Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, DNP, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/2/2021
While we all strive to maintain clear skin, life has a habit of sending us acne breakouts, rashes and other annoying skin issues at the worst possible times.
Luckily, gaining control over your skin is much easier than it often seems, especially when you understand what causes acne breakouts to develop — and the steps you can take to prevent them.
Below, we’ve covered everything you need to know about how to get clear skin for men, from how acne develops in the first place to the most effective habits for getting rid of breakouts, keeping them away and maintaining acne-free skin in any environment.
Before getting into the practical side of scoring clearer skin, it’s important to cover the basics of how acne breakouts form.
In order to keep itself moisturized and protected from bacteria, fungi and other germs, your skin secretes an oily substance called sebum.
Sebum is essential for your barrier function and skin health. However, when your skin secretes too much sebum, it can build up inside your hair follicles (also referred to as pores) and result in blockages.
In addition to secreting sebum, your skin is constantly repairing itself through a process referred to as epidermal turnover.
As part of this process, new cells are created in the basal layer of your skin. Over the course of 40 to 56 days, these cells move up toward the surface, replacing the old layer of cells that are exposed to the sun, wind and other sources of damage.
Over time, each new wave of cells turns into a layer of dead skin cells that build up on the surface of your skin and are gradually shed into the environment.
When these cells mix with excess sebum, they can turn into a thick substance that blocks pores and causes whiteheads, blackheads and other forms of acne to develop.
Acne becomes more severe when bacteria enter the equation.
When bacteria becomes trapped inside a clogged pore, it can multiply quickly, causing the skin to become infected, inflamed and uncomfortable.
When severe, this bacterial growth can result in painful forms of acne such as papules, pustules and cystic acne.
Behind the scenes, a variety of factors all play a role in this process, including genetics and your body’s production of certain hormones. You can learn more about this topic in our full guide to testosterone and acne.
With so many skin care products available for men, preventing acne breakouts and maintaining clear skin can seem like a complex puzzle that’s virtually impossible to solve.
However, glowing skin can be a reality, and getting rid of acne and achieving healthy skin is surprisingly simple. It is at least in theory — once you’re aware of how acne works.
At a basic level, all acne treatments work by doing one or more of the following:
Controlling the amount of sebum your skin produces
Preventing dead cells from building up on your skin
Limiting the growth of acne-causing bacteria
Reducing swelling, pain and inflammation
Treating acne effectively comes down to identifying what’s causing your acne in the first place and then putting the most effective tools to work as part of your skin care routine to bring these factors under control.
Here are nine actionable tips you can use to get control of acne breakouts and maintain clear, acne-free skin throughout your life.
Clear skin starts with clean skin. And one of the most important steps in preventing acne is to wash away dirt, sweat, sebum and other substances that can clog pores and contribute to acne breakouts.
Instead of washing your face with soap, use a gentle, mild daily cleanser formulated to control your skin’s sebum levels and wash away dead skin cells.
Good ingredients to look for in a cleanser include benzoyl peroxide and mild exfoliants such as salicylic acid.
Keep reading to learn how these ingredients work along with their effect on acne breakouts.
While it’s important to wash your face, overdoing it can lead to irritated, dry skin — and leave you more prone to acne.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends washing your skin twice a day, as well as after doing anything that causes you to sweat. This helps prevent sweat from building up on your skin, contributing to acne breakouts.
When you wash your face, apply products carefully using your fingertips, and move them across your skin in gentle, circular motions.
Avoid using a sponge, cloth or brush, as these can harm your skin and contribute to irritation.
Most of the time, acne breakouts can be controlled and prevented with topical medications that come as creams, gels or masks.
Some topical acne medications are available over the counter, while stronger medications often require a prescription.
Popular over-the-counter medications include retinol, adapalene, benzoyl peroxide and peeling agents such as salicylic acid.
These ingredients work together to target acne from multiple angles: tretinoin by increasing the skin’s ability to create and shed cells, and clindamycin by controlling the growth of acne-causing bacteria and reducing swelling.
You can learn more about these medications and how they work in this detailed guide to prescription acne medications.
Although most acne can be controlled by topical medications, severe acne often requires a more powerful form of treatment.
Enter oral acne medications, such as isotretinoin and systemic antibiotics. These medications are generally used for difficult-to-treat acne, such as nodular or cystic acne.
Isotretinoin is a retinoid with benefits similar to topical retinoids like tretinoin. It’s highly effective, but has a substantial risk of causing side effects and needs to be used with caution.
Systemic antibiotics such as doxycycline, minocycline and amoxicillin work by controlling the growth of acne-causing bacteria.
You’ll need to talk to your healthcare provider and receive a prescription before using either of these medications.
One easy way to keep your skin clear and prevent acne breakouts is to exfoliate (strip away dead skin cells) on a regular basis.
Exfoliating helps to prevent acne by removing the dead skin cells that can mix with sebum and clog your pores.
It can also give your skin a youthful appearance. For example, research has found that exfoliating has an “almost immediate” benefit on the appearance of skin.
For most people, the easiest way to exfoliate is by using a facial cleanser that contains alpha or beta hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, lactic acid or salicylic acid.
These work by gently dissolving dead skin cells, which you can then wash away in the shower or bath.
Another way to exfoliate is mechanically, using a cloth, sponge or brush. If you prefer to clean your skin this way, it’s important to take a gentle approach to avoid irritating your skin.
The American Academy of Dermatology suggests exfoliating your skin gently using short, light strokes, and avoiding exfoliation if your skin is irritated, sunburned or injured.
It’s important to regularly apply moisturizer to your skin, especially if you use medications such as tretinoin or chemical exfoliants, which can strip your skin of moisture.
Moisturizing while you treat acne helps to stop your skin from becoming overly dry — a common issue which — as mentioned above — can worsen your acne breakouts.
Look for moisturizers formulated to keep skin properly hydrated, without giving you unnaturally oily skin. For example, this Moisturizer for Men features hyaluronic acid, a natural agent capable of retaining more than 1,000 times its natural weight in moisture.
Even the most effective acne treatments need time to start working. After you start using acne medication, or even an over-the-counter product such as a mild cleanser, make sure to wait at least two to three months before you assess your results.
During this time, keep using your acne treatment as directed, even if you don’t notice any real changes on a daily basis.
Over time, you’ll start to see an improvement in your skin. Remember that it may take as long as six months before your skin begins to look clear, particularly if you’re prone to persistent or severe acne breakouts.
Popping your pimples might seem like a quick and easy way to get clear skin, but it’s more likely to make your breakouts worse.
When you squeeze a pimple, it’s easy to push the contents deeper inside the pore, causing your acne to become more severe.
Popping pimples can also spread bacteria onto your skin, making your breakouts more inflamed and severe. Even when infected acne breakouts clear, they may be more likely to leave behind acne scars.
If you have severe or persistent acne, don’t try to pop it at home. Instead, get in touch with your healthcare provider.
If your acne is severe, they may refer you to a specialist for treatments such as acne extraction or treatment with corticosteroid medication.
Contrary to popular belief, spending time in the sun won’t clear your skin of acne over the long term.
When you spend time outside in bright sunlight without sun protection, your skin becomes dry as it sheds oil.
This can temporarily make whiteheads, blackheads and other acne lesions smaller and less visible.
However, this effect is only temporary. Not only does sun exposure damage your skin — it also results in an increase in sebum production that can worsen acne breakouts.
Excess sun exposure can also give you sun-damaged skin that’s more likely to show wrinkles, age spots, spider veins and other common signs of aging, not to mention an increased risk of developing skin cancer.
To keep your skin clear, make sure it’s protected from the sun by using an SPF 30+ sunscreen whenever you spend time outdoors.
For extra protection, try to limit your time in direct sunlight and use protective clothing to shield your skin from damage, especially high-risk areas such as your face and neck.
Getting clear skin isn’t something that happens overnight, especially if you’re currently prone to severe or persistent acne breakouts.
However, with the right combination of habits, medication and long-term thinking, it’s absolutely possible for most men to treat acne and enjoy clear skin within two or three months.
To get started, check out this selection of prescription-strength skin care products online and, after a consultation with a licensed healthcare provider, receive the products you need to get rid of acne for good.
You can also learn more about treating acne, scarring, wrinkles and other common skin issues in this detailed guide to taking care of your skin.