There's a persistent belief within the skin-care world that the best way to treat a pimple is to dry it out, which has led many people to think that using moisturizer on top of an active breakout is the absolute last thing you should do if you want it to go away. But according to skin pros (and research), that's just not true. In fact, drying your skin out too much can actually make acne worse, which is where oil-free moisturizers come in.
"Moisturizing is extremely important when treating acne-prone skin and the old idea of 'drying out' acne is thankfully not the trend anymore," says Gina Mari, a celebrity esthetician based in Los Angeles. Traditional acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid work by clearing dirt, oil, and bacteria out of your pores, and—yes—drying out your skin in the process. But when your skin becomes overly dry (something that's likely to occur if you're regularly using these intense actives), it will start to produce more of its own oils in an attempt to re-hydrate and balance itself out. The result? More pimples. Because of this, you need to balance those drying ingredients with something hydrating and non-comedogenic.
Enter: oil-free moisturizers. "A lot of my acne patients have a fear that any moisturizer is going to clog their pores and worsen their acne, but this isn't true," says Christine C. Kim, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and brand ambassador with YesTo. "Using an appropriate oil-free moisturizer may help you tolerate your acne-fighting skin products better and give you faster results." Since they're formulated without oil, these products deliver hydration without any risk of clogging your pores.
Though oil-free moisturizers are most commonly recommended for acne oily and acne-prone skin, they can be beneficial for other complexion types, too. "They're lightweight and easy to use, so are great for layering under sunscreen and makeup, and I also recommend them for people who don't like the feeling of heavy moisturizers." Because they're so light, she's a fan of using them during the summer months, when humidity can make any complexion more prone to oiliness. Another added bonus? Layering an oil-free moisturizer on under actives like retinoids and AHAs/BHAs can help your skin tolerate them without sacrificing any of their efficacy.
That said, you'll want to practice care when using an oil-free moisturizer on dry, dehydrated, or irritated skin. The absence of oil may mean that they're not enough to heal a damaged skin barrier, so in these situations, you may want to opt for something heavier and more nourishing. "If the skin is dry and even slightly dehydrated I prefer oil-rich moisturizers, serums, and face oils," says Mari. "And the winter months usually require heavier moisturizers—especially in colder climates."
When shopping for oil-free moisturizers, Dr. Kim suggests looking for humectants, which draw water into your skin. "Hyaluronic acid, which can attract 1,000 times its weight in water, is the star ingredient," she says. Glycerin, honey, aloe vera, allantoin, urea, and lactic acid are also great options that have similar sponge-like properties.
With that in mind, these are the five best oil-free moisturizers that are safe to use on even the oiliest skin and angriest breakouts.
1. Paula's Choice CLEAR Oil-Free Moisturizer, $29
This lightweight moisturizer will strengthen and hydrate your skin with the help of ceramides and hyaluronic acid, but won't clog your pores in the process. It's also got niacinamide, which will help ease inflammation if you use it on top of an active breakout.
2. Shani Darden Skin Care Weightless Oil-Free Moisturizer, $48
Thanks to a combination of hyaluronic acid, this moisturizer will leave your skin quenched... and then some. It's also got skin-plumping hydrolyzed collagen and softening red algae extract, and is so lightweight you'll hardly realize you're wearing anything at all.
3. Tatcha The Water Cream Oil-Free Pore Minimizing Moisturizer, $20
There's a reason why so many people swear by Tatcha's cult-fave Water Cream. It's got a jelly texture that goes on invisibly but won't leave your skin feeling sticky, and it's packed with a mix of Japanese botanicals, including wild rose, which tightens pores, and leopard lily, which helps to control excess oil. Green tea and rice and algae extracts will leave skin hydrated and pimple-free.
4. Kate Somerville Oil Free Moisturizer, $70
People with combination skin swear by this stuff, because it's hydrating enough to use on the dry parts of their complexion but won't leave behind any excess grease on the oily ones. It's formulated with oil-absorbing spheres to soak up excess sebum, and has algae and peptides that work to strengthen your skin barrier.
5. Summer Fridays Cloud Dew Oil-Free Gel Cream Moisturizer, $42
Remember how Dr. Kim called hyaluronic acid the "star ingredient" of oil-free moisturizers? Well, this stuff is formulated with three different types of it. Its multi-weight hyaluronic acid penetrates the skin to deliver moisture at different levels, which means you'll feel hydrated from the inside out.
For more 411 on how to treat oily and acne-prone skin, check out the video below.
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