Subclinical Acne Is the Worst—Here's How to Handle It

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If you struggle with pesky forehead bumps, know you’re not alone. Spots of all kinds can be a major confidence killer (although we totally believe you should embrace the skin you’re in), so it’s no wonder that countless people scour the internet for tips and tricks on how to deal with it.

However, if you want to banish subclinical acne—those tiny forehead bumps that don’t look as ferocious as full-blown zits—it’s actually pretty easy.

What is subclinical acne?

Forehead bumps are annoying, yes, but they’re also a sign that your skin isn’t exactly happy. Think of it like a precursor to regular acne. Subclinical, which means “not detectable,” means that—while it might not look like a full-blown breakout—the cause is basically the same.


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“Subclinical acne is superficial acne that is just below the skin,” says Michele Green, M.D., of RealSelf. “Also known as comedonal acne, it’s caused by hormones, genetics, and clogged pores from dead skin, dirt, and bacteria.”

If these tiny flesh-colored or red bumps are causing you stress, it’s important to remember to treat the cause—whether that’s oily skin, a buildup of dead skin cells, hormones, or something else entirely—instead of seeking a temporary solution.

“Think of acne as a field of dandelions: You can get rid of the ones you see, but you’ll soon be dealing with new growth—a kind of whack-a-mole carnival game put on by Mother Nature,” says David Lortscher, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of Curology. “So in thinking about treating acne, we want to prevent new blemishes, not chase the old ones around!”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to banish the bumps ASAP.

So, how do you get rid of it?

According to Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., medical director of Mudgil Dermatology, the best way to treat and prevent subclinical acne is to go back to basics.

“A good hygiene regimen is key,” Mudgil says. He believes in washing your face at least twice daily with a mild cleanser as well as only using products—sunscreen, makeup, moisturizers—that are labeled as “non-comedogenic.” The makeup or skin care products you’re wearing could be contributing to your subclinical acne as well, so keep your skin natural (with quality sunscreen, obviously) as much as possible.

Mudgil recommends using prescription retinoid creams (as long as you’re not pregnant or nursing), as well as products containing benzoyl peroxide to treat and prevent blocked pores.

How do you treat subclinical acne (besides actually setting aside time to wash your face?)

“At-home treatment for the earliest of clogged pores may include salicylic acid or a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which can provide exfoliation while also helping to prevent and treat blocked pores,” Lortscher says. “The best treatment for comedones, whether or not they’re visible, is a retinoid. Tretinoin, a prescription retinoid, is the active ingredient in acne topicals such as Retin-A. These decrease the formation of microcomedones (or early blocked pores) by normalizing the life cycle of the cells that line the pore opening.”

Basically, less dead skin cells blocking your pores will lead to less buildup, which means less subclinical acne and clearer skin overall. Lortscher explains that tretinoin also has anti-inflammatory properties, which means it’s great for treating all kinds of acne—not just prevention.

However, not everyone has access to prescription medication, and—if you want to clear your skin naturally or avoid any potential side effects from harsh products—there are still options for you. Make sure you drink enough water and choose foods that aren’t making acne worse. Use a gentle natural cleanser to reduce excess oil and you can even try a DIY face mask to get some skin-boosting benefits.

Remember, when it comes to getting rid of subclinical acne, it’s important to treat your skin right. Don’t just wait for bumps to pop up before you start washing your face—keep your skin happy and healthy year-round so it can love you back.

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