Breakouts can seem like a big mystery: one day you notice a couple of blackheads, and the next thing you know, your face is erupting with full-on angry pimples.

But pimples have a predictable life cycle that starts at a microscopic level, says Sandra Lee, MD (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) — which means you can help stop acne before it even starts.

How does acne start?

All breakouts begin with clogged pores - when your pores fill up with excess oil (sebum), dead skin cells and debris. These clogged pores become visible and are what we lovingly refer to as blackheads and whiteheads. 

How can you stop acne before it starts?

Many people don’t realize that inflammatory acne — those red, sometimes painful pimples, pustules, nodules and cysts — start out as clogged pores. So if you can prevent pores from becoming blocked, you can avoid all types of acne.

#1 Keep your skin clean

Washing your face twice daily will remove excess oil and any dirt and debris that can get trapped in your pores. Find a gentle, exfoliating cleanser with an ingredient like salicylic acid for that extra oomph in keeping your pores clear.

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#2 Exfoliate regularly

Dr. Lee recommends using a combination of chemical exfoliants (like salicylic and glycolic acids) to gently remove dead skin cells. This will both unclog pores and remove layers of dead skin.

Gentle, but effective exfoliation

#3 Incorporate retinol

Adding this vitamin A derivative helps regulate cell turnover — which is one of the things that goes awry in people with acne-prone skin. This also has an exfoliating effect, which discourages breakouts and helps diminish hyperpigmentation.

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#4 Try an acne kit

If you’re experiencing chronic breakouts, a comprehensive skincare approach is your best bet. A high-quality kit that combines all the right ingredients, when used consistently, can calm breakouts (at every stage) more effectively. 

Dr. Pimple Popper’s Acne-Stopper Tips

Dr. Lee's Last Word

I just can’t stress this enough: the best thing you can do to keep your skin as clear as possible is to use skincare products that help unclog your pores and gently exfoliate. Ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinol are an extremely effective combination for this!

—Dr. Sandra Lee