FAQ about Treating Acne-prone, Dry Skin

Most acne products are made for oily skin. Likewise, they tend to dry out the skin, exfoliate the skin, or increase cellular turnover. But, what if you have dry skin and acne? Although most acne products are made for oily skin, there are still products and methods that work very well for treating acne on dry skin. These tips and tricks are not too complex, they’re mostly about understanding how to “cleanse backwards” and layer a retinoid. While these tips aren’t often seen in beauty publications, this is what truly works according to medical estheticians or derms. 

What causes breakouts? Do you treat breakouts the same on dry skin?

Breakouts are catalyzed by C acnes bacteria. This bacteria naturally lives in our skin, and it eats our skin’s oil. However, there are other substances this bacteria feeds on like dead keratinocytes which may be in surplus on dry skin (dead skin buildup). C acnes bacteria creates waste products which irritate the skin. This inflammation signals other immune cells to come to that area leading to redness, tenderness, and swelling. 

For this reason, benzoyl peroxide, a popular acne ingredient in cleansers, works by drying out the skin. Benzoyl peroxide has a bond that breaks and introduces oxygen. C acnes bacteria is anaerobic, which means it can’t tolerate oxygen. Therefore, benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria whilst drying out the skin.

Another popular acne treatment is salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is oil soluble, but it dries out the skin. When you are acne-prone with dry skin, you probably don’t something that dries up oil. A little bit of foam is fine, but you’ll want a cleanser that doesn’t overly strip the skin. Mild exfoliants are okay, but try to avoid products that remove oils and lipids from the skin barrier. People who have dry skin usually produce less oil. So, finding a cleanser that is formulated for acne-prone skin but doesn’t overly strip oil is very essential. 

Dr. Sam’s Flawless Cleanser -$22

There are no actives in here that are going to fight acne per se, but it’s very replenishing to the skin barrier, and it has an extremely low likelihood of clogging the pores or causing breakouts. But, what if you do want a cleanser with acne actives? 

What is cleansing backwards for dry skin and acne?

“Cleansing backwards” is when you use a hydrating balm first, a cleanser second, and thirdly, a hydrating balm again. To begin with, the balm removes the mascara, lipstick, foundation, and sunscreen. Second, you go in with a regular cleanser to remove any residue and to use actives on the skin that treat acne. And thirdly, you use a balm again.

If you have dry skin, PanOxyl or benzoyl peroxide wash might strip your skin. So, it’s better to balm, then cleanse, then balm up again. When cleansing backwards, a balm cleanser goes on twice because of the barrier it leaves. 

For your main, acne treating cleanser, the PanOxyl 4% is amazing because it is creamy and less drying than other peroxide options. After using an acne-treating cleanser, you can go in next with something like The Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm or the Orange Cleansing Sorbet.

PanOxyl Antimicrobial Acne Creamy Wash, 4% Benzoyl Peroxide -$9.01

The Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm -$10.99

Orange Cleansing Sorbet -$35

As a side note, if you wash your face in the shower, try using lukewarm water since warm or hot water can be stripping. 

You can also ask your doctor to customize a skincare routine for dry and acne-prone skin. If you’re unable to see a physician, there are online prescriptions likeDermatica,Curology, andApostrophe. These services can customize your skincare to have more hydrating ingredients.

Can you use BHAs if you have dry skin and acne?

People living with acne often reach for salicylic acid or BHAs because they are oil-soluble. This means that they dissolve within and break down oil. BHAs exfoliate those outer layers of the skin while killing bacteria. At the same time though, this can lead to dryness. So, some other acids that Cassandra recommends at a low percentage are lactic, glycolic, malic, and tartaric. They're exfoliating, but they’re slightly more hydrating or moisturizing. 

In addition, PHAs polyhydroxy acids are another great option. They hold onto water within the skin, but they still exfoliate. PHAs are large molecules that sit on top of the skin, and they are gentle enough to use almost every single day and in the morning.

Can I use oil or moisturizing ingredients if I have dry skin and acne?

Many people with acne avoid oils, hydrating ingredients, and gravitate toward stripping ingredients. However,oils and hydrators are very helpful, especially for dry skin. While most people lump the two together,hydration and moisturization are two very different things. For example, some of the best hydrators are hyaluronic acid and glycerin while some of the best moisturizers are oils, silicones, and dimethicone. Yes, these can even be helpful for dry skin and acne!

Additionally, when used at low levels, niacinamide is also hydrating. Niacinamide also helps produce ceramides, a benefit particularly helpful for dry skin. Just make sure it’s not a super high percentage. Once again, a low level of niacinamide in serum or moisturizer is very beneficial 

Can you use retinoids for dry skin and acne?

As for retinoids, they are the gold standard in dermatology. They work with acne, fine line scars, wrinkles, and pigmentation, but they can also put the skin at risk for irritation. Retinoids work by making more skin cells in the stratum basale, the bottom layer of your skin. While it thickens the dermis, it thins the outer layer of skin, and it helps skin cell slough off faster. Unfortunately, this can cause a ton of dryness. So, what are people with dry skin and acne supposed to do?

Photocred: PhaMix

  1. Layer your retinoids

There is something called sandwiching or layering retinoids. It’s when you start with an occlusive moisturizer, apply your retinol, and then another layer of occlussive moistuirzer

Layering products keeps moisture in, and it creates a buffer against the skin. Having an occlusive moisturizer as the first layer keeps the retinoid from sitting directly on your skin. The retinol will still penetrate through the vaseline and soak through the skin, but it won't be as intense. You get those acne treating benefits without the same amount of irritation. Slugging with retinol and petrolatum jelly is actually recommended by doctors and dermatologists, especially for people with eczema and psoriasis.

You can try this for a few weeks or 28 days to see if it works for you. 

  1. Use OTC retinols in oil, retinaldehyde, or adapalene gel

They are a lot less intense than the prescription stuff. Adapalene gel is a little bit less irritating. So if you do have more irritation-prone skin, this one is great.

Adapalene Gel -$9.30

Retinoids are vitamin A. Vitamina A ingredients are oil-soluble, and you can get retinol in some of these oil forms. If you’re using an oil retinol serum, this actually locks in that previous step (maybe with hyaluronic acid or glycerin) of hydration. You can also look for moisturizers that have retinol.

Cassandra likes the one from MyChelle that has retinaldehyde and shea butter. So, it's a nice thick, and creamy moisturizer that has vitamin A. This moisturizer soaks into the skin and causes cellular turnover. Depending on how dry your skin is however, regular moisturization might not be enough. In this case, you should consider slugging.

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Remarkable Retinal Night Cream Nutrient-Rich Moisturizer with Vitamin A 

Will a moisturizing sunscreen break me out?

For the daytime, you want to use sunscreen, and you should be using sunscreen every day. Some sunscreens are more tailored to dry skin. Chemical/organic or physical/mineral sunscreens are both totally fine. Just use the one that is best for you. For a little bit of a glow or hydration, the ISNtree Watery Sun Gel is absolutely fantastic, and it works well over something like a moisturizer. 

ISNtree Watery Sun Gel 


Apostrophe SPF 43 -$27

Face Reality has a good one that's made for acne-prone skin, and it’s slightly hydrating. 

When it comes to sunscreen, find one that feels nice and goes along with your skincare routine so you’ll use it consistently.

Having both acne and dry skin can be hard, but this is your cheat sheet. Stay orally and topically hydrated, and reapply that SPF!

Coverphoto cred: American Academy of Dermatology

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