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Preventing Acne in College: A CF Survival Guide


Preventing acne in college

What’s the worst thing about college? Exam stress? 8 a.m. classes? Not even close – for me, it’s acne.

Getting clear skin in college might actually be harder than getting a degree. Acne is a taboo subject on campus – it’s like our zits were supposed to magically dry up when we got our high school diplomas. Though plenty of people do outgrow their skin woes, college is a breeding ground for stress and unhealthy habits that could contribute to breakouts, leaving many of us battling more and more blemishes.

I’ve dealt with cystic acne since high school. When I got to college, the huge lifestyle change turned my face into a warzone of giant, inflamed pustules. Not very attractive, right?

My skin is my biggest insecurity, and at times it’s left me feeling really low. Now that my face is clearing up, I’ve realized how much having acne has affected the way I see myself. I don’t want anyone else to struggle the way I did! So over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing tips on how to prevent acne, the best makeup for acne-prone skin, and my favorite natural acne remedies.

Note: While I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of breakouts, I am not a doctor. If you’re suffering from severe, painful, persistent acne that doesn’t respond to treatment, I highly recommend seeing a dermatologist to find a plan that’s right for you.

Acne Prevention 101

1. Keep stress to a minimum

Photo Credits: 1, 2

Stress and acne often go hand in hand. When your stress levels increase, so does sebum production. Excess sebum can clog hair follicles and cause breakouts.

I know what you’re thinking – How am I supposed to minimize stress when I have two papers and a group presentation due next week? This is something I really struggle with, too, but managing stress is possible if you work at it. Here are some tips that helped me:

  • Get plenty of sleep. We all have to pull the occasional all-nighter, but constantly messing with your sleep cycle can wreck havoc on both your skin and your mental health. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, and make sure you’re clocking about eight hours per night. (If you have to stay up and study now and then, see our guide to getting back on track after an all-nighter.)
  • Get organized. Creating a schedule can be a daunting task, but it’s amazing how much more you can accomplish if you write everything down. Breaking your workload down into manageable chunks or daily tasks will help you stay calm and focused, even during finals week. For more, see our tips on creating a schedule and de-cluttering your life!
  • Exercise. Finding time to exercise in college is hard, but it has to be done. If you’re constantly feeling stressed, anxious, or unable to concentrate, your hormone levels will spike, which can make your skin go crazy. Exercise helps regulate those hormones, while fighting fatigue and maintaining alertness. I’m a pretty lazy person, so to motivate myself, I like to pretend I’m running with a member of One Direction. (Whatever, don’t even act like Zayn isn’t adorable!)
  • Take time for yourself. With all the sleeping, exercising and reorganizing you’re doing, you might start to feel a little… stressed. That’s why it’s really important to take a step back once in a while and do something for yourself. Go to the movies by yourself, buy a trashy tabloid and flip through it with a giant mug of tea, get caught up on your favorite show – focus on treating yourself! Your skin will thank you.

2. Re-think your diet

French fries
Photo Credit

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the connection between acne and diet. Some specialists say that foods have nothing to do with acne, while others say oily, sugary foods are a major contributor to breakouts.

The general consensus? Processed foods can cause hormonal surges, which can lead to excess oil and sebum production. (Which, again, can cause breakouts.)

After testing this theory on myself, I noticed my breakouts got worse whenever I ate dairy, which unfortunately contains hormones that stimulate oil glands. Even though I still indulge in the occasional pint (or two) of Ben & Jerry’s, since I started cutting back on dairy, my skin has improved significantly.

My best tip? Keep an eye on what you eat and see if it could be connected to your breakouts, then try to eliminate those foods from your diet and maybe even replace them with so-called acne-fighting foods.

3. Don’t touch your face!

This tip is pretty self-explanatory. Keep your fingers away from your face – they harbor plenty of oils and bacteria that will clog your pores and break you out. That goes for picking at and popping zits, too! Picking at a zit, especially if it’s a cyst, is only a temporary solution. Rest assured, the zit will return with a vengeance, leaving you with a nasty scar in the process.

Another way to keep your natural oils away from your face is to regularly wash your  pillowcases (at least once per week), or sleep with a clean white towel over your pillow.

Best Acne Preventing Skincare Products

As any long-term acne sufferer will tell you, I’ve tried basically every acne product on the market.

In my quest for clear skin, I’ve found that you really only need a gentle face wash you can use twice a day, a light moisturizer that can be worn under makeup, and, of course, a topical acne spot treatment for problem pimples. Here are a few of my favorite products!

Face washes

Product Information: Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser, Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash, Kinerase Gentle Daily Cleanser, Garnier The Ultimate Cleanser, Philosophy Purity Made Simple, CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser

Cetaphil is the holy grail of facial cleansers. It’s gentle but extremely effective, and removes every ounce of dirt and oil without being too drying. CeraVe (better for dry skin) and Garnier make similar cleansers, while high-end brands like Kinerase provide the same cleansing benefits while also reducing scarring and dark spots.

I recommend using a gentle cleanser that’s not specifically designed for acne, especially if you have inflamed pustules or acne that is deeply embedded in your skin. Sometimes the harsh chemicals or exfoliants in acne washes can irritate the skin further, although Neutrogena makes great, noncomedogenic cleansers specifically for acne-prone skin.

I also stay away from most acne cleansers because they usually don’t completely remove all of my makeup, which just traps more oil and dirt under my skin. If you have trouble with removing your makeup, Philosophy’s one-step cleanser will remove it in a snap.


Product Information: Cetaphil Daily Facial MoisturizerOrigins Zero Oil Moisture Lotion, Aveeno Clear Complexion Daily Moisturizer, Murad Skin Perfecting Lotion, Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisture

After cleansing, you should apply a gentle facial moisturizer to keep your skin looking and feeling healthy. Though acne sufferers may be wary of moisturizers and creams, in fact, not moisturizing can cause your skin to produce even more sebum to compensate, exacerbating the problem.

If you’re prone to breakouts, you must choose a moisturizer that’s noncomedogenic. Noncomedogenic products are much less likely to clog pores and cause even more problems. Origins makes one of my favorite oil-free moisturizers, while Aveeno’s Clear Complexion Moisturizer is a good drugstore alternative. For a more intensive facial treatment that actively works to fight acne and other skin woes, try Murad’s skin perfecting line.

If you’re dealing with acne scars or hyper-pigmentation, finding a moisturizer with SPF is crucial, as sun exposure can make those pesky dark spots fade even slower. Cetaphil and Neutrogena make great SPF moisturizers that won’t clog your pores.

Spot treatments

Product Information: AcneFree Severe Terminator 10, Philosophy Clear Days Ahead, Body Shop Tea Tree Oil, Neutrogena On the Spot Acne Treatment, Murad Acne Spot Treatment, Origins Super Spot Remover

I’m actually not a huge fan of spot treatments, and I know they aren’t exactly “preventative,” but when you have to get rid of a zit in a hurry, a good spot treatment can help speed up the process. There are two ingredients to look for here: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.

If your skin is tough enough to handle benzoyl peroxide, you’re in luck. You can handle the most powerful spot treatments, which can contain up to 10% benzoyl peroxide. AcneFree’s Terminator 10 is the strongest, most effective spot treatment I’ve ever tried, but use with caution: It is extremely drying, and once I used it on a group of zits around my hairline and ended up with a bleach stain in my hair! Neutrogena also makes a similar, less intense version.

Those with dry or sensitive skin should stick to salicylic acid or sulphur-based products. These are gentler and help exfoliate the skin from the inside, making it less likely for your zit to return. Murad’s spot treatment is the best I’ve tried, but Philosophy makes a great gentle version and Origins’ version helps heal scars. Though they’re generally more expensive and take longer to work, your skin will thank you in the long run.

Finally, you could also go the all-natural route and give tea tree oil a try. It can destroy the zit without drying out your skin, though I’ve found it works better on smaller whiteheads.

Your thoughts?

Do you have any acne prevention tips? What acne-fighting products do you use? If you’ve already conquered your acne, how did you do it? Be sure to share your stories and advice in the comments!

* Top photo credit: iStockPhoto

Posted on on February 9, 2013 / Filed Under: Beauty & Hair / Tags: , , , , , ,

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43 Responses to “Preventing Acne in College: A CF Survival Guide”

  1. 1
    February 9th, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    If you have really bad acne, I’d really recommend going to see your doctor. Generally you have to see your family doctor first, not a dermatologist, if it’s acne, but they can prescribe you stronger treatment. I use generic Differin and it’s amazing. With my insurance it only costs $10 and a tube lasts me months. It simplifies my skincare routine – I only use cleanser, the Differin, and then moisturizer at night. During the day I always use sunscreen because it makes skin more sensitive to the sun (and I’m already really susceptible to sunburns!). The only bad thing is that your skin gets worse before it gets better. For about the first 3 months my skin was awful, then all of a sudden it cleared up.

  2. 2
    February 9th, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Cleaning your phone (with rubbing alcohol) is also super important when it comes to diminishing acne and most people forget that it carries so many germs but it’s crucial for clearer skin.

  3. 3
    February 9th, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Cetaphil is a wonderful line, but a word of warning to you who are looking to use the facial moisturizer: keep it as far from your lips as possible. I use the stuff religiously, and have a habit of moisturizing too close to my mouth. Not only does the cream have a tendency to sting if you have chapped lips, it also tastes awful and the taste doesn’t go away unless you (rather vigorously and violently) brush your teeth and tongue.

  4. 4
    February 9th, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Amazing tips! Can you guys do an article on keeping up healthy skin in winter???

  5. 5
    February 9th, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I use the three step Proactiv treatment and I use Origins moisturizer, concealer, and foundation. Proactiv works – plain and simple. A bit pricey, but my skin is now crystal clear! Plus, I stay away from extra dairy!

  6. 6
    February 9th, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    The more you wash your face, especially with harsh cleansers, the more likely you’re going to have ance. This is because every time you wash your face, you’re stripping the natural oils from your face and your skin then over compensates by creating more oil than it needs. The results are pimples. It sucks, but it’s the truth.

  7. 7
    February 9th, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    I’m actually allergic to salicylic acid and sulphur-based products. Instead I use a brand called Nature’s Gate and Noxema (available at Sprouts). Additionally, I use Clarisonic sensitive brushes to cleanse, and the Zap Tanda blue light LED therapy due to it’s bacteria cleansing abilities (both are available at Ulta). This routine has cut my acne by 60%.

  8. 8
    February 9th, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    I don’t have acne prone skin, but diet, exercise, and plenty of water are crucial to keeping my skin clear! The really strong peroxide drying cream does work, but only put it on the actual pimple, any skin w/o any blemish will just get irritated and inflamed. I really like Simple cleansers and St. Ives moisterizers.

  9. 9
    February 9th, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    I had terrible terrible skin for a while. I didn’t even want to leave my dorm to go to class. I gave up dairy over the summer, and, with the exception of the occasional breakout, my skin is flawless. I think dietary changes are at least worth a shot for anyone struggling with acne.

  10. 10
    February 10th, 2013 at 12:01 am

    This is a great post! Cetaphil is one of the awesom-est products I’ve ever tried! :)
    I also use pure aloe Vera gel to moisturize my face – just a tiny amount enough your entire face! It also kinda acts like a primer, my makeup doesn’t budge at all!

  11. 11
    February 10th, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Another thing great about aloe Vera gel is that it really helps to heal your skin and tame down the redness and irritation caused by acne :) and it doesn’t make your face oily at all. Has really worked for me, I would recommend it to anyone really!

  12. 12
    February 10th, 2013 at 1:47 am

    Heh. I’m reading an article telling me I should get enough sleep. It is funny because it is ironic, and it’s ironic because it’s almost 12am.

  13. 13
    February 10th, 2013 at 2:24 am

    So true and awesome!

  14. 14
    February 10th, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Definitely agree with using gentle cleanser instead of acne special ones! Been there too… I thought it would help but it just made my face worse -,-

  15. 15
    February 10th, 2013 at 8:47 am

    I tried almost everything, including topical prescriptions from my dermatologist for moderate acne. Eventually I was prescribed accutane. It was expensive even with good insurance, and at times painful (it makes your skin pretty dry), but SO WORTH IT. My skin is amazing now and I get compliments on it all the time.

  16. 16
    February 10th, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I don’t really know about the whole junk food-ance correlation thing, but acne can definitely be caused by food sensitivities that you are unaware of! I used to have pretty bad acne in high school, but then I found out I was allergic to gluten. I stopped eating it and my skin cleared up a lot! Now that I’m in college, I still notice pimples coming up if I slip up and eat gluten.
    I also started using only clinique cleansing products last year and now I won’t use anything else! They make your skin feel really clean while still moisturizing and making it really soft..even the oily skin line. They have an amazing spot moisturizer too.. the moisture surge in a jar is by far the best moisturizer I’ve ever used.

  17. 17
    February 10th, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    First of all, this is a great post so thank you!

    I only really break our around my period, and it’s so frustrating. Nothing I can find helps, I’ve looked pretty hard (I also get debilitating migraines, so it’s not just vanity) and the only thing I can find is under the “avoid” column is “menstruation”. Jeez, thanks.

    Does anyone have tips for hormonal breakouts?

  18. 18
    February 10th, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Yes! It’s weird how we don’t realize how disgusting our phone screens are. I try to remember to wipe it with a little peroxide once a day.

    Thanks for sharing your tips, everyone!

  19. 19
    February 10th, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    I cannot recommend Noxema enough. I get a big tub for $6 and it lasts forever. I have very sensitive skin (I can’t use salicylic acid nor benzoyl peroxide), so my dermatologist gave me a Vitamin A-based cream. I recommend it!!

  20. 20
    February 10th, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    I’ve talked to my dermatologist, and for people with sensitive AND acne prone skin, a SOAP FREE cleanser will do you wonders! Soap irritates skin and contributes to inflammation.

  21. 21
    February 10th, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Ooh! Great tips! Since everyone is giving tips, here’s mine: Noxema every day and night, and lemon juice overnight for spots!

  22. 22
    February 10th, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    I have yet to try this, but I’ve heard from some makeup artists that the liquid inside an aspirin gel tablet is a quick fix for pimples that have randomly appeared overnight. Has anyone tried this?

  23. 23
    February 10th, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    I’ve had oily skin and acne for as long as i can remember, but, i can actually honestly say that there isn’t a spot on my face right now! i found a post on pinterest about oil and believe it or not but it works! ok, wash your face using olive oil! i never would have thought but my face doesnt get all oily anymore and my makeup lasts all day. first, wet a washcloth with hot water and let it sit on your face to open your pores, then take a teaspoon size of olive oil ( for moisturizing) mixed with cold compressed castor oil (draws out impurities) and massage your face with it. using a hot facecloth, wipe the oil off your face. Then wipe a cold facecloth on your face to close your pores and pat dry with a towel. i dont have castor oil so i just use olive oil. oily skin is a result of your skin overcompensating for the damage done from acne facial washes. the olive oil breakdowns oil and leaves your skin with enough moisture it wont have to produce any excess. some nights if im really tired, i just wipe my makeup off with olive oil rather than washing it properly and i dont break out. also drink alot of water, sleep well and take evening primrose oil capsules every morning (balances hormones thus controlling mood swings, promoting healthy skin, nails and hair.)

  24. 24
    February 11th, 2013 at 12:47 am

    I have used Aveeno moisturizer for a while, and I love it! I won’t use any other brand now. It’s moisturizing without being greasy and doesn’t have a weird smell. It’s a little pricey compared to other drugstore brands, but it’s so nice on my skin.

  25. 25
    February 12th, 2013 at 11:11 am

    I have never had severe acne, but I have had the occasional pimple, the best thing moisturizers that I have ever used on my face is Nivea and believe it or not Vaseline. In my opinion Vaseline is the best moisturizer out there, it is cheap and very effective in clearing your skin up.

  26. 26
    February 12th, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    I never had too much trouble with acnes, except with blackheads. I have very persistent blackheads that last for… as long as I can remember. I’ve tried everything but the one that really works is Paula’s Choice BHA and AHA exfoliants. I don’t use it at the same time, but one night after another. It’s not drying at all and for a huge bottle and that price, it’s a bargain! :)

  27. 27
    February 15th, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    I’ve been using an Acne Clarifying Treatment from Apothederm and it has been working wonders on my adult acne!

  28. 28
    February 16th, 2013 at 3:50 am

    The concept of using less harsh cleansers for sensitive faces – that’s a good idea! Probably why I keep on having breakouts and random times, because I use really strong cleansers. I have an oily face, but I think I’m gonna stick to cleansers to keep my face fresh, not to strip away the oil completely. Thanks College Fashion! Another article done well.

  29. 29
    February 18th, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I actually had improved skin once I went to college! I finally started sleeping 8-9 hours a night which really helped, and I switched to an all natural routine. I use oil on my face at night: and some other recipes you can find on this website. My skin is glowing!

  30. 30
    February 21st, 2013 at 3:24 am

    I used to use AcneFree’s Terminator until recently it started really hurting my face. My face would puff up, and I would develop a red rash all over it. It sucks because it was incredibly effective until then, my acne was gone in under a week every time I used it!

    So basically I really recommend if you don’t have sensitive skin. If your skin starts itching after you apply get it off your face!

  31. 31
    February 28th, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Hands-down, my favourite face wash is the Aveeno Smart Essentials Daily Detoxifying scrub. It’s seriously the best ever. I have really sensitive skin, so I have to go with the really basic stuff. The detergent without dye or fragrance, the face wash without much of anything… You get the idea. I use that face wash because it’s got the right amount of scrubbies and is gentle enough to clean my face without causing trouble.
    I used to use really harsh facial cleansers, like Stridex pads, but they make me break out worse because of all the chemicals. I can’t use zit-zappers, either. But that face wash keeps my skin clear, and I love it.

  32. 32
    March 8th, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    I would not recommend using CeraVe at all. I have very sensitive skin that is prone to redness from allergic reactions. My dermatologist recommended trying the CeraVe cleanser since it is supposed to be really hypoallergenic, but it gave me terrible breakouts.

  33. 33
    March 26th, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    This may be a silly question but, I don’t really know when to moisturize. I shower at night and don’t know if I should put on my moisturizer which has SPF after I shower or when I get ready in the morning. Is there a difference in the timing?

  34. 34
    May 29th, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    So this spring I decided to clear up my skin for the summer weather and i found out two things
    1. Cetaphil is the best EVER. Hands down. i use the wash every morning, then moisturizer morning and afternoon.
    2. Now to contradict point 1. My dermatoligist told me that you can use Cerave soap, rub it into your face (No water!), then pat it off with a tissue. It takes off all my makeup and dirt and sweat, and it is so easy! One of my biggest issues before was I would go to bed, remember I didn’t wash my face, then be too lazy to go to the bathroom and wash it of. This way is so much easier, you feel so much guiltier if you don’t do it. Just simple steps of washing and moisturizing do so much.

  35. 35
    June 14th, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    I’m halfway through my third semester, and I have still had acne since I was 14. It’s exhausting! College and acne are two things that just don’t mix. Between classes, stress, crazy relationships and trying to eat healthy, it’s hard to keep up the best skincare routine. I love this College Fashion article, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll take all the tips and advice you can get. I would greatly also recommend this article:

    It’s all about getting clear skin and being healthy, even with a crazy busy college lifestyle. It’ll help!

  36. 36
    July 5th, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I highly recommend a face wash with NEEM. It helps clean out your pores by dragging all the dirt to the top. Also for body acne, charcoal is good because it does the same as neem and works great on those annoying pimples on your chest and back that are a pain in the butt to get rid of (and makes you end up with blood blisters when you try to pop them.)

  37. 37
    September 1st, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    I liked the article, but I have to say I did find “from Sweden” what my friend “From Sweden” used for her acne and she had some with her when she was an exchange student. It’s Lerosett and I used it and I was floored, 100% organic and works almost immediately. Its what pregnant women use for acne, if you search pregnant acne treatment you will see its the most recommended acne treatment when no drugs are to be used. But I dont care it worked better than two Rx’s I had.

  38. 38
    February 25th, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I get the occasional painful cyst-type acne (I am in my mid 20’s and this is a recent development).I have pretty sensitive dry/normal combo skin and other treatments I have tried have just made me peely and flaky.

    I have been using Citrus Clear Control products for a month. At first the treatment was a little drying so I went to using it every other night and now I am applying it every night following it up with the moisturizer. My skin is DEFINITELY clearer. It is still a little irritating every once in awhile but I have not had any peeling/redness. It definitely stops the cyst-type acne from coming back.

  39. 39
    August 8th, 2014 at 5:17 am

    Hey there! This is kind of off topic but I need some
    advice from an established blog. Is it hard to set up your
    own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty
    quick. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure
    where to begin. Do you have any tips or suggestions? Many thanks

  40. 40
    August 28th, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    This is great info! Thanks for sharing!

    I never had bad acne in high-school except for the occasional breakout, and my back and chest acne was always wayy worse than my face. But in the past year or so it’s been consistently bad so I knew I had to do something.

    I had heard for a long time that sugar was an acne evil, but recently read a blog that mentioned gluten too! It made sense, being that acne is technically an infection and gluten and sugar feed infection. So I decided I’d give it a try…I had tried everything, including Proactive, at that point and was close to giving up. I didn’t COMPLETELY cut sugar and gluten out of my diet…I love the Texas Roadhouse rolls and cinnamon butter wayyy too much. I did however cut out most of the sugar and gluten I was eating. I didn’t realize how MUCH of that I was eating! That means I cut out all soda, started substituting sugar in recipes with Stevia, etc. etc. I began drinking lots of water, too. That way it would help flush all the YUCK out of my system.
    Within a couple of weeks, my skin was SOO much clearer. I couldn’t believe the difference. Not to mention, cutting all that sugar out of my diet made me feel better and gave me more energy too! I was amazed. It may not work for everyone, but it sure made a believer out of me! :)

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