What to Do When You Have Acne and Dry Skin

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Although having oily skin and acne at the same time is typical, many people also report that they have dry skin and acne at the same time. Others say their skin is dry underneath and oily on top, or that it's flaky at the surface but oily underneath. It's hard enough to treat acne and oily skin, but tackling these other issues at the same time is infuriating and confusing!

We're not going to say there are easy solutions to these dilemmas; however, with some detective work, facts, and fine-tuning your skin-care routine you can get beautiful results you'll see in the mirror every day. Let's figure this out together!

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Do You Really Have Oily and Dry Skin, and Acne?

First, keep in mind that age is not a factor for having acne or other types of breakouts. Just because you're no longer a teenager doesn't mean you won't break out. Even if you didn't break out or have acne as a teen, it doesn't mean you're in the clear (pun intended) as an adult. The ebb and flow of hormones (especially in women) can bring on breakouts during adulthood just as the surge of hormones triggers teenage acne.

If you're struggling with oily skin, dry skin, and acne, then in all likelihood your skin-care routine is the major cause of the problem. Using drying soaps or harsh scrubs, overdoing cleansing brushes like the Clarisonic, applying toners with alcohol or other irritating ingredients (think witch hazel or menthol), not using lightweight moisturizers (think gels) that contain healing ingredients, and not using sunscreen daily all add up to a disaster for your skin. (Surprise: Not using sunscreen contributes to numerous skin problems because it hurts the skin's ability to heal.) Your skin simply cannot survive the onslaught of such an assault or neglect—increased oil production, dryness, and breakouts are practically inevitable! In short, the wrong skin-care routine or overdoing things can cause skin to be both oily and dry, often in the same areas. The products you use matter a lot!

If all that weren't enough, lots of companies sell acne treatments that are loaded with extremely irritating and drying ingredients, which no one should ever apply to their skin because they only make matters worse. So, between a detrimental skin-care routine and products that contain irritating ingredients, it isn't surprising you have dry skin on top (or underneath) adding to the other concerns you're dealing with.

Another possible cause of dry skin in combination with oily, acne-prone skin is that anti-acne treatments, both over-the-counter and prescription, can be drying if used too often or if you apply too much at once—perhaps because you think if a little bit is good the more must be better. Numerous studies have shown—with valid scientific research-based certainty—that salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are essential anti-acne ingredients, and so companies often include these two proven ingredients in their products (that's good), but both of these can have side effects when combined with ingredients like alcohol, menthol, witch hazel, peppermint, eucalyptus, or sulfur (that's bad). Your skin will suffer if you apply these ingredients on a regular basis, even if they're accompanied by good ingredients. Check out our list of Best Anti-Acne Products for gentle, yet effective recommendations—and consider adjusting frequency of application if even well-formulated anti-acne products make your skin drier.

The gold-standard topical disinfectant, benzoyl peroxide can be drying for some people, especially if they start right away using a 10% concentration rather than a lower 2.5% concentration to see how their skin responds to it. Those are some of the issues, but there's still a couple more to think about.…

Are You Overdoing It?

Even the best anti-acne skin-care routines can go awry if you get overzealous, using too many anti-acne treatments or using them too often. Not everyone's skin can handle more than one anti-acne product at a time, some not even one product every day. So, consider that you may be applying too many anti-acne products at the same time. If you are using a prescription retinoid, such as Retin-A or Differin, and an antibacterial product containing benzoyl peroxide, and a BHA exfoliant containing salicylic acid—one right after the other—your skin most likely will not be happy, and will react negatively. Then, if you add "active" anti-aging products to the mix, such as a vitamin C or retinol serum, your skin may end up rebelling against too much of everything all at once. All of this is confusing—almost enough to make you want to stop using any products—but that won't help either, at least not in the long run.

As mentioned, although retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, and BHA combat acne, they also can cause reactions if not used strategically. You must experiment to see how your skin responds to different combinations of treatments. For example, for some people, it's best to apply retinoid products only once every other day. Others might get the best results by alternating the use of benzoyl peroxide and a retinoid, using one on one day and the other the next, applying either in the morning or at night after cleansing and toning. A BHA exfoliant then can be used during the day, perhaps every other day, applied morning and/or evening after cleansing and toning and before applying any prescription products.

Consider the following:

  • Some people can't use retinoids at all without having a negative reaction.
  • For others, any amount of benzoyl peroxide triggers problems like dry, flaky skin.
  • If you're allergic to aspirin, BHA can cause a reaction and you may need to try an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) exfoliant instead.

When you have acne, it takes experimentation with state-of-the-art anti-acne treatments, along with a gentle skin-care routine, to get the beautiful results you want.

Are You Expecting Results Too Soon?

Many people with acne and dry skin expect anything new they use, whether it's a single product or a complete routine, to solve their skin's problems in a matter of days. In most cases, that won't happen. Incremental improvement is the norm, and if you're using a routine that consists of well-formulated, non-irritating products, you can expect to see an about-face in your skin after a few weeks of consistent daily use, and consistency is important. Giving up too soon will just lead you back to spending more money as you grasp to find something else that works instantly. Bottom line: Be patient and, assuming your routine isn't making your skin worse, stick with it!

Do You Still Need a Moisturizer?

The truth is not everyone needs a moisturizer—at least not a traditional cream or thick lotion moisturizer, especially if struggling with acne. The ingredients that give a product a cream or thick lotion texture can worsen clogged pores and make skin more oily. Clearly, that's not the best for acne-prone, oily skin, even if dryness is also a concern!

What to do? Every skin type needs a generous amount of antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, and anti-redness/anti-inflammatory ingredients. Without these fundamental substances your skin will take longer to heal and will be more vulnerable to irritation, red marks from breakouts, and sun damage. (You don't want to get wrinkles or browns spots just because you have acne.) Solving one problem that creates another isn't the answer.

Lightweight gel moisturizers, toners, and serums, or thin lotions, all filled with antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, and anti-redness ingredients, are just what the doctor should be ordering for your troubled acne-prone skin that's also dry. You can layer these to get the results of a powerhouse moisturizer without the heavy, emollient ingredients that can trigger more breakouts.

What to Do When You Still Have Acne and Dry Skin

If you've tried all of our recommendations—using a gentle skin-care routine, eliminating products that contain irritating ingredients, experimenting with proven acne treatments to see which combination works best for you, adjusting the frequency of application so as not to overdo it, and applying skin-healthy ingredients in lightweight gels, serums, thin lotions, or toners—and you still have dry skin and acne, there is another approach to consider.

Despite the fact that excess oil is a chief contributing factor for acne breakouts, a small percentage of people find themselves with truly dry skin and acne. In fact, they have almost no surface oil, blackheads, or visible pores at all. They struggle to find a moisturizer that addresses the needs of their dry skin without aggravating breakouts, and continually worry that anything they try to get the breakouts under control will make their dry skin even drier. This scenario can be a paralyzing dilemma when shopping for skin-care products!

Here's what you need to know: All the recommendations we make above still apply, but you may need a moisturizer that is more appropriate for dry skin and not oily or combination skin. For example, you might need a mix of anti-acne treatments suitable for dry skin along with one of the Paula's Choice moisturizers and serums from our Moisture Boost, Skin Recovery, or Resist product lines.

Acne-prone, oily skin is a stubborn combination of problems that can occur at almost any age, and it's always emotionally distressing. When you add dry skin to the mix, it becomes even more of a challenge to identify the cause and then find a solution, while also avoiding products that are likely to make matters worse. Following what our detective work revealed can lead to clearer skin, minus the red bumps, flakes, and shine—without making dry skin worse. Now that's the ideal balance!

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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