Skincare Routine for Acne-Prone Skin
A guide to building the perfect skincare routine for acne-prone skin, including what acne is, main types, and treatment.
Article reviewed by Janet McGroggan
What Is a Skincare Routine?
A skin care routine is simply a regular process using specific products to take care of your skin.
Some habits are positive behaviors, like taking a daily walk, drinking multiple glasses of water a day, or establishing a skin care regimen, which doesn’t have to be complicated.
There’s no all-purpose solution to healthy skin. Each person is different and requires individual care. But, there are some skincare routine guidelines to help create a process that will promote healthier skin. Let’s take a look at some of the basics of acne and how to help prevent and treat it.
Are There Different Types of Acne? What Is Acne-Prone Skin?
Acne is the most common dermatological condition1. It’s a complex condition that includes a build-up of dead skin cells inside a hair follicle, excessive sebum (oil) production, increased bacteria, and an inflammatory immune response. Basically, clogged pores. It covers a broad spectrum of breakouts from blackheads and an occasional pimple to chronic nodulocystic lesions, which can be scarring. Darker skin tones can be more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that can be long term.
There are many variations of the condition with the most common called acne vulgaris, which literally means common acne. It includes:
- inflamed papules (small red bumps)
- pustules (white or yellow spots)
- comedones (blackheads and whiteheads)
- nodules (large red lumps)
- pseudocysts (cyst-like fluctuant swelling)
- as well as secondary lesions
Acne usually appears on the face, neck, chest or back.
Almost everyone will experience acne at some point. The condition tends to show up most during adolescence, but it can affect all ages, genders and races. During puberty, hormones called androgens increase the size of oil glands which can easily become clogged. Acne can be more severe in some people because of genetics, hormones, environmental factors, or medications. There’s ongoing research into triggers, but studies show that while certain factors don’t cause acne, they can exacerbate the condition. Stress, oily hair or makeup products, certain foods, sleep deprivation, and smoking, all have been linked to worsening acne.
Puberty isn’t the only life stage when acne appears. It’s also common in women during menstruation, after child birth and menopause when there’s a roller coaster of hormonal activity. Hormonal acne (also known as adult acne) can create deeper cysts under the skin and more inflammation that isn’t as easily treated with OTC options (Over-the-counter or non-prescription medicine) and require dermatologist prescription treatments. Because skin becomes thinner with age, a retinol treatment can be especially beneficial to help remove dead skin cells.
For adult men, acne can be more severe than it was during adolescence with increased potential for scarring. Hormones play a factor with men, and enlarged pores can trap dead skin cells and bacteria on the face and the back. Facial hair can also trap oil and bacteria while shaving can aggravate inflammation. Men need to understand the importance of an acne regimen to protect their skin as much as women do.
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Why Is a Skincare Routine Beneficial for Acne Problems?
Basic acne breakouts stem from clogged pores. That can occur for a variety of reasons, but appropriate skincare goes a long way toward both preventing blemishes and treating outbreaks. Establishing a skincare regimen and identifying triggers can help create a level of control over a difficult situation.2
There’s a variety of cleansers and moisturizers available as supplemental therapies for acne-prone skin including lipid-free cleansers with a low risk of skin irritation, and moisturizers containing ingredients such as humectants (to keep things moist), emollients, oil absorbers, and those with anti-inflammatory and barrier replenishing properties.
- Salicylic acid helps unclog pores and exfoliates the skin.
- Benzoyl peroxide provides broad-spectrum antimicrobial action.
- Sulfur has a mild inhibitory action on bacteria and modest anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Retinol is a type of retinoid derived from vitamin A that can reduce sebum production and inflammation
Some topical acne medications can cause dryness, redness, and irritation which causes some people to stop using them. However, sticking with an appropriate acne-prone skincare routine may reduce potential irritation and limit the need for acute outbreak treatments because skin is in better condition. As examples, regular cleansing goes a long way toward keeping pores clear and reducing acne breakouts and including retinol can stimulate production of collagen and elastin.
Read more about skin purging and how starting a new skin treatment may worsen the skin condition before things begin to improve.
What Are the Steps in a DIY Skincare Routine?
There are usually two parts of a regimen – morning and evening skincare routines – with specific steps for each time.3 It’s important to apply acne treatment products as directed whether it’s morning, evening, or both to be effective.
While different skin types require different products, the order of application also is important for the acne skincare routine to be effective.
Morning Skincare Routine
Generally, in the morning, the skin care steps offer protection:
1. Cleanser – Gel-based or bar cleansers are generally better for oily skin, whereas cream-based products benefit normal to dry complexions. Washing gently helps prepare your skin for the other products to be effective. Rinse with warm, not hot, water.
2. Toner – Can lessen redness and dryness.
3. Serum – Use a product that contains niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, antioxidants, and retinol to improve texture.
4. Moisturizer – Hydrates with a formula best suited to specific skin type; oily skin benefits from oil-free or gel products with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid.
5. Acne spot treatment – Apply on active breakouts on top of the pimple. Benzoyl peroxide to kill bacteria and salicylic acid to exfoliate and dry oil glands are most common.
6. Sunscreen – Should be applied daily and reapplied every two hours if you are outdoors. Physical formulas with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide reflect light whereas chemical blockers absorb light and prevent it from entering skin. The product should have an SPF of at least 30 and protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
Night Skincare Routine
At night, there are a few more steps to cleanse and repair:
1. Makeup remover – It’s critical to find a product that’s both effective and gentle.
2. Cleaner – This removes dead skin, dirt, oil, and bacteria. Avoid hot water as it removes natural oils and can cause dehydration.
3. Toner – Can smooth and restore skin.
4. Serum – Calms redness and improves firmness so look for a night time formula with peptides. If skin is acne-prone, choose a product with alpha and beta hydroxy acids and retinol.
5. Retinol – Can reduce fine lines, decrease pore size and reduce oil production. Some with more sensitive skin opt to mix retinol with moisturizer to minimize possible side effects.
6. Moisturizer – Most effective when applied to slightly damp skin to help prevent skin from drying out.
7. Acne spot treatment – This can be applied as a leave-on treatment to help speed healing.
Your environment is always a factor along with your activities. Try to cleanse your face after working out as sweat can clog pores and aggravate acne.
And, keep in mind that changing seasons signal time to adjust your skincare routine as well. Winter might require more moisture, while summer means more sunscreen and potentially more natural oils that need to be addressed.
If you are looking for acne treatment, nowadays, there are many services offering virtual dermatology visits. Try different services, to find the right option for you. If in doubt, see this FAQ guide about online dermatology.
When Should Prescription Treatments Be Added to Over-the-Counter Products as Part of an Acne Skincare Routine?
Adherence to a strong regimen can go a long way to keeping skin clear, but factors such as genetics, hormones or environment can still trigger outbreaks or more serious problems. Or, the side effects of the OTC products such as dryness, irritation or inflammation, cause some to discontinue use.4
Sometimes even the most targeted products aren’t sufficient to treat the acne breakout, especially if three months of use hasn’t produced results. In those cases, it’s necessary to consult a dermatologist or other healthcare professional.
In cases of back acne where it can be difficult to apply topical treatments, oral medications can be more effective. As an example, in adults with more severe cases that include subcutaneous cysts, the topicals might not be sufficient. While retinol can have positive effects, the OTC options usually contain between 0.25 and 1.5 percent retinol to work on both the outer layer of the skin as well as penetrate the middle layer. A stronger formula prescription retinoid could be more effective but needs physician supervision.
Some dermatologists don’t recommend OTC products because clinical research on effectiveness can be limited as are scientifically objective results of the additive benefits thus they opt for other treatments. It can be beneficial to use an antibiotic and/or an anti-inflammatory medication for more severe acne or when other products have shown no results with extended use.
Women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding should consider working with a dermatologist to treat outbreaks to ensure any products are safe. There are both topical and oral options that are viable and effective.
Hormonal acne can require oral medications to treat the deep subdermal cysts unaffected by topicals. For women, specific oral contraceptives can be a solution to help balance hormones. Anti-androgen drugs can be beneficial to both men and women to reduce excess production of the hormone.
What to Consider When Having a Skin Care Routine for Hormonal Acne?
Those experiencing hormonal acne benefit from a skin care regimen that includes many of the same steps as acne vulgaris, but some additional considerations factor in as well.5 Breakouts can be cyclical but keeping up a skincare routine for acne has ongoing benefits. Remember that the order of the steps is as important as the products.
All acne starts with clogged pores so regular cleansing helps remove excess oil, skin cells, and dirt. Applying a toner will help reduce redness. Next, retinol can encourage cell turnover to remove dead skin. Since hormonal acne often breaks out along the chin and jawline, retinol can help with inflammation and subsequent hyperpigmentation. But, keep in mind that retinol can make skin more sensitive to sun and cosmetic procedures such as waxing. Topical treatments with either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide – or both – clear pores and remove bacteria. Skin needs moisture, even during breakouts. The key is using an oil-free product for better hydration without clogging pores. In the morning, it’s still critical to apply an oil-free sunscreen, especially if using a stronger form of retinol.
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