Elizabeth Kream, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Chicago, has been dealing with acne since middle school, and wasn't able to really get it under control until she started med school. Now, she's able to take everything she's learned while managing her own acne to help others do the same.
"I think acne is super fun to treat...because I struggle with it myself," says Dr. Kream, who is currently in her third year of residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "When I was younger it was on my face, just the classic blackheads and whiteheads. And then in medical school, when I was in my mid-to-upper twenties, there was definitely a component of adult female acne, which we usually describe as a little bit deeper-seated discs that are on the lower face, the chin, and jawline."
Dr. Kream says there is some super exciting tech that will soon make treating acne even easier. But in the meantime, there are lots of great topicals out there, prescription-strength and over-the-counter, that work wonders. Keep reading to learn about the products she swears by.
Shop a dermatologist's favorite acne products
Dr. Kream is a huge fan of rotating between face washes. Sometimes, she uses a gentle cleanser like the Vanicream Unscented Gentle Facial Cleanser ($9) and other times she uses an exfoliating cleanser like the Neutrogena Clear Pore Facial Cleanser/Mask ($7) or the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel ($14 to $38). When she's using a cleanser that has active ingredients, like the latter two, she uses them in the morning to avoid mixing with the retinoid she uses at night. In order to let those actives really work their magic, she lets the product sit on her skin for a bit before washing it off.
"I like to just apply that to my skin when it's, dry and let it sit for just a minute or two while I'm brushing my teeth so that I can let it actually do its thing," she says. "I feel like if you're just applying it to your skin right away when it's wet and then rinsing it off, you're really not getting a ton of benefits from those active ingredients."
“Sometimes I’ll use a gentle cleanser,” says Dr. Kream. “You don’t want your skin to be squeaky clean and damage the skin barrier because then it’s going to be very irritated.” This Vanicream cleanser is super gentle while helping to remove makeup and excess skin oils.
Dr. Kream likes using this Neutrogena product that has 3.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, which gets way down deep into the pores to clear out the dirt and debris that leads to acne. It can be used as a daily cleanser, and can also be left on for up to five minutes as an intensive deep cleaning mask.
“I also have a Dennis Gross salicylic acid face wash that just feels really nice,” says Dr. Kream, adding that it’s “a little bit thicker” than most traditional cleansers. It uses a blend of hydroxy acids to gently exfoliate, decongest pores, remove makeup, and wash away bacteria.
When it comes to treatments, Dr. Kream likes to use the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel ($17.00 to $150.00), a retinoid like the SkinBetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream ($125), and the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic ($166) serum.
A few times a week, Dr. Kream likes to use these peel pads to gently exfoliate her skin. “I love to pack those when I’m traveling, because that’s when I’m maybe not as on top of taking off my makeup perfectly at night,” she says. “I use these just to make sure I’m keeping up with keeping my pores unclogged.”
At night, Dr. Kream uses a pea-sized amount of prescription-strength tretinoin. Tretinoin is a retinoid, so it helps aid cell turnover, something that’s very helpful in keeping pores acne-free. If you don’t have access to the prescription stuff, she recommends this over-the-counter retinoid cream from SkinBetter. “It’s a really nice retinoid that a lot of people like,” she says. “It’s still pretty powerful, but it’s pretty well tolerated.”
“This isn’t just for acne, but I love the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic serum,” says Dr. Kream. “That is awesome.” This serum contains vitamins C, E, and ferulic to brighten skin and help protect against oxidative stress while replenishing skin lipids. Earlier this year, SkinCeuticals launched Silymarin CF ($166), which is a version of this serum made specifically for acne-prone skin. Though she hasn’t tried it herself, she says a lot of her colleagues love it.
A common misconception that Dr. Kream hears from her acne-prone patients is that they shouldn't moisturize. "I tell them if they're not moisturizing their skin, they're not going to be able to tolerate the retinoids, and the active ingredients, and their acne medications," she says. Additionally, moisturizing will help limit your body's natural production of sebum (the oil that causes breakouts), because when skin is dehydrated it tries to make up the difference by making excess oil of its own. "Of course, you want to look for stuff on the labels that say 'non-comedogenic,' meaning it's not going to clog your pores," says Dr. Kream. Her favorites are the SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore $130 and the Neutrogena Hydro Boost ($18).
“In the winter, I definitely like the SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore,” says Dr. Kream. “Sometimes if I’m feeling super dry, I’ll even put a little bit on before and after my retinoid so that it’s sandwiched in between [layers of moisture].” This cream feels nice and rich, and is packed with pure ceramides, skin-similar fatty acids, and vitamin E to restore skin elasticity and hydration while helping defend against environmental damage.
Learn more about managing adult acne:
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