Your Derm-Approved Guide to Creating the Perfect Skin-Care Routine for Acne

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Photo: Stocksy/Brkati Krokodil
If you've ever had to look your complexion in the mirror and call a truce, you're not alone. At the first sign of a pimple, acne-prone skin can flare up with inflammation or additional reactionary breakouts. This is why crafting a skin care routine for acne is an art that takes plenty of research on which beauty ingredients are your skin's friends and which are best left on the shelves.

"It's important to know which products to use [if you have acne]," says Michele Green, MD, a New York-based board-certified cosmetic dermatologist. Although the enormous selection of beauty products and buzzy skin-care ingredients is tempting, you can't just slather any old ingredient on acne-prone skin and call it a day. First of all, Dr. Green says it's important to make sure the product label says oil-free and non-comedogenic. "Non-comedogenic products are formulated in a way that avoids breakouts or clogs pores," she says. That should be your baseline when shopping.

As for what else to avoid? Anything aggressive. "Harsh or abrasive products such as exfoliating beads should be avoided if you have acne," says Dr. Green. These, she explains, would be those that contain extra-drying ingredients, like sulfates—which, she says, "can damage your skin's natural protective barrier and result in severe irritation." Those with acne-prone skin should also steer clear of oil-based products, artificial fragrances, dyes, and alcohol-based products. Dr. Green points to coconut oil, almond oil, shea butter, and mineral oil as pore-clogging examples. And, while you should still exfoliate, she recommends turning to chemical exfoliants rather than grain-based ones, such as alpha-hydroxy acids or salicylic acid.

The good news is that an acne-friendly skin-care regimen should be more streamlined, rather than a deluxe, 10-step affair. "Start with the basics," says Dr. Green, who recommends a cleanser, a toner, a serum or prescription treatment, and a moisturizer (plus an SPF if your moisturizer doesn't have it already). "Less is definitely more when it comes to acne, as using multiple topical products merely dries out the skin and can cause irritation and make your skin worse," she says.

It's also worth noting that acne isn't going to go away overnight—it's a process, and it takes patience (trust me, I've been there). "Always give your skin enough time to adjust to your skin-care routine, as it takes a few weeks to see results," says Dr. Green. When in doubt? Schedule a visit with your dermatologist so that they can help you figure out exactly what your skin need.

Keep scrolling for the derm-recommended skin care routine for acne skin types

1. Cleanser: As is the case with anyone's skin-care regimen, everything begins with a thorough cleanse. "Start by cleansing the skin to remove all traces of makeup and bacteria," says Dr. Green, who suggests using lukewarm water (piping hot water is irritating). "Acne-prone skin types should use a gel-based cleanser, but Cetaphil ($10) or CeraVe ($14) are also both common cleansers that work wonders for your skin," she says. This step will remove excess oil and dirt from your complexion to prep it for the rest of your routine.

2. Toner: "After cleansing, apply a toner to open up the pores after cleansing," says Dr. Green. "Toners prepare the skin for the next step so it can fully absorb the treatment products." With acneic skin, she recommends a toner with chamomile or green tea for extra hydration, or an exfoliating toner with glycolic or salicylic acid—think Dr. Roebuck's Lifesaver Skin Brightening Toner ($28), which has glycolic acid to slough away dead skin cells along with aloe vera to keep your skin calm and hydrated.

3. Treatment product: This step in your routine is where the work truly happens. "Treatment products are the powerhouse of any skin-care routine," says Dr. Green, noting that this should either be an active serum that has antioxidants, peptides, or retinol, or it can be a prescription acne treatment from your derm. You can't go wrong with some form of retinol—either OTC or a prescription-based tretinoin—since it takes care of clogged pores by increasing cell turnover. "Niacinamide is also helpful as it's a powerful antioxidant derived from vitamin B3," she says. "It fights acne by reducing inflammation and dark spots." Other acne-fighting MVPs include azelaic acid (a gentle yet effective option), benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid. "Depending on how your skin reacts to these ingredients, it's best to start out by applying the treatment product three times a week at night and increasing it gradually," says Dr. Green.

Learn more about why retinol is a must-have skin-care ingredient, below:

4. Moisturizer: Next up? Seal everything in with a moisturizer. "A moisturizer will replenish the skin, hydrate your skin cells, and protect your skin," says Dr. Green. Her tip is to look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, and go with a gel-based, oil-free option. "Use an oil-free moisturizer since acne medications tend to dry out the skin," she says, noting these will reduce any dryness or peeling. One A-plus lightweight moisturizer that derms love to recommend is the Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel ($24), which you can get at the drugstore.

5. Sunscreen: Applying an SPF every single day is a non-negotiable, regardless of your skin type. "Give your skin the extra protection it needs to prevent any sun damage," says Dr. Green. We love the EltaMD Broad-Spectrum SPF 50 ($25) for its high SPF and quickly-absorbing, moisturizing formula.

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