliate and refine. The AHA in this formula further helps to dissolve dead skin cells stuck together thanks to the skin’s excessive production of oil. These hardened little plugs will slowly but surely be dissolved when this mask is used as directed.
References: American Academy of Dermatology, “Can the right diet get rid of acne?”