Whether you’ve been dealing with acne for years or have unexpectedly found yourself struggling with new breakouts, I feel your pain. Starting in my mid-30s, hormonal shifts caused my previously unblemished skin to suddenly freak out. After a lifetime of clear skin (including during my incredibly smug teenage years), it felt like a slap in the face. After all, battling both wrinkles and acne at the same time feels utterly unfair.
Few things are more demoralizing than adult acne. It feels like a betrayal when your perfectly honed routine all of a sudden starts to fail you, and figuring out a new balance of products and ingredients can be confounding. That’s why we’re talking to experts about adult acne and the best skin care routine for those of us with acne-prone skin.
Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City, gave some insight into the very frustrating causes of adult acne. She explained that, much like my own experience, adults can get acne from their 30s to 50s even if they didn’t have teenage acne. However, the underlying causes of adult acne are actually similar to teenage acne, and include excess oil production, clogged pores, bacteria and inflammation.
Other causes include hormonal fluctuations, stress, diets that are high in sugar, carbs and dairy, heavy alcohol consumption and mask use.
Celebrity aesthetician and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar said she has personally noticed a large correlation between women getting acne in adulthood and going off of birth control to start having children. She told HuffPost that having a consistent day and evening skin care routine is extremely important in preventing adult acne.
“In the beginning, it does take a little bit of trial and error to curate the best skin care routine for one’s unique skin type,” she said. “However, once a routine is solidified, it’s easier to make seasonal or temporary changes upon knowing one’s skin and how it responds to each unique product. It’s important to incorporate products to help exfoliate, purify, tone and soothe the skin all while balancing the skin’s pH.”
In general, Chang recommends keeping an eye out for skin care products and makeup listed as “‘oil-free’ and ‘non-comedogenic,’ with an emphasis on preventing acne on a long-term basis,” she said. “The ideal skin care routine for acne-prone skin depends on multiple factors, including the patient’s skin type (dry or oily, sensitive or normal) and acne type.”
“Those with more blackheads and whiteheads may focus on exfoliation and skin cell turnover, while those with more inflammatory acne may focus on anti-inflammatory and antibacterial ingredients,” Chang added, explaining that, “Because acne is caused by multiple factors, including clogged pores, bacteria, inflammation and hormones, many patients require multiple products to tackle all these causes. While it is best to start with a simple routine and introduce new products one by one, multiple acne-targeting steps may be needed for some patients.”
She recommends soothing the skin with gentle skin-repairing products like hydrating cleansers, ceramide-rich moisturizers and calming serums. If you scroll down for the product recommendations below, they’re based on the following guidelines:
Choosing the right cleanser depends on your personal skin and acne type. Chang noted that those with sensitive, dry skin benefit from gentle hydrating cleansers since they want to avoid further inflaming skin with harsh scrubs or irritating cleansers. Those with clogged pores and comedones should look to cleansers with salicylic acid (an oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid that increases skin cell turnover and can penetrate deep into the pores) to help clear out pores and prevent acne. People with red, inflammatory acne should try cleansers with benzoyl peroxide, an effective anti-inflammatory and antibacterial ingredient.
Chang reminded us that moisturizing is a very important, key step for people with acne-prone skin. She finds that a lot of her acne patients skip moisturizing because they’re afraid it’ll clog their pores, but it’s vital to repair the skin barrier and prevent excessive dryness from certain acne medications, like retinoids. She recommends moisturizers that have reparative and hydrating ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide.
According to Chang, you’ll want to look for serums that contain skin-calming and reparative ingredients, including vitamin C, niacinamide, tea tree oil and hyaluronic acid. Serums that contain exfoliating ingredients or retinols may also help with acne.
Oils were once considered persona non grata in the skin care world, but Change said those with acne-prone skin can actually use oils as long as they have a low comedogenic profile. Think options like grapeseed oil, sunflower seed oil, rosehip seed oil and jojoba oil.
Don’t even think about skipping sunscreen, even if you’re afraid it’ll cause you to break out. “Sunscreen is crucial in protecting the skin, equally, if not more important, in those with acne-prone skin,” Change said. “Not only will it help with protecting against skin cancers and photoaging, but it will help prevent acne blemishes from darkening.” Be sure to find a sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater and a non-comedogenic label and reapply every two hours.
To curate the ideal skin care routine for those of us looking to banish blemishes once and for all, we’ve rounded up the ultimate list of products based on both Chang’s and Aguilar’s recommendations. It’s the perfect place to start taking control of your skin so you can feel like your very best self in no time.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash
You can’t go wrong with a classic. Neutrogena’s cleanser is an icon for a reason. It’s loaded with salicylic acid that prevents future breakouts while treating active ones. It’s oil-free, non-comedogenic and formulated so it shouldn’t dry out or irritate your skin.
Avène Eau Thermale cleansing foam for oily skin
Aguilar loves this Avène cleanser because it has zinc, which is soothing and calming, glutamic acid that is toning and mattifying, and thermal spring water that soothes and hydrates the skin (because oily skin needs water). It’s formulated to minimize the risk of allergic reactions, won’t clog pores, is soap-free, paraben-free, alcohol-free, mineral oil-free and vegan. It’s a lightweight cleansing foam that gently removes makeup, dirt, excess oil and other impurities while soothing skin for a clean and calm complexion.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar medicated gel facial cleanser
Formulated with 2% salicylic acid, La Roche-Posay’s cleanser helps to clear breakouts and get oily skin under control. It is free of oils, fragrance and parabens so that it can effectively target trouble spots without irritating skin.
PCA Skin Blemish Control Bar
If, like me, you find yourself struggling with hormonal acne, then you definitely want to try this unique formulation from PCA Skin. It’s a wildly popular product in their lineup and often sells out, so make sure you snag it while it’s still available. It’s formulated with 2% salicylic acid and eucalyptus to clear pores and purify and soften the skin.
Cerave Acne Control Cleanser
Cerave’s acne-formulated cleanser is rich in salicylic acid and BHAs that purify oily skin, reduce clogged pores and blackheads, remove dead skin cells and treat and prevent acne. It provides a light chemical exfoliation that smooths, hydrates and cleanses the skin without stripping it of its natural moisture barrier.
Panoxyl acne foaming wash
Coming in with 10% benzoyl peroxide, Panoxyl’s cleanser has the highest amount of benzoyl peroxide you can get over the counter. Chang loves it for its maximum strength antimicrobial properties that kill acne-causing bacteria and lift dirt from pores.
Differin daily deep cleanser
Chang recommends this dermatologist-developed benzoyl peroxide-infused cleanser by Differin. It’s specially made to gently cleanse acne-prone and sensitive skin without irritating or drying it out. It absorbs excess oil and moisturizes without clogging pores, delivering a deep clean that won’t strip the skin.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane double repair face moisturizer
PCA Skin Clearskin moisturizer
PCA Skin’s Clearskin is a tried and true staple in Aguilar’s office. It is a nourishing, light moisturizer that hydrates, calms and soothes normal to oily, breakout-prone and sensitive skin. It’s quick-absorbing, with a non-oily feel, and reduces discolorations due to breakouts. It has targeted ingredients that balance moisture levels and plant extracts that purify and calm the skin. It is loved by so many of Aguilar’s clients, including women in their late 30s, and it’s a secret among some of her clear-skin A-listers!
Cetaphil moisturizing lotion
Cetaphil is a great option for those who suspect their acne is the result of a broken moisture barrier. It’s fast-absorbing, non-greasy and super lightweight while also providing deep and long-lasting moisture that hydrates and protects the skin for up to 24 hours. The formula is enriched with six moisturizers, vitamin E and provitamin B5 for soft, smooth skin.
SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF
If you’re willing to make the investment, SkinCeuticals is the brand to turn to. This serum is specially formulated for oily and blemish-prone skin, with a unique blend of ingredients that includes 0.5% silymarin (milk thistle extract), 15% l-ascorbic acid, 0.5% ferulic acid and 0.5% salicylic acid. It’s a powerful oil-free vitamin C serum that prevents oil oxidation that can lead to breakouts and signs of aging.
Dr. Jart+ Cicapair tiger grass serum
Change noted that while it’s most often used for redness, this highly concentrated serum also works wonders for red, irritated and blemish-laden skin. It treats sensitive skin with centella extract and cicabond, a blend of proteins and minerals, to help strengthen, balance and improve the skin’s defenses against irritation and damage.
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% oil control serum
Nothing beats The Ordinary’s products when it comes to efficacy and affordability. Chang recommends this high-strength vitamin- and mineral-rich formula that includes 10% pure niacinamide and 1% zinc. The niacinamide, AKA vitamin B3, helps reduce the look of blemishes and congestion while also visibly brightening skin tone. Zinc helps regulate sebum activity, so your complexion can stay more fresh and oil-free.
SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense serum
Chang recommends this anti-aging salicylic acid acne treatment serum from SkinCeuticals, the holy grail for those of us grimacing our way through both wrinkles and acne. It’s a dual-performance serum that help to cure adult acne while also addressing fine lines, wrinkles and uneven tone. It’s formulated with a combination of 2% dioic acid and both AHAs and BHAs that prevent blemishes, diminish hyperpigmentation and help reduce excess sebum production while also preventing dark spots.
The Ordinary 100% organic cold-pressed rose hip seed oil
The Ordinary’s rose hip seed oil is made with sustainably sourced, organic and cold-pressed oil that targets signs of aging while deeply hydrating and nourishing delicate, inflamed skin. It’s well-tolerated by those with acne, and the price point is as good as it gets.
Pai Carbon Star
Pai’s Carbon Star is an overnight clarifying facial oil that’s good for all skin types, but Aguilar stressed that it has ingredients targeting and preventing acne. This oil is made with black cumin seed and vegetable charcoal to penetrate pores. It works to reduce the appearance of imperfections, leaving clearer skin and an improved overall complexion when you wake up.
Herbivore Lapis Blue Tansy face oil
Another staple in my skin care routine, Herbivore’s Lapis facial oil is specifically formulated for acne-prone skin. It’s a lifesaver for anyone with congestion or irritation of any kind. It’s incredibly nourishing, healing and hydrating without suffocating the skin. Blue tansy calms and soothes redness while visibly clarifying the skin, squalane supports your natural moisture barrier and kukui nut oil balances surface sebum in acne-prone skin.
Jaxon Lane Raine Or Shine anti-aging face sunscreen SPF 50
Aguilar recommends lightweight, water-based sunscreens like this offering from Jaxon Lane. It’s not greasy, doesn’t clog pores or leave a white film, making it suitable for all skin tones. It’s a two-in-one sunscreen and moisturizer that also nourishes skin with vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, green tea, licorice root and ginseng. Also importantly, it is fragrance-free, cruelty-free and benzene-free.
Paula’s Choice Resist youth-extending daily hydrating fluid SPF 50
I am absolutely devoted to this weightless, antioxidant-rich sunscreen from Paula’s Choice. It’s oil-free and offers SPF 50 protection while also addressing visible signs of aging. It leaves my skin soft, with a lovely, healthy sheen. It’s one of very few sunscreens that doesn’t cause my skin to break out; the formula is a total game-changer for those with oily and acne-prone skin.
Isdin Eryfotona Actinica mineral sunscreen SPF 50+ zinc oxide
Isdin’s mineral sunscreen is specially designed to have a lightweight consistency alongside powerful UVA and UVB protection that won’t leave your skin vulnerable. Vitamin E nourishes the skin while zinc oxide protects it. The emulsion consistency means it won’t feel greasy or clog pores, which is key for those of us with blemish-prone skin.
Elta MD UV clear broad spectrum SPF 46
The gold standard for those seeking sun protection that won’t cause breakouts, Elta MD’s Clear formula is lightweight, oil-free and specially formulated for those with acne-prone and sensitive skin. Sodium hyaluronate provides moisture while lactic acid refines the skin to clear pores and reduce shine, leaving you with a soft matte complexion.