Chances are you have asked a dermatologists and searched the internet for the best skincare products for acne. Your doctor has most likely recommended some over the counter treatment or a prescription therapy (all listed above) depending on the severity of your acne and recommended a “mild” cleanser. Very often you haven’t even been referred to a dermatologist or they didn’t think your acne deserved special treatment. The truth is, most of the existing anti-acne products only work temporarily (especially antibiotics) and have nasty side effects and you should consider them only if your acne is really severe. The doctor also never talks about diet, hormones, supplements and will only recommend skincare brands that in general pay big money to be recommended by dermatologists. The internet can provide useful information but a lot of misconceptions as well.
So, what you have been told by so many well-meaning people is cleanse, strip, rub and exfoliate as crazy and avoid all oils and moisturizers because they will clog your pores leading to more acne. For most acne sufferers doing all this will actually worsen their acne.
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 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. 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 and self-exfoliation.
Another reason to moisturize, especially after washing with conventional cleansers is to bring the skin pH back down to its healthy level (4.5 – 5.5). Soapy cleansers are usually alkaline and research has been shown that the skin pH increases significantly after washing with products containing detergents. Keeping the skin pH at its optimal range is important for both skin barrier integrity and healthy skin microbiome as most bacteria tent to overgrow given the right conditions, one of them being skin pH.
Finally skin microbiome, extremely important 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 the skin microbiome balance could lead to infections and skin issues like acne, rosacea, eczema, fungal infections, dandruff and so on. You can compromise and disturb the microbiome by what you put on your skin and what you put in your body. Certainly washing with conventional, detergent based face washes is the #1 way of messing with it. A healthy microbiome thrives at a pH of about 5, soap has a pH of 10. Finally, what happens in your gut and influences your gut microbiome also corresponds with what is going on with your skin, as everything in our bodies is connected.
Cleansing - Most people agree that you have to wash and exfoliate a lot when you have acne so your 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 you 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 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, so you 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 if you 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. SHOCKING? We know, it is counter intuitive but it 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 2-3% 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, therefore it can also act as a vehicle for active ingredients and moisturizers. You can use micellar water for double cleansing, this is a method of cleansing where you first do an oil cleanse and after you double cleanse (or remove any excess oil with micellar water). 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 – Another controversy, mechanical (or physical) exfoliation is a BIG NO for acne sufferers. It might be great for people with healthy skin when it is done is a very gentle way and only once a week but in general it is irritating and contraindicative for compromised skin.
Still, exfoliating is important for keeping the pores clean and black heads free and this is best done with chemical exfoliation. There are 2 main groups of acids used in the cosmetics 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 with 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 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.
AHAs will require wearing a sunscreen after use so be aware if using. And again, always moisturize after exfoliating.
Do not overdo the exfoliation, do it few times a week only and be gentle with your skin.
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 clean, non-toxic skin care 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.