Here's What To Do - And What To Avoid - If You've Got Acne-Prone Skin
It’s a universal truth that zits are the worst.
Some folx barely even remember to splash water on their face and rarely see a pimple. Others are constantly on the hunt for products that will deliver that magic bullet solution to acne that just won’t quit.
Though we think of it as a teenage problem, acne affects humans of all ages, genders, and biologies. So if you’ve got skin that’s prone to acne, know that you’re not alone!Shop Vegan, Cruelty-Free Skincare Products
What is acne-prone skin?
You’ve heard of pores, and how clogged they can get. But why exactly does this happen?
These small openings on our skin surround sweat and oil glands and hair follicles. Because bodies are magic, we are constantly sloughing off skin cells and generating new ones. When those dead cells mix with sebum—the body’s natural moisturizer—pores can become blocked, which can cause a ruckus of whiteheads, blackheads, and inflamed zits. Add bacteria to the mix and it can be a real bummer of a pimple party.
Some of us are blessed with larger pores and oilier skin, which is often a recipe for acne-prone skin (but hey, it also means our wrinkles are less noticeable!). But people with dry skin and smaller pores aren’t immune to acne-proneness, either. For oilier folks, more sebum is the culprit for acne; for the dry-skinned, it’s flakes of dead skin. The moral of the story: no one is totally safe!
But wait—that’s not all! Hormones can be a major factor in causing acne. People with uteruses might notice more acne along their chin, neck, and jawline closer to menstrual cycles. Those undergoing hormonal therapies or big hormonal changes (like gender transition or pregnancy) can be predisposed to acne.
How certain products and ingredients can affect acne-prone skin
Your skin has its own unique microbiome—a microscopic environment for bacteria of all kinds, both helpful and harmful. Like the global environment, our microbiomes are also susceptible to disruption. Products containing ingredients like mineral oil can exacerbate acne in oily and/or acne-prone skin by blocking pores and causing the skin’s sebum levels to go wild. That’s why it’s so important to seek out non-comedogenic products (aka, ones designed to not block pores).
But before we write off oils completely, know that certain oils can be good for oily skin. Counter-intuitive, we know.
Studies have shown that melaleuca oil, also known as tea tree oil, has a positive impact on oily skin since it neutralizes bad bacteria and overactive micro-organisms. Copaiba oil, made from copaiba tree resin, is an emollient that’s great for both oily and dry skin.
Some oils can be moisturizing, too. Even though it can be tempting to cut down on our regular cream moisturizer during a breakout, remember that, no matter if your skin is oily or dry, supplemental moisturizer can actually support sebum in doing its job without going into overdrive. It’s imperative to moisturize (and wear sunscreen!) no matter your skin type or how pimple-ridden you are.
How hair care can cause acne
The culprit behind the dreaded “bacne” (back acne—get it?) is often hair products. The thick, goopy products we use to condition our strands can combine with dead skin to block pores. You might see bacne more in the winter when your skin is covered up more. But it can also come out in the summer thanks to being sweaty betties.
In both cases, tight-fitting fabrics and/or sweat equal a recipe for bacteria to infect blocked pores.Shop Clean Skincare Products
How vegan, clean skincare products can help
If you’ve ever dealt with acne, you’re probably already familiar with two of the most popular acne-fighting ingredients: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Both are vegan and readily available in many products.
Benzoyl peroxide is made using a reactive chemical process where hydrogen peroxide is treated with benzoyl chloride. While it can be effective, it’s not necessarily “clean.” If you’re making the switch to clean skincare products, look for alternatives with melaleuca (tea tree) oil instead. Like benzoyl peroxide, melaleuca/tea tree oil shares the same antiseptic and antimicrobial properties that kill bacteria that can overgrow, penetrate, and otherwise inflame skin to cause breakouts.
On the other hand, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid typically harvested from the bark of willow trees. Salicylic acid works by kicking the dead cells off the skin (exfoliation). It can be used as a preventative treatment, like in a face wash, or as a spot treatment once a blemish pops up. Because it’s an acid, it can also be incredibly drying and shouldn’t be overused.
Other acids that can be beneficial for acne-prone skin include azelaic acid, which is naturally found in grains and harvested from barley, rye, and wheat grasses, and Vitamin A, which is an uber-popular ingredient as retinol. Because of the drying nature of these acids, those with dry skin should make sure to spread out applications and moisturize 10-15 minutes after application, once the product has fully soaked in.
Non-acid products to try include hibiscus, which is great for removing dead skin and encouraging new cell growth, and ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties, like oats, green tea, and sea buckthorn. Hyaluronic acid can also reduce redness and support the lipid barrier where dead skin cells hang out, and ceramides are champions at tightening pores.
Acne happens for a number of reasons and to a number of skin types. But clean skincare can be more supportive of acne-prone skin than some of their drugstore counterparts. Part of the beauty of shopping for clean skincare products is finding those that work best for your skin’s microbiome, type, and individual needs.
Oil happens. So does dryness. And both are part of the skin’s functional process. But zits? They’re still the worst.
Leah M. Charney (she/her) is sassy yet classy and is always seeking a beauty routine to match. She delights in both the science and aesthetics of the clean beauty movement.
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