Skin + Hair Basics

The Best Acne Skincare Routine

If you regularly deal with blemishes, then you should have a skincare routine for acne—one that addresses both prevention and treatment.
The Best Acne Skincare Routine

Your skincare regimen should cater to any skin condition that you experience—be it oily, dry, or sensitive. And acne-prone skin is no exception. If you regularly get pimples, then it’s important to change something with your daily habits or your skincare regimen itself. (It can help to start by speaking with a board-certified dermatologist to get to the bottom of things, too.)

Read on for our advice on building a thorough acne skincare routine, in order to prevent future breakouts and to reduce the appearance of current blemishes.

How to Identify Acne

First, before you proceed with treating or preventing acne, it’s important to understand what type of acne you’re experiencing. Here are the primary types you are likely to experience.

Comedones: These are non-inflammatory acne lesions and can be open (blackheads) or closed (whiteheads). They occur when hair follicles become clogged with oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria.

Papules: Papules are small, red, and inflamed bumps on the skin. They are the result of infected or irritated comedones.

Pustules: Pustules are similar to papules but contain pus at their tips, making them appear as white or yellow bumps with a red base.

Nodules: Nodules are large, painful, solid lumps beneath the surface of the skin. They develop when clogged and swollen pores cause deeper infections.

Cysts: Cysts are the most severe form of acne lesions. They are large, pus-filled, painful bumps that can cause significant scarring. Cysts result from the infection of clogged pores deep within the skin.

What Causes Acne

Sure, if you don’t wash your face enough or eat too much sugary food, you’re likely to get a blemish. That’s the obvious stuff. But here are the primary factors (environmental and biological) that lead to blemishes—the underlying causes, that is.

Environmental Causes:

Excess Sebum Production: If you have overactive oil glands, then this backup of sebum can  clog pores.

Humidity and Sweating: High humidity and excessive sweating can create a favorable environment for bacteria to thrive and clog pores.

Pollution: Exposure to air pollution and toxins can irritate the skin, leading to inflammation and acne breakouts.

Cosmetic Products: Some makeup and skincare products may contain ingredients that clog pores or irritate the skin. More on the ingredients to avoid, below.

Pressure and Friction: Constant pressure or friction on the skin (like from tight clothing on the body, as well as hats and helmets) can trigger acne.

Biological Causes:

Hormonal Fluctuations: Androgens like testosterone (present in all people), can trigger an increase of sebum production, making acne more likely during puberty, menstruation, times of stress, and hormonal any other imbalances.

Genetics: Family history plays a role in acne susceptibility. If your parents had acne, you may be more prone to it as well.

Bacterial Infection: The bacteria Propionibacterium acnes, also known as P.acnes, normally resides on the skin. However, it can multiply rapidly in clogged pores, leading to inflammation and acne formation.

Trapped Skin Cells: If you don’t exfoliate regularly (and if your body doesn’t do it fully on its own), then dead skin cells can get trapped in the pores beside hair follicles, which leads to clogged pores.

Stress: High levels of stress can trigger hormonal fluctuations, particularly an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone). Elevated cortisol levels may lead to increased sebum production and inflammation, contributing to acne breakouts.

The Best Ingredients—and the Worst

For acne-prone skin, seeking out the right ingredients can make a world of difference. Here are the ones to familiarize yourself with, and the ones to avoid.

The Best Ingredients for Acne

Chemical exfoliants: Look for exfoliating products containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid and lactic acid, as well as beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) namely salicylic acid. While AHAs help turnover the surface-level cells to prevent clogged pores and dry skin buildup, BHAs seep into the pores to free up trapped cells and reduce oil buildup. They can also help regulate future oil production.

Benzoyl peroxide: You can get over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide products or a high-grade prescription from your doctor. It combats acne-causing bacteria and helps clear existing breakouts.

Retinoids: Retinoids, such as retinol or adapalene, can promote skin cell turnover, preventing pore blockage and fostering smoother, healthier skin. 

Niacinamide: Vitamin B3, or niacinamide, is a versatile ingredient that regulates sebum production, calms redness, and minimizes the appearance of blemishes. 

Tea tree oil: This natural ingredient has antimicrobial properties which can reduce bacterial acne, and it can help temper oil production in the pores.

The Worst Ingredients for Acne

Above all, you want to avoid “comedogenic” ingredients. This term refers to ingredients that cause comedones, which you’ll recall are whiteheads and blackheads. Some of the most comedogenic culprits to avoid include coconut oil, cocoa butter, and isopropyl myristate. These ingredients can trap excess oil and debris on the skin, leading to inflammation and acne formation.

Acne-prone skin should also steer clear of ingredients like lanolin and mineral oil, as they have the potential to exacerbate inflammation and pore congestion. Opting for non-comedogenic, oil-free products can help prevent further breakouts and will allow you to maintain a clearer complexion for the long term.

Skincare Routine for Acne-Prone Skin

By following a dedicated regimen that targets acne-prone skin, you can make strides in preventing future blemishes while also reducing current breakouts. Follow these steps.

1. Cleanse: Wash your face twice daily with a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser to remove dirt, excess oil, and sweat without drying out your skin. 

2. Tone: Apply an alcohol-free toner to balance your skin's pH, tighten pores, and prepare it for better absorption of subsequent products.

3. Exfoliate 1-2 times weekly: Incorporate exfoliation into your routine by using products containing AHAs and BHAs. These chemical exfoliants help unclog pores, remove dead skin cells, and promote cell turnover, reducing the likelihood of acne formation and improving overall skin texture.

4. Apply treatment: Use a topical acne treatment with ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or retinoids to target existing breakouts and prevent new ones. Pimple patches with salicylic acid are a great way to reduce pesky one-off blemishes.

5. Moisturize: Moisturize with an oil-free, non-comedogenic product to keep your skin hydrated without clogging pores. Better yet, choose a moisturizer with SPF to combine this step and the next one.

6. Sunscreen: Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen (every single day!) with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. (These rays will also increase the amount of time that your skin takes to disappear post-inflammatory acne marks, and will accelerate signs of aging.)

7. Avoid touching: Refrain from touching your face throughout the day to prevent transferring bacteria and oils.

8. Keep hair and pillowcases clean: Wash your hair regularly and avoid letting it come into contact with your face to prevent oil and dirt buildup. At the very least, rinse it before bed, or wash pillowcases 1-2 times weekly to prevent a buildup of oil and bacteria that easily transfers to your face.

9. Use a humidifier: Consider using a humidifier in your bedroom, especially during dry seasons or in dry climates, to maintain a balanced level of humidity. A humidifier helps keep your skin hydrated and can prevent excessive dryness, which may worsen acne. At the very least, don’t turn the A/C on full blast.

Best Acne Treatments

In addition to oral and topical retinoids prescriptions, as well as high-grade benzoyl peroxide prescriptions, the below are the best remedies for acne that you can get today. Speak with your board-certified dermatologist for the best plan for you, and to discuss other lifestyle changes that may benefit you in the long run.

1. Spot treatments: From sulfur to clay, from benzoyl to salicylic acid to tea tree oil. Spot treatments deliver a high dose of acne-fighting ingredients into the blemish, rather than being applied across the entire face or body. Depending on their key active ingredient, these treatments can help control oil production, reduce inflammation, soothe skin, rid of trapped skin cells and oil buildup, or neutralize bacteria.

2. Pimple patches: Here is a specific kind of spot treatment. Pimple patches are adhesive patches that use hydrocolloid bandage technology to reduce inflammation, protect the wound, and absorb excess oil from the pimple. Some patches may also contain salicylic acid, which aids in exfoliating the affected area, reducing redness, and accelerating the healing process.

3. Oral antibiotics: In cases of moderate to severe acne, oral antibiotics like doxycycline may be prescribed by a dermatologist to combat bacteria and inflammation.

4. Blue light therapy: A non-invasive clinical treatment, blue light therapy targets and kills acne-causing bacteria, reducing the frequency and severity of breakouts.

5. Chemical peels: Performed by dermatologists or estheticians, chemical peels can exfoliate the skin, improve texture, and help unclog pores, making them beneficial for managing acne-prone skin. They are not advised for use on active acne, however.

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