How to Get Rid of Pimples, When You're No Longer a Teenager
Grooming is a world filled with jargon, technicalities and insider knowledge – some of it true, a lot of it bluster. That's where the Grooming Glossary comes in: a series that drops the science on the world of skincare and haircare so you can self-care better – and with the know-how to separate the wheat from the chai-infused anti-aging miracle potion. This week, how to get rid of spots.
Like leather jackets and an unwavering allegiance to the indie scene, acne is something you believed you’d be able to leave firmly in the past. In the time before camera phones and Zuckerberg, that hormone-fuelled teenage complexion would remain undocumented.
And yet now, here you are – an adult man with an electric bill and a weekly food shop – furiously Googling ‘how to get rid of spots’ like a desperate adolescent. The world lied about the lingering endurance of acne, but the good news is that there are effective things you can do to regain a clear complexion.
The internet will offer you endless ways to get rid of spots – some feasible, others enough to give a dermatologist nightmares – but experts agree the only real solution is a strategic, long-term approach. You can get rid of certain spots overnight, if you’re lucky, but most demand consistency and patience (and no prodding, whatever you do).
The Most Common Causes of Spots on Men's Skin
According to Dr. Anita Sturnham, a GP specialising in dermatology and founder of Decree, male skin behaves in a slightly different way to female skin due to its anatomy. “In the deeper skin layers you will find pilosebaceous units, which are made up of the pores, oil-producing glands and hair follicles. These behave very differently in men, compared to in women,” she explains. “I often describe them to my patients as being the skin’s control centres, responding to hormonal signals."
“These control centres are particularly sensitive to the ‘male’ androgenic hormones, testosterone and DHEA. When these hormones connect, they switch on oil production." As men produce up to ten times more testosterone than women, they produce more oil and so are more susceptible to clogged pores and the growth of oil-loving acne bacteria.
Because nothing is straight-forward in skincare, spots are split into various sub-types - and identifying yours is the important first step in finding a treatment that works. Here, Dr. Sturnham explains the different sub-types of breakout.
Also called ‘open comedones’, blackheads are easily diagnosed by their black colour and are caused by pores becoming clogged with sebum. When the sebum oxidises, it turns black.
These are known as ‘closed comedones’. When you see this type of spot appearing, essentially your pores are clogged with sticky sebum and dead skin cells. As the pore becomes over-filled, you see a small white raised lump on the surface of the skin. These spots are easier to tackle than blackheads as they are much more superficial.
Papules appear as small red bumps on the skin and are caused by excess oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells pushing deeper into the skin. This results in inflammation, redness and swelling. The skin can feel like sandpaper when you have multiple papules. Unlike blackheads and whiteheads, papules are inflamed acne lesions that appear red and bump-like with no head.
Pustules are inflamed red spots with a white or yellow centre. They tend to be larger than blackheads and whiteheads – these are the types of spots that we all struggle not to pick at.
Nodules are hard bumps that sit deep under the skin and can be painful. They are caused by your skin’s immune cells trying to break up and absorb dead skin cells and sticky sebum that collects under the surface. These lesions are more likely to heal with scarring, so prompt treatment is recommended.
These are similar to nodules, but contain pus. Like nodules they are often painful and also have a high risk of scarring. Squeezing can make these so much worse, so leave any intervention to your skin specialist.
How to Get Rid of Spots
Use a spot treatment
Yes, this is the obvious one. Even the most clear-complexioned of us will experience the occasional zit, and when these unwanted visitors appear the quickest way to show them the door is with a targetted treatment. The best ones usually contain a clarifying 'active' ingredient: the most well-known is salicylic acid, which sinks into pores to clear gunk from the inside. Sulfur dries things out, while succinic acid works by exfoliating congested skin.
If your breakouts are regularly occuring, you should begin by fine-tuning your at-home skincare routine. Dr. Sturnham advises first addressing your face wash: something containing a combination of acids is ideal. “Ingredients such as lactic acid and salicylic acid work well, particularly at night,” she says. These acids, known as ‘chemical exfoliators’ work by dissolving the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin cells and excess oil in the skin.
For whiteheads, a benzoyl peroxide gel can work well, and is available both online and over the counter from all pharmacies.
The skincare industry's biggest show-off, retinol is a strong move for tackling the whole menu of skin issues, from breakouts to forehead wrinkles. Retinol skincare comes in varying degrees of potency: some can be grabbed from a shelf, while others – the stronger stuff – is limited to professional prescription. Available without an appointment, Medik8's retinol products are widely considered the gold standard. The brand’s Crystal Retinal serums come in incrementally increasing strengths: start with number 1 and work your way up. Extra sensitive? La Roche-Posay, always.
Switch your moisturiser
Switching your moisturiser may also help relieve persistent breakouts – ideally, you want something free from heavy, occlusive ingredients that can clog pores. Dr. Sturnham recommends Cerave's Oil-Free Moisturiser.
Consult an expert
Certain breakouts, especially the inflammatory type, may require an in-clinic appointment to really get on top of. A professional, be it via your GP or a private dermatologist, may prescribe treatment from a range of options, from light and laser treatments to topical retinols and, in more severe cases, oral antibiotics.
For a long time, getting face-time with a decent skin doctor required both dogged determination and, honestly, quite a fat wallet. But now, online dermagology services are here to bridge the gap, helping you get in front of a professional without staying in until next payday. Get Harley is the best service to know: with fees starting as low as £40, they'll connect you via the magic of Zoom with one of London's leading aestheticians, skin doctors or dermatologists, who will dish out the proper advice and prescribe (if needed) a top-shelf routine.
For a one-and-done topical cream, Skin + Me is a solid move. Another digital dermatology service, this one assesses photos of your skin before concocting you a personalised, prescription-strength product to use at home.
How to Get Rid of Spots: What Not to Do
You know what’s coming now. No one ever heeds the number-one advice when it comes to healing breakouts: don’t pick. Dr. Sturnham cites picking as the number-one mistake she sees, and warns those wandering fingers are likely “worsening inflammation within the skin and increasing the risk of pigmentation and scarring.”
“Over-exfoliating is another issue I see frequently in-clinic,” she adds. “Tempting as it seems, scrubbing your skin Brillo-pad style, in an attempt to rid yourself of blemishes, only makes matters worse.” That’s not to say exfoliation is off the cards completely though, you just need to do it properly with an expert-approved product.
When you’ve got oily, acne-prone skin, regular de-greasing sessions can be beneficial – but don’t take things too far. “Overcleansing will leave your skin barrier weaker and impair hydration – and this can trigger chaotic sebum production, which can ultimately worsen breakouts,” warns Dr. Sturnham.
Similarly, avoid harsh cleansers with semi-threatening slogans slapped across the bottle: anything shouting about eliminating oil or annihilating pores is likely loaded with aggressive, drying ingredients, meaning it’ll make your skin feel squeaky-clean but lead to issues in the long run. Instead, find success with a sensibly formulated men's face wash: a lotion, gel or a decent foam will do.