When to See a Dermatologist for Your Acne — And What to Do if You Can't

When a skin condition like acne seems to be getting out of control, it’s human nature to want to break out the big guns (or prescriptions, as the case may be). But let’s back up a minute and remember that oftentimes, there are ways you can manage breakouts before you need to make a doctor’s appointment.

According to Dr. Sandra Lee, there are a few key active ingredients available over the counter that are highly effective in treating and preventing acne. Here, we break down her best advice: what to do first, and when it’s time to make the call.

A patient visiting dermatologist Dr. Pimple Popper for acne treatment

6 minute read

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4 signs you should see a dermatologist for your acne

#1 You’ve tried a combination of OTC acne fighting ingredients

Breakouts might seem sudden, but they’re not: behind the scenes, pores first need to fill with sebum and dead skin to become comedones. It may stop there, with blackheads and whiteheads, or it may progress to inflammation as a result of a proliferation of C. acnes bacteria.

When you’re experiencing active acne, it’s important to address every stage of this process, to stop the cycle. Dr. Lee suggests trying a combination of dermatological acne-fighting ingredients:

Finding the right combination of ingredients and formulas can be intimidating, which is a main reason why Dr. Lee created her Acne System — so there’s no guesswork involved. It’s three steps, including a moisturizer, to make sure the skin barrier stays healthy during treatment.

Acne System by SLMD Skincare

#2 You’ve stuck with your acne regimen for at least 3 months

Yes, you read that right: it can take about twelve weeks to see the impact of dermatological acne treatments. In fact, some research indicates that the full results of using retinoids can take up to a year. While we don’t suggest you wait that long if your condition isn’t improving, it does illustrate that patience is key.

So why does it take so long? Because of the process we detailed above — we know that pimples have a life cycle which begins long before you experience any noticeable symptoms. Pores that are turning into comedones, and inflammatory pimples that are spreading C. acnes bacteria, take time to resolve.

Another possible factor to consider is skin purging: the temporary surge in acne that can occur as deeper layers of skin quickly come to the surface. Using retinoids or alpha and beta hydroxy acids helps shed older skin cells to reveal the skin beneath, which may be harboring comedones or early stage inflammatory acne. Sometimes referred to as acne flaring, the phenomenon typically begins a couple of weeks into a new routine, and should subside around the one month mark.

#3 Your acne is creating scars

There are basically two ways that pimples can leave a permanent mark:

  • If they’re inflamed and/or deep in the dermis. Nodular and cystic acne occur when bacteria breaches the wall of the pore, inciting an immune response. Damage to the surrounding skin structure can lead to scarring.
  • If you pick your pimples, regardless of the type. Squeezing, picking and popping comedones and/or inflammatory pimples can create a more serious wound and spread bacteria — both of which can generate a scar.

If you’re experiencing inflammatory acne, it’s important to start a comprehensive regimen (like SLMD Acne System) and to spot treat with benzoyl peroxide (like BP Spot Treatment), to minimize the chances of scarring. If you have a tendency to pick, covering pimples with Spot Check acne patches will help heal while keeping your fingers away.

While your pimples are healing, you may also experience a condition that Dr. Lee sees all the time, known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). This happens when your skin deposits excess melanin pigment in response to trauma. The good news is that PIH typically heals well on its own, without the need for a dermatologist visit. Certain ingredients like retinol and kojic acid can help minimize the look of breakout-related dark marks. Use sunscreen to prevent further damage.

Dark Spot Fix for hyperpigmentation by SLMD Skincare

#4 Your self esteem is suffering

Studies show that a significant percentage of acne patients experience some form of mental health decline — anxiety, depression, and the like — as a direct result of their condition. And unfortunately, stress can trigger more breakouts, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle.

But thanks in part to social media and figures like Dr. Pimple Popper, we’re finally beginning to normalize common skin conditions like acne. Even still, breakouts can affect our self-confidence. Taking control of your acne, by educating yourself and following a consistent routine, can help bolster your emotional well-being as you begin your skincare journey.

What to do if you don’t have access to a dermatologist

So you’ve tried all the right ingredients, given them enough of a chance, and your acne still hasn’t cleared? Time to make that appointment with the dermatologist. But what happens when they’re booking months in advance, or if your medical plan makes things difficult? Don’t despair, says Dr. Lee — there are still some things you can try:

  • Channel your inner Dr. Pimple Popper. A good dermatologist will take the time to get to know you: your family and medical history, as well as any lifestyle choices that may be impacting your skin health. Becoming your own dermatological detective — examining things like stress, sleep, even your cosmetics — may lead you to a skin health breakthrough.
  • Pay a visit to your primary care doctor instead. Your general practitioner can help rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing your breakouts, such as perimenopause, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). From there, a physician can prescribe the best course of action — including some topical or oral medications if necessary.
  • Find a healthy skin support community. One of the beautiful things about social technologies is the ability to connect with people who are experiencing similar challenges. Seeking out a group on social media can be a source of information, support and encouragement along your journey.

Dr. Lee’s last word

In a perfect world, I’d love to be able to treat every patient who needed to come see me — and everyone who needed to visit a dermatologist would be able to. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case, which is one of the primary reasons why I put so much effort into educating on social media. It’s also why I founded SLMD Skincare: to bring dermatological quality skincare to everyone who needs it. If you have a skin condition, there is hope — even if you can’t get to the doctor.

—Dr. Sandra Lee

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