These are the acne treatments for people with sensitive skin. (Photo: Getty Images)
The war on acne is one that calls for big guns: strong acids like glycolic and salicylic are go-tos for exfoliating skin and drying out oil glands, while retinol is tapped to prevent new breakouts from forming and to help fade acne scars. But for sensitive skin types, this arsenal of blemish-fighting ingredients is too harsh a battle.
“People with a weaker skin barrier can be more easily irritated by certain ingredients,” says Dr. Annie Chiu, a Los Angeles-area dermatologist. “Those who have sensitive skin can experience excessive dryness or peeling to these products, which further weakens the skin barrier, leading to symptoms of stinging, itching, burning, redness, and inflammation.” This is not the time to fight fire with fire, no matter how badly you want those blemishes gone. So how are we supposed to erase acne when the Rx means irritation?
Chiu and Miami-based dermatologist Dr. Leyda Bowes-Manstein suggest ditching the aggro battle plan for one that’s more precise. For starters, it’s important to create healthy skin care habits, like gently cleansing twice a day and refraining from product-hopping. “Many times, less is more,” says Bowes-Manstein. “If something works, stick to it. Don’t be tempted to try 20 different creams. Consistency is the most important thing.”
Read on for Bowes-Manstein and Chiu’s tips on how to gently take on acne without exacerbating skin. Note: If sensitivity is caused by skin allergies, read ingredient lists to avoid triggering botanicals.
Cleanse with care
Because clogged and gunked up skin is acne’s playground, cleansing is key. But for sensitive skin types, overdoing it can be just as counterproductive as not cleansing enough. Don’t use harsh scrubs or abrasive sponges, says Chiu, and wash with tepid water. “Don’t overcleanse the face,” she adds. “Twice-a-day cleaning is enough.” Finally, skip foaming formulations —which typically contain harsh detergents — and cleansers made with dyes, alcohol, witch hazel.
Try: Naturopathica Chamomile Cleansing Milk, $32
Tone without astringent
Toners are great skin balancing tools and can help active ingredients in acne treatments better penetrate the skin. Chiu suggests avoiding toners with alcohol, which happen to dominate the market. This toner taps soothing rose water, aloe vera gel and glycerin to hydrate and soothe.
Try: Hana Organic Skincare Gentle Toner, $28
Pick the right naturals
“It’s important to note that “natural” ingredients are not necessarily less irritating,” says Chiu, calling tea tree and eucalyptus oils “extremely irritating” for some. Instead, nature’s own sulfur and clay can serve as an anti-inflammatory and reduce oil production, respectively, she notes. This mask uses both sulfur and bentonite clay, along with copper (which some research shows accelerate healing) and vitamin C, which can help break up pigment from acne scars.
Try: AcneFree Therapeutic Sulfur Mask, $8
Get strategic with benzoyl peroxide
Among heavy-hitter acne fighting ingredients (like salicylic and glycolic acid), Bowes-Manstein prefers benzoyl peroxide as a “safest choice,” because it delivers three benefits: normalizing oil production in the gland itself, cleaning pores and acting as an antibacterial agent. While benzoyl peroxide washes can be help prevent new breakouts all over the face, creams should be used to spot treat only, she notes, adding, “be careful not to use a concentration higher than 4 percent.” Though this low-dose benzoyl peroxide spot treatment contains a bit of witch hazel, it’s well loved by sensitive skin types.
Try: Arithmetic Acne Control Complex, $30
Spot treat without overdrying
If low-concentration benzoyl peroxide spot treatments are too irritating, Chiu suggests trying one made with sulfur or clay to reduce inflammation instead. For a DIY remedy, a paste of crushed aspirin and water can have anti-inflammatory effects, she says.
Try: Jurlique Blemish Cream, $28
Look for a lighter acid
If you must use glycolic or salicylic acids, stick to concentrations lower than .5 percent, says Chiu. Otherwise, she recommends trying a more gentle alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), like lactic acid. This gel-cream hybrid is tinted and combines lactic acid’s gentle exfoliating power with soothing vitamin E and anti-inflammatory licorice root extract to moisturize and heal congested skin.
Try: Ren ClearCalm 3 Replenishing Gel Cream, $30
Though retinoids are celebrated for their skin-clearing abilities, they can make sensitive and acneic skin very dry, so talk with a derm before trying over-the-counter retinol products. To hydrate and heal this skin type, both derms like moisturizers with ceramides and/or hyaluronic acid, along with green tea and vitamin E, which get points for their anti-inflammatory and skin-calming properties.
Try: KINDri Pas de Rouge SPF 40, $40