Skin drying from acne treatment products is really common.
Here are my simple tricks to fix it.
Treat your acne without suffering from tight, dry, peeling skin that screams for a moisturizer.
A reader sent me this exact question as a blog comment. I know that so many people with acne share the same question, and I didn't want the answer to get lost at the end of a post, so I'm making an Ask Dr. Bailey article out of it. It's a great question!
"Dear Dr. Bailey,
I recently started using tretinoin for my acne and this information in How Do You Layer Skin Care Products With Tretinoin has been very helpful! Is there a type of moisturizer you can recommend to use on really dry skin with acne? It doesn’t seem to matter how soon I apply moisturizer after washing my face, it always seems to end up feeling really tight. But I’ve always heard oily moisturizers made acne worse and I don’t want that either.
Thanks so much!!
In my dermatology practice, the three most common reasons for why acne-treatment products cause skin dryness are:
- One of the acne medicines in the products is causing irritation or allergic reaction (often salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide).
- The cleanser used for washing is too drying and irritating.
- That tretinoin, if used, is being applied incorrectly.
Taking each of these one at a time:
Why do acne treatment ingredients cause your skin to feel dry?
There are three main, non-prescription, active-ingredients in acne products. They are glycolic acid, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. They are all wonderful and work miracles for acne, but they can be tricky to use. In fact, some people can be allergic to, or just have skin that's easily irritated by, one or more of these great ingredients.
The Glytone Mild Gel Wash Cleanser and Glytone Exfoliating Lotion that I've used for years on acne patients relies on this single ingredient to treat acne-prone skin in people allergic to the second two ingredients.
With a potentially-irritating ingredient like glycolic acid, the key is to find that sweet spot where you're treating the acne but not irritating the skin. It may be that alternate day-use or lower concentrations are needed, which is why there is a step-up program starting with a lower concentration and moving to a higher one if your skin can tolerate it.
Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are trickier to use than glycolic acid.
They can irritate skin, but more importantly, you can be allergic to one of them. Popular acne-treatment products like Proactiv depend on benzoyl peroxide to treat pimples. Neutrogena's popular Oil-Free Acne Wash and Rapid Clear Treatment Pads depend on salicylic acid as its active acne-treatment ingredient.
When you're allergic to one or both of these ingredients, your skin will never tolerate it. Any application results in a dry, chapped redness that gets worse and worse as you continue using the product.
If you're not allergic, then using them is the fastest way to clear up acne and pimples without a prescription. It's why I have all three of them in my Ultimate Acne Solutions Kit.
My Acne Kits are the 911 Kits for bad acne, and I have tons of patients using them to control their acne.
Why do acne face cleansers cause skin dryness?
Acne cleansers often include acne-treatment medicines like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or glycolic acid, and we just talked about why those ingredients can cause dryness. Also, they are usually designed to lift a lot of oil from the skin and can just plain be too strong of a soap for more sensitive skin types.
The Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser in my acne kit is a good acne cleanser in a milder soap base. It still lifts off oil, dirt and makeup but does not overly strip the skin's natural oils.
Not everyone with acne has oily skin, and for my dry skin patients with acne, I find that Calming Zinc Soap is usually the perfect skin cleanser for them.
It's a naturally-made soap, meaning that the soap-making process begins with oils which are then magically converted to soap and glycerin. It includes another amazing ingredient called pyrithione zinc. This helps to control a common skin germ called Pityrosporum, which contributes to many people's acne, especially if they have dry skin.
Calming Zinc removes oil, dirt and makeup without foaming agents like sodium laurel sulfate, making it perfect for sensitive skin; it never over strips your skin's natural oils.
I often use both these cleansers for my patients with dry, sensitive skin that have acne. In fact, one of my favorite acne treatment regimens for oily skin is also a highly-effective anti aging regimen that helps to fight the development of fine lines and wrinkles:
In the morning:
- Cleanse with Glytone Mild Gel Wash followed by Glytone Exfoliating Lotion.
- Apply an oil-free sunscreen like EltaMD Clear or Sheer Strength Mineral Matte Sunscreen on top, and then add makeup if needed.
- Cleanse with Calming Zinc Bar Soap.
- Apply tretinoin just before going to sleep.
Why does tretinoin cause skin to seem dry and peely?
Many people don't know how to correctly apply tretinoin. The trick is to start with the lowest dose and work up. It's also important to wait 15 or 30 minutes after washing and applying other products before applying tretinoin (unless you are using RetinA Micro).
Tretinoin is always to be used at night because it breaks down in light. I have written many posts on the subject to help people understand how to correctly use this wonderful medicine for acne and anti-aging skin care including:
What Are The Best Face Moisturizers to Combat Dryness for Acne Prone Skin?
If you skin still "wants" a moisturizer, and you have eliminated one of the explanations above and the reason, then I recommend the Daily Moisturizing Face Cream for Oily to Normal Skin. This face cream works beautifully for my acne patients. It's oil-free, hydrates with ingredients like glycerin and feels light on the skin.
Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist
Learn more about the products mentioned above here.
If you have questions about skin care or skin health please send them to me using the Contact Dr. Bailey button at the top of the page.
Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only.