Properly caring for acne-prone skin is not just frustrating, but feels counterintuitive. Sporting SPF when it’s sunny is a no-brainer, but applying moisture to blemishes when you theoretically want to dry them out? It seems nonsensical, though it’s not: Skipping hydration can actually backfire, as it signals your complexion to produce more oil, clogging the pores and breaking the skin out even further. And this is why it’s important to know the golden rules to follow when crafting the proper skin care routine for acne.
Rule number one is that having oil in your beauty products is not the enemy, says Joshua Ross, celebrity aesthetician of SkinLab, who adds that “oil-free” is more of a marketing term than an accurate way to judge which cosmetics work for you. “Oils in products don’t necessarily mean skin will be made oilier,” he tells Bustle.
That’s not to say you can’t use anything that’s oil-free, however; it’s simply a matter of finding the right balance of ingredients in your regimen. For example, Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group, suggests a combination of specific oil-decreasing products paired with gentler options for acne-prone skin types. “If every step of the regimen is focused on minimizing oil, the risk of over-drying becomes very real,” she explains.
If you feel like the math lady meme wondering how to prevent breakouts if traditional acne treatments can cause over-drying and then lead to a pesky cycle of excess oil production and more zits, read on. Below, experts break down what you need to know when putting together the best skin care routine for oily and acne-prone skin types.
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1. Remove Makeup
Always remove your makeup before washing your face and starting your routine, as you want to start with a completely clean slate. (Plus, sleeping in makeup can majorly clog your pores.) Oil cleansers are a great option for removing makeup when you have oily or acne-prone skin, Dr. Brendan Camp, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MCDS Dermatology, tells Bustle. “Oil cleaners help emulsify makeup products to facilitate their removal without having to scrub the skin clean,” he explains. You could also opt for a micellar water or cleansing balm.
2. Gently Cleanse
Next, wash your face with a mild cleanser. “Gentle cleansers without active ingredients are great for all skin types, as they help rid the skin of build-up and debris without over-drying it,” Camp tells Bustle. That said, cleansers that contain salicylic acid may be an especially suitable option for people with acne-prone skin as it helps treat breakouts and inflammation.
Just be sure to opt for a formula that won’t strip away too much natural oil from your skin, which some more aggressive cleansers can. “When using too much of a foamy or a stripping cleanser, you’re removing all of the natural oils, causing the skin to produce more sebum,” Ross tells Bustle. Thus, he specifically suggests using something with only a “light amount of foam” that’s formulated with salicylic acid or tea tree oil. Look for products that balance acne-fighting ingredients with soothing and moisturizing staples, such as squalane, aloe vera, and niacinamide.
3. Exfoliate With A Toner
Dermatologists universally suggest lightly exfoliating with toner after cleansing. “Exfoliating toners formulated with glycolic acid and/or salicylic acid are perfect for those with oily [and acne-prone] skin,” Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Mudgil Dermatology, tells Bustle. That’s because salicylic and glycolic help to increase cell turnover and unclog pores, which in turn helps prevent breakouts.
Camp also suggests toners with salicylic acid, though he encourages using alcohol-free toners if you’re prone to dryness and/or in the wintertime (because, remember, over-drying leads to excess oil).
4. Apply Vitamin C In The Daytime
The general rule of thumb for skin care is to apply products in the order of thinnest to thickest, so serums are up next. “Serums are highly concentrated products that often have a thin consistency, which makes them a good next step after toning,” Camp tells Bustle. He recommends a vitamin C serum for the daytime as the antioxidant helps protect your skin from environmental triggers and irritants throughout the day. What’s more, research has found that a form of vitamin C, known as sodium ascorbyl phosphate, reduces acne-induced redness and inflammation when applied topically.
5. Apply Retinol At Night
As for what to apply at night? This depends on what your skin needs at the time. Is it in need of hydration, or does it look dull and in need of a brightening refreshment? If dealing with the latter, Mudgil and Nazarian recommend retinoids and/or retinol, which are proven to help combat acne and reduce hyperpigmentation and scarring. In fact, according to the study referenced above, the researchers found the most effective combination in treating acne and inflammation to be a combination of vitamin C and retinol. Just be sure to gradually implement retinol into your routine, only using it just a few times a week when you start since it can be sensitizing, increasing to every other night or more as your skin tolerates it. As a bonus side effect: “Using a small amount [of retinol] several times a week will slowly decrease oil production over time,” Nazarian tells Bustle. And less oil means a decrease in clogged pores and fewer breakouts.
On nights off from retinol or when you’re skin is inflamed or irritated, Camp suggests opting for a hydrating serum formulated with hyaluronic acid. Glycerin, squalane, and aloe vera are also good skin-moisturizing options.
6. Spot Treat
If you’re actively breaking out, you can also utilize a spot treatment in addition to a serum. Whether you go with a pimple patch or a gel, it’s best to use one formulated with — you guessed it — pimples' number one nemesis, salicylic acid.
Yes, even oily, broken-out skin needs additional hydration, though specific types tend to be more beneficial than others. “When it comes to hydrating oily skin, making sure the formula is lightweight is key,” Ross tells Bustle, noting that moisturizer is an umbrella term and there are various types. “Hydrating toners, lotions, and creams are all different forms of moisturizer,” he explains. “What differentiates them is the viscosity.” Lighter viscosity has a thinner consistency, which is what he recommends for oily and acne-prone skin types when shopping for a moisturizer. Think hydrating serums and gel-based formulas as opposed to thick creams.
Also be sure to keep an eye out for hydrating, non-comedogenic (aka non-pore-clogging) ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid. “Hyaluronic acid can help the skin retain its own natural moisture, so it won’t overproduce oil from a lack of hydration,” Ross explains. Another option he suggests is to skip the moisturizing creams and go with a hydrating serum instead. “A hyaluronic acid serum is a good option at night to help restore hydration overnight,” Camp concurs.
8. Protect With SPF
Last but certainly not least: Apply SPF to complete your morning routine. Nazarian suggests using an oil-free option if you’re concerned about breakouts, and Ross recommends using a sunscreen with zinc as it will help absorb your natural oil, helping keep your pores — and skin — clear.
Lu, J., Cong, T., Wen, X., Li, X., Du, D., He, G., & Jiang, X. (2019). Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes. Experimental dermatology, 28(7), 786–794. https://doi.org/10.1111/exd.13934
Sarkar, R., Ghunawat, S., & Garg, V. K. (2019). Comparative Study of 35% Glycolic Acid, 20% Salicylic-10% Mandelic Acid, and Phytic Acid Combination Peels in the Treatment of Active Acne and Postacne Pigmentation. Journal of cutaneous and aesthetic surgery, 12(3), 158–163. https://doi.org/10.4103/JCAS.JCAS_135_18
Ruamrak, C., Lourith, N., & Natakankitkul, S. (2009). Comparison of clinical efficacies of sodium ascorbyl phosphate, retinol and their combination in acne treatment. International journal of cosmetic science, 31(1), 41–46. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2494.2008.00479.x
Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and therapy, 7(3), 293–304. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2
Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
Joshua Ross, aesthetician
Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Brendan Camp, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., board-certified dermatologist