There is a very big chance you have been searching for the best products for acne for years but everything that has been recommended to you worked only temporarily at best.
If you have seen a dermatologist they probably gave you some over the counter or prescription treatment, depending on the severity of your acne, and recommended a “mild” cleanser. Unfortunately, most of the existing anti-acne products only work temporarily (especially antibiotics) and often have side effects and you should consider them only if your acne is really severe.
Skincare, on the other hand has a very important function in keeping acne and other skin problems at bay. A good skincare routine is a paramount for a healthy, robust, problem-free skin and with the right products for your particular skin type and a proper routine you can achieve and maintain clear, nourished and youthful complexion.
Now, you have all heard the anti-acne mantra: cleanse, strip, rub and exfoliate like crazy and avoid all oils and moisturizers because they will clog your pores leading to more acne. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about skincare nowadays that will actually make your acne worse.
Here is why:
The 3 most important factors to consider when taking care of our skin and when choosing face products are:
- Skin barrier
- Skin pH
- Skin microbiome
When we constantly wash and exfoliate our skin (especially with soap or surfactant based washes) hoping to clear our acne and lower our sebum production but don’t moisturize after that and replenish the skin's natural lipids we create perfect conditions for damaging our skin barrier. The skin barrier is what protects the skin from the outside world and it is basically our skin’s immune system, it is responsible for maintenance of water content, reduction of the effects of UV light, and mitigation of the effect of oxidative stress, the skin barrier also protects us from bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. A damaged barrier will lead to dehydrated, irritated and inflamed skin and a disturbed and vulnerable to bacteria overgrowth skin microbiome. On the other hand, moisturizing and boosting our skin barrier will result in stronger, healthier and more resistant skin that is able to maintain bacterial balance, proper hydration levels and a healthy, even complexion.
The skin microbiome is another extremely important factor for our skin health and until recently not very well researched. The skin microbiome is basically all microorganisms like bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on our skin. Most of these microorganisms are beneficial and necessary for human’s skin health and disturbing it's balance could lead to infections and skin issues like acne, rosacea, eczema, fungal infections, dandruff and so on. We can compromise and disturb the microbiome by what we put on your skin and what we put in our body. Certainly washing with conventional, detergent based face washes or soap is the #1 way of messing with the skin microbiome. A healthy microbiome thrives at a pH of about 5, fust for example soap has a pH of 10. Finally, what happens in our gut microbiome also corresponds with what is going on with our skin, as everything in our bodies is connected.
Cleansing - Most people agree that we have to wash and exfoliate a lot when we have acne so the skin stays clean and bacteria free. This may sound logical and we agree that the face (and body) have to be kept clean, but the way the mainstream skincare industry got us to believe is the best is actually harmful. Over-cleansing the face with products containing detergents and soaps, as we already discussed, strips away the skin’s own oils leaving it vulnerable and very often irritated, tight and dry. This also stimulates more sebum production instead of balancing it out and creates even bigger problems for people with acne. Human skin needs a sufficient amount of sebum (natural lipids produced in the skin) to maintain its barrier function and ability to fight common skin bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes. The body knows how much sebum it needs and when it detects that these levels are low (like after washing for example) it will try to compensate by producing more sebum, we can see the vicious cycle here. The sebum is an important part of the skin’s immune system and stripping it away can only cause bacteria overgrowth, formation of lesions and inflammation.
Now, we are not saying don’t wash your face, on the contrary, cleansing is important especially when we wear makeup and after a workout. What we believe is that the best way to wash away dirt, excess oil build up and draw impurities out of your pores is actually oil cleansing. We know, it is counter intuitive but it actually works wonders. Oil attracts oil, and since sebum and make up are both oil based, oil cleansers are the best solution.
- OIL CLEANSERS – Thankfully the industry is starting to understand the power of oil cleansing and there are more and more options on the market. Look for an oil to milk cleanser that will wash away with water without leaving a greasy feel after use. Oil cleansing is by far the best way to remove makeup as well. They can also be formulated with fruit enzymes that can gently exfoliate the skin and anti-inflammatory ingredients that all acne sufferers can benefit from.
- MICELLAR WATERS - The second best thing after oil cleansers are micellar waters. They are fantastic for toning and moisturizing the skin as well, if formulated with the right ingredients. Micellar waters are basically toners with added surfactant (cleansing agent) but the difference between a micellar water and a regular face wash is in the % of the surfactant. In a face wash the surfactant would be between 10% and 30% which is way too much for the purposes of just cleansing the skin but it creates the foam and squeaky clean feel so many people associate with clean skin. Micellar waters only contain around 1-3% which is enough to clean the skin and even remove makeup but it will not disturb the skin’s pH and over strip and it doesn’t need to be rinsed off (unless you prefer to), therefore it can also act as a vehicle for active ingredients and moisturizers. Micellar waters can be used for double cleansing, this is a method of cleansing where we first do an oil cleanse and after that cleanse one more time with a water based cleanser to remove any residual oil and dirt. If you decide to try this you don’t even need to buy a special oil cleanser, simply use grapeseed or olive oil, massage it into the skin and remove with a soft, wet washcloth. After that, you double cleanse with your micellar water and voilà.
- TRADITIONAL CLEANSERS - If you however can’t get around the idea of oil cleansing and still prefer traditional face washes try to avoid these ingredients:
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Sodium Laureth Sulfate
These are very common detergents but unfortunately very well-known irritants, they are harsh and stripping and will for sure aggravate your acne. Try looking for a natural product with very mild surfactants and if your dermatologist recommends a product chances are they will recommend something with these 2 ingredients so be aware. Also, moisturizing after washing with a traditional cleanser is a must if you want a balanced pH and well working skin barrier function.
Exfoliating – Exfoliating is important for acne prone skin to ensure clean and black heads free pores and this is best done with chemical exfoliation. However, it is very important not to go crazy with exfoliation as many of us tent to. There are 2 main groups of acids used in skincare for exfoliation – Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA).
- AHA are ingredients like glycolic, citric, malic, tartaric and lactic acid, they work on the surface of the skin and are fantastic for sun damaged skin and have brightening and anti-ageing properties.
- BHA is salicylic acid which is oil soluble and therefore able to penetrate deeper into the pores and exfoliate much better any sebum build up and black heads. Salicylic acid would be much more effective for acne than AHAs even though AHAs can boost the exfoliation further.
Both these are good but for acne but we recommend BHA, it is from natural origin (present in Willow Bark and other plants), it is also mild enough for sensitive skin (up to 2%) and it doesn’t make the skin sensitive to UV light, it is also safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Masks – clay or sea mud masks are fantastic for acne prone skin but again, as with exfoliates, do not use every day and apply a moisturizer after use. Clay and sea mud masks are incredible skin detoxifiers, they are able to draw impurities and bacteria out of the pores, balancing skin hydration and importing important minerals and essential nutrients. Clays and dead see mud are formed over long periods of time by the gradual erosion of mineral-rich rocks and, as a result, are rich in beneficial elements like silica, calcium, magnesium, sodium, copper, iron and potassium. Dead Sea Mud was also tested and demonstrated very potent anti-microbial properties against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Propionibacterium acnes, Candida albicans, making it an ideal candidate for an anti-acne skincare treatment.
Moisturizing - The most important thing for the skin is to be MOISTURIZED and HYDRATED, and this is true for acne skin as well. Most acne sufferers overlook and avoid this skincare step thinking it will aggravate their breakouts and will make their skin oilier. This is not true and in fact moisturizing is one of the most important steps of your routine, it supports your skin barrier function by hydrating and replenishing lost intracellular lipids, it balances the skin’s pH and it gives your skin another layer of protection from the outside world. Choosing the right moisturizer for acne prone skin is important, as well as, knowing what ingredients to look for and what to avoid. A moisturizer consists of 3 main ingredient groups – emollients, humectants and occlusives. In brief, emollients provide softening and moisturizing properties, the humectants draw moisture from the atmosphere to the skin and therefore contribute to the skin’s hydration and occlusive ingredients provide a protective barrier – keeping moisture in and the world out. The best moisturizer will have all of the 3. Other ingredients could be any actives like plant extracts, vitamins, anti-oxidants and so on.
EMOLIENTS / OILS – no doubt you have heard the constant “oil-free” mantra when it comes to anti-acne products but oils (the right kind) are extremely important for many reasons:
- Healthy skin depends on the integrity of the stratum corneum (outer layer of the skin) which consists of ceramides, cholesterol and free fatty acids (these are the same essential fatty acids we discussed in the healthy oils section above, Linoleic acid and Alpha-Linolenic Acid). The free fatty acid dominating in our skin is linoleic acid. Many skin conditions, including acne, occur when the ratio of lipids and fatty acids in the stratum corneum is out of balance. It has been demonstrated that in acne sufferers there is an undersupply of linoleic acid and over production of sebum. Providing additional linoleic acid to our skin will ensure a balanced environment and a healthy stratum corneum. Oils rich in linoleic acid are called dry oils, they are very easily absorbent, penetrate the skin rapidly and fully, do not clog pores and can even leave a dry feel on the skin (hence the name).
- In moisturizers they are the most natural emollients (there are synthetic once in oil free formulas), they soften and moisturize the skin
- Unrefined oils could be a power house for vitamins, phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Oils are made of fatty acids mainly but also contain phenolic compounds, flavonoids, lignans, terpenes, and vitamins, all of which hugely beneficial for our skin and overall health.
Best oils for acne: look for watermelon oil, black cumin oil, grapeseed oil, blackberry oil, tomato seen oil, jojoba oil.
HUMECTANTS – glycerin, hyaluronic acid and propanediol are our top picks for an acne appropriate humectant. All are naturally derived and highly effective. Hyaluronic acid has additional anti-ageing properties and propanediol is a penetration enhancer (meaning it helps other ingredients to penetrate in the skin and deliver their benefits).
OCCLUSIVES – There are three approved barrier ingredients recognized by the FDA, dimethicone (not natural and potentially pore clogging), cocoa butter (potentially pore clogging), and allantoin. There are other ingredients that can provide occlusive properties like butters, oils, esters and hydrolyzed plant proteins. We recommend allantoin and hydrolyzed plant proteins for acne prone skin.
ACTIVE INGREDIENTS beneficial for acne prone skin to look for in skin care products.
Here are some of the best and most effective active ingredients for acne (aside from the approved for over the counter or prescription medications).
- Tea Tree essential oil
- Thyme essential oil
- Salicylic acid (depending on the % in a formula can be a cosmetic or a drug)
- Willow Bark extract
- Bakuchiol (this is all natural form of Vitamin A, minus the side effects. Amazing for acne and anti-ageing products)
- Aloe Vera
- Rose Hydrosol
- Neroli Hydrosol
- Raw honey and Manuka Honey
- Green Tea
- Dead Sea Mud
- Which Hazel (alcohol free)
Ingredients that may clog pores (these are ingredients used in the clean and natural skincare realm but may be problematic for your skin)
- Butyl Stearate
- Capric acid
- Cetearyl alcohol (slightly comedogenic)
- Cocoa butter
- Coconut butter
- Coconut oil
- Glyceryl Stearate SE
- Lauric acid
- Isocety Stearate
- Isopropyl Isostearate
- Isopropyl Myristate
- Isopropyl Palmitate
- Octyl Isopalmitate
- Shea butter (not comedogenic for most people, but it is for some)
- Sulfated castor oil (not regular castor oil)
- Sodium Chloride
And here is a list of oils that might clog pores and be problematic for acne prone skin:
- Avocado oil
- Carrot seed oil
- Chia seed oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Evening Primrose oil
- Macadamia nut oil
- Marula oil
- Moringa oil
- Palm oil
- Sesame seed oil
- Wheat germ
To summarize, look for natural, clean products, try oil cleansing as it is the controversial miracle for acne, make sure to moisturize and use clay or mud masks 2 – 3 times a week. Always remember – skin barrier boosting ingredients, pH and skin microbiome balance are extremely important.
In addition to your skincare routine make sure you clean your makeup brushes regularly and change your pillow cases few times a week as well.
Still, it is a good idea to keep in mind that for many of us acne breakouts, redness or inflammation will still persists until we address the problem holistically.