Top 10 Tips for Moisturizing Acne-prone Skin

Woman examines pimple in mirror.
Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Finding a moisture balance for acne-ridden skin can be a real trial. See more pictures of ways to get beautiful skin.
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Finding balance for acne-prone skin can be frustrating. If you don't moisturize, even oily skin can feel dried out or flaky -- especially if you're using topical acne medications. If you moisturize too heavily or too often, your skin can feel greasy all day. You can only imagine how difficult this search for balance would be for a person who has combination skin.

Figuring out which ingredients to look for or avoid in a moisturizer, or how to deal with changes in skin due to acne treatments or age, can present additional challenges. For example, do you know what a humectant is? Do you know what "hypo-allergenic" means? You might think that natural ingredients are a sure bet, but few rules exist that define exactly what "natural" means in moisturizers and other skin care products. You may not think that's a big deal, but some natural ingredients can actually cause acne flare-ups.


So what's a breakout-prone person to do? Start by heading to the next page for tips on moisturizing acne-prone skin, including advice from members of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

10: Use Oil-Free Moisturizers

It may seem obvious, but oily, acne-prone skin doesn't need more oil layered on top of it, even if it does need moisture. As a matter of fact, very oily skin may not need to be moisturized at all. This is especially true for people with adult acne. That said, most people can benefit from a pea-sized dollop of moisturizer, even if they have breakouts.

You should look for water-based moisturizers formulated for oily or breakout-prone skin. It also helps to look at the ingredients list on the back for anything that may trigger breakouts in some people, like mineral or coconut oils. For sensitive skin, glycerin is a safe base for a moisturizer because it won't irritate skin. What's more, glycerin is a humectant, meaning that it pulls moisture from the atmosphere to keep skin balanced. Some moisturizers include ingredients like the tried-and-true benzoyl peroxide or the newer salicylic acid, which can help keep acne in check as it maintains the skin's moisture balance.


9: Look for Non-Comedogenic or Non-Acnegenic Moisturizers

Teenager with acne.
Finding a moisturizer that won't cause breakouts isn't hard, but you have to be careful.
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The terms non-comedogenic and non-acnegenic mean pretty much the same thing: These products won't cause blackheads, whiteheads or acne. These moisturizers will almost always be oil-free, and they can be found easily and inexpensively. Even drug store brand-moisturizers have been scientifically proven to benefit inflamed skin. Neutrogena, for one, does a lot of testing on its products, says Dr. Susan Goodlerner, Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif.

She also points out that these terms, while helpful when looking at labels and selecting a moisturizer, aren't actually regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So, be careful at the drug store: There may be some trial and error involved in finding the moisturizer that works with your skin type, but it doesn't have to be expensive. Once you've found the moisturizer that keeps your acne in check, stick with it.


8: Moisturize after Applying Acne Treatments

Your first order of business in treating your acne inflammation should be using an over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide cream, a natural product like tea tree oil or a prescription treatment like retinol. These products should be applied first, after washing your face, to allow the ingredients to penetrate the skin and do their work. Following acne treatments with moisturizer helps restore the skin's balance and soothes the dryness or flakiness that can sometimes result from the use of topical medications. Using moisturizer before acne treatments can prevent the active ingredients in the medication from being absorbed into the skin.

Remember to layer on products in order of weight. Test acne medications, lotions and creams with your fingers to find which feels the lightest and which feels the heaviest. Usually, serums and acne treatments will have a weightless feel to them. Moisturizing lotions and creams will feel heavier and richer. The heavier formulas can create a barrier that the lighter formulas can't penetrate, so apply the lighter ones first.


7: Use Moisturizers that Treat Acne

Woman examining face in mirror.
Kill two birds with one stone: Find a moisturizer designed to treat acne.
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Moisturizers can contain ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or retinol that treat and soothe acne-ridden skin at the same time. Dr. Leslie Bauman, Professor of Dermatology at University of Miami, recommends a moisturizing treatment gel, especially for adult acne. In fact, she says, "one study showed that moisturizing alone (without using acne medications) can help acne."

Be aware that using exfoliating acids in moisturizers -- like retinol, salicylic acid or alpha hydroxy acid -- along with topical acne creams can cause flaking and peeling of the skin. On the other hand, too much of a good thing can throw your skin out of whack in the opposite direction and make it itchy and irritated. Talk with a dermatologist before layering on powerful and potentially drying ingredients, particularly if you're using over-the-counter products along with prescription treatments.


6: Use a Lighter Lotion

Formula does make a difference, but which one is right for acne-prone skin? Cream moisturizers have more fats and oils in them (called lipids) and are intended for dry skin. A lotion or serum is a better choice for skin that tends to break out, especially if it's labeled non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic. It will feel lighter, too -- even on oily skin. If the moisturizer you choose doesn't cause breakouts but still feels heavy, mix a little water into the moisturizer in your palm before applying.

For acne-ridden skin that's also very dry and flaky (a common reaction to acne medications), a heavier -- but still non-comedogenic -- cream may be appropriate. "It's particularly important that patients maintain moisture balance when using acne products, especially topical vitamin A, as it exfoliates and may dry the skin," says Goodlerner.


5: Use a Moisturizer with SPF

People hanging out near water.
Active people should always wear sunscreen while outdoors -- and a raging case of acne is no excuse to skip it.
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Everyone should always wear sunscreen on their face, whether you have acne or not - - even on cloudy days. Our faces are the most exposed part of our bodies, and they need to be protected from cell-damaging sunlight and the potential for skin cancer down the road. People who use topical vitamin A, which is also known as retinol and is found in products like Retin-A, will experience even more sensitivity to the sun.

Use a moisturizer with sun block each morning. If you'll be outside in the sun for an extended period of time, bring along an additional non-comedogenic sun block formulated for faces, since the SPF in your morning moisturizer isn't formulated to last all day at the beach. The sun block won't act as a moisturizer, but it will keep sensitive skin from burning -- and causing a host of new problems for your acne-prone skin.


4: Be Careful with Anti-Aging Products

Some people find themselves at a stage in life where they have to battle acne and wrinkles at the same time. In this case, you have to find products just as distinctive as your skin issues. There are some caveats to keep in mind, however. "Be careful in selecting anti-aging products," says Goodlerner. "Some of those are geared toward drier skin." Since drier skin requires more moisture to stay in balance, these formulas may be heavier, with more lipids and a creamier feel. Of course, these heavier formulas could clog pores and lead to acne.

If you've got the dreaded duo of pimples and crow's feet at once, don't forget to look for anti-aging products that are labeled non-comedogenic. Baumann adds that the retinol is many non-comedogenic products packs a double punch for people over the age of 30, when treating skin becomes more about what you're not getting from your moisturizer. "If you're not getting retinol," she says, "you're not getting the anti-aging, anti-pore-clogging benefit."


3: Prevent Dark Spots with Moisturizer

Close-up shot of dark-skinned woman with flawless complexion.
People of color are especially prone to post-acne scarring, but this can be prevented with certain moisturizers.
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After acne lesions heal, brown spots can appear in their place, especially on the skins of people of color. These spots are caused by excessive melanin production and occur after an inflammation, like an acne outbreak or rash. Dr. Baumann recommends using a moisturizer that contains soy or niacinamide (a vitamin B complex), to help prevent the dark spots in the first place. People with darker complexions people may also experience the white, "ashy" appearance of dry skin, which can be relieved easily by using a lotion or moisturizer. As always, make sure that you choose a moisturizer that's non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic.

Otherwise, people of all skin colors have the same types of issues with moisturizing acne-prone skin and can benefit from reading ingredient labels and avoiding products containing oil.


2: Remember that Natural Ingredients Aren't Necessarily Better

These days, natural ingredients are everywhere -- even in moisturizers. You'd think that using products packed with natural ingredients would be more soothing and do less damage, but that's not the case for everyone or for every natural ingredient. People with acne must take even more care to prevent breakouts, even when they're using natural products.

Some natural ingredients can be irritating or cause a reaction in some users, just like man-made ingredients. Plus, there are no rules for what is natural and what isn't. Even the experts are flying blind. "I don't know what natural means" when it comes to skin products, says Dr. Goodlerner.


What about organic ingredients? Although organic labeling is regulated (for the most part) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that designation only means that the ingredients in a certain product were grown without things like pesticides. In skin care products, that label says little about the effectiveness of that product. For example, Dr. Baumann points out that "organic coconut oil can break you out." In actuality, the best moisturizer ingredients for acne aren't organic, she says. She recommends salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinoids such as tretinion and retinol.

1: Use Jojoba Oil

woman getting acne treatment from dermatologist
Jojoba oil is an effective moisturizer, but it may be too expensive for some to use.
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Many people with acne-prone skin swear by jojoba oil (pronounced ho-HO-ba). That's a bit counterintuitive: How can a type of oil be a good moisturizer for acne? It may surprise you to learn that there are several reasons why people are so high on the stuff. First of all, it's not technically an oil; it's actually an indigestible wax esther found in the seeds of the jojoba tree. Second, it mimics the sebum, or oil, found naturally in human skin. By applying jojoba oil, you fool the skin into thinking it's produced enough sebum to sufficiently moisturize it. Since sebum can cause breakouts, you'll want to control your skin's sebum production as much as possible.

There are no studies yet that back up the anecdotal evidence of jojoba oil's ability to trick the human body into producing less sebum. You'll need a bit of cash if you want to test this theory: Since extracting the product from the seeds is expensive, jojoba oil itself is expensive. But its non-comedogenic effects make the oil worth the expense for some.

Like moisturizers with "natural" or organic ingredients, jojoba oil may be worth trying, but be aware that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't assessed the acne-stopping, skin-tricking powers of jojoba.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • "Acne," American Academy of Dermatology. (August 27, 2009)
  • Bauman, Dr. Leslie. Professor of Dermatology. University of Miami. E-mail interview. September 1, 2009.
  • Goodlerner, Dr. Susan. Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Telephone interview. September 3, 2009.
  • Kern, Daniel W. "Jojoba Oil." (September 8, 2009)
  • "Take it easy on your skin," Real Simple, (September 8, 2009)
  • "Treating Acne in Skin of Color," AcneNet. (August 27, 2009)