Breakouts suck. There's no denying that. When you have acne-prone skin, it can be frustrating to find products or a routine that actually works. And it doesn't help that breakouts can be caused for a number of reasons, like hormonal changes, stress, the environment around you, and yes, even the products you're using, which can just make you want to throw up your hands and give up.
But treating pimples and blemishes really depends on your specific skin type and condition, so getting to the bottom of that is a start. "Acne can lead to more than just pimples, so it is important to find a skincare routine that is effective for your skin type," explains Howard Sobel, MD, founder of Sobel Skin and attending dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. "A large concern for acne-prone skin is that although you are using products that treat acne, oftentimes, you can be combining too many different ingredients, hindering your skin from healing and even causing further breakouts."
When caring for acne-prone skin, striking a balance is key. "You basically want to keep the skin more on the dry side and less on the oily side as oil blocks the pores and allows pimples to form," says board-certified dermatologist Roberta Del Campo, MD. "We also want to make sure that we are using a non-comedogenic moisturizer (won't block the pores), and a product such as a retinol or retinoids to clean the pores."
Ingredients to Look for and Ingredients to Avoid
When searching for skincare products to add to your routine, both Sobel and Del Campo recommend looking for these ingredients…
Retinoids (Sobel says this is the true gold standard for all skin types)
And as for the ingredients to avoid, these are ones that could irritate the skin or make your situation worse:
Various comedogenic oils, like olive, papaya seed, avocado, and safflower
Some General Tips for Acne-Prone Skin
The most important thing to do once you find a routine that works for you is to stick to it. "Oftentimes, many individuals starting a new skincare routine are not consistent with it," Sobel says. "Continuously starting and stopping your skincare regime usually leads to flare-ups, irritation, redness, and dryness as your skin has not been given the proper time to acclimate to the products introduced. Additionally, many people skip applying sunscreen in the morning, which is a very important step, especially for those using strong acne-clearing products, as they can make your skin more susceptible to the negative effects of UV rays." Sobel also adds that you should make sure you're using products for the times of day they're designed for, like sunscreen in the morning and throughout the day, and retinol at night.
As for the products that work best, Sobel recommends following a simple skincare routine that includes gentle, yet effective products. "Cleansing and moisturizing are the basic yet vital steps of a good skincare routine every morning and night," he says. "For those who have acne-prone skin, it is important to see a dermatologist who can recommend or prescribe the most effective cleanser and moisturizer. Introducing a toner into this regimen is great for acne-prone skin types as it gets rid of excess oil that may be clogging pores and causing further breakouts. In the morning, it is also vital to apply sunscreen after moisturizing in order to protect from sun damage or further irritation."
Del Campo adds that you don't want to over-treat or overdo it with your products, either. If you're too aggressive with the routine, you can actually worsen inflammation, which might cause more breakouts.
Best Skincare Products for Acne-Prone Skin
Del Campo recommends PanOxyl's Acne Creamy Wash, which contains 4% benzoyl peroxide. The gentle cleanser kills acne-causing bacteria and unclogs pores. It also won't leave your skin dried out since it has four humectants and three emollients.
Another rec from Del Campo, Cetaphil's daily cleanser removes dirt and oil without stripping the skin. It really deep-cleans and can even remove makeup.
This cream cleanser contains 4% benzoyl peroxide, which can help clear pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. Hyaluronic acid and niacinamide work to lock in moisture and calm irritated skin.
Having a gentle face wash is so important for inflamed skin, and this one does the trick. The foaming cream cleanser has 1.5% salicylic acid, plus antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory blue tansy and exfoliating apple fruit extract.
The Inkey List made our list of the best skincare brands for acne-prone skin. This cleanser will clear pores and reduce blackheads, and it will also erase your makeup.
Whenever you ask a dermatologist about their favorite acne-fighting products, chances are Differin's adapalene gel will be on the list. It's on Del Campo's. The prescription-strength retinoid promotes skin-cell turnover and reduces inflammation.
Sobel recommends his brand's retinol as it has the highest level of OTC retinol concentration, wihtout irritating or drying the skin out. "Retinols not only help with aging, but do wonders to eliminate acne by clearing out dead skin cells and unclogging pores," he explains. "Our retinol contains a patent pending delivery system Scientific Delivery SD-100, that mimics healthy, young skin structure, and ensures better absorption of active ingredients. The protective epidermal-dermal barrier is reinforced, so moisture is less likely to get out and aging environmental aggressors are less likely to get in."
Del Campo also recommends La Roche-Posay's adapalene gel, which is prescription-strength, too. It will clear clogged pores and blemishes. And it's oil-free and fragrance-free.
Toners, Peels, Serums, and Spot Treatments
This peel retexturizes, exfoliates, and brightens the skin. Sobel says you'll get the similar skin benefits that you'd get in an in-office peel with this product, wihout the expense, hassle, or downtime. "The intensive formula instantly breaks down and sloughs away the glue-like substance that causes dead skin cells to stick together on the top layers of the skin, making it appear sallow, lackluster, and dull," he says. "Over time, the appearance of fine lines and pores is minimized, and stubborn skin conditions like melasma, sun spots, and acne are addressed. Skin is rebalanced for better absorption of other skincare products."
This formula contains niacinamide to reduce blemishes and congestion, plus zinc to control sebum activity. To use, just apply a couple of drops to your face morning and at night before your moisturizer.
Use this serum overnight to exfoliate dead skin cells and unclog pores. It's got a blend of AHA and BHA to resurface the skin, plus raspberry fruit extract to hydrate.
Market editor Indya Brown credits this exfoliant with helping fade her acne scars and keeping her face glowy and clear. Use this formula once or twice daily after cleansing the skin (it's gentle enough that it won't irritate).
These patches come in handy when a pimple pops up. Each hydrocolloid patch can reduce the size of pimples overnight—just remove it when it turns white.
Del Campo recommends applying a non-comedogenic moisturizer, like CeraVe's nighttime lotion, after using retinol at night. The formula contains ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid. Plus, it's oil-free and lightweight.
Since it's a water-based gel formula, this moisturizer won't clog your pores are all and will feel so refreshing on inflamed skin.
This oil-free and lightweight moisturizer reduces shine and minimizes the appearance of pores. It has retinol to promote skin-cell turnover, hyaluronic acid and honey extract for hydration, and allantoin and arnica to soothe the skin.
Elta MD's sunscreens are always a dermatologist-favorite, so it's no surprise that Del Campo recommended it. This one is especially formulated to clear pores and reduce shine.
Supergoop's Matte Screen is pretty cool because not only does it protect against harmful UV rays, it also as a primer to minimize the appearance of pores and mattify the skin. It's water-resistant for up to 40 minutes, too.
Made for oily and combination skin types, this sheer sunscreen from Paula's Choice absorbs oil and controls shine. The formula will also leave your skin hydrated.
This face mask is made of kaolin clay to absorb excess oil and glycerin to attract and lock in moisture.
In this mask, kaolin clay and bentonite work to exfoliate the skin and absorb excess oil, while two types of charcoals draw out impurities and toxins. It won't leave your skin tight or dried-out either, just refreshed and smoother.
If you're just looking to spot-treat pimples or blemishes, this mask from Sunday Riley addresses all types of acne, from hormonal to inflammatory. It's formulated with sulfur to dry and clear acne; bentonite to absorb excess oil; niacinamide to reduce redness, and zinc PCA to mattify skin.