Although acne is commonly associated with oily skin, let it be known that dry skin can break out too. And while these breakouts on drier skin are certainly manageable, they can be a little harder to deal with because so many standard acne treatments are targeted specifically to oily skin types. â€œBut sometimes acne can occur on certain parts of the face, while other parts are unusually dry (what we call combination skin or T-zone oily skin),â€ explains board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD.
â€œI like to compare the skin with brick and mortar, where the skin cells are bricks and the mortar is what holds the cells together: ceramides, lipids, and cholesterol. Dryness occurs when there is not enough mortar to keep the bricks together,â€ explains board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. â€œMoisture keeps the skin pliable and supple, whereas the lack of it causes skin to crack, flake, and peel. Cracked skin is more vulnerable to infection from microorganismsâ€”such as bacteria and fungusâ€”because the skin barrier is not strong enough to protect itself, which can lead to increased breakouts,â€ she explains.
So treating acne with dry skin can require a delicate balance. But first, a bit more on the basics from leading board-certified dermatologists.
Why Breakouts Happen
Acneâ€”no matter what type of skin you haveâ€”results from a relatively simple formula. "The skin produces sebum or oil, and if the substance is too thick and sticky it can combine with dead skin cells in the pores and create a plug," says board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD. "This blackhead or whitehead can combine with bacteria and become inflamed, making a red or tender pimple."
As we get older, â€œour skin loses sebaceous output and moisture,â€ says Engelman. â€œUnfortunately, acne can start to increase as we age due to hormonal imbalance, stress, dietary, environmental factors, genetics. So, increased breakouts can start when skin is becoming drierâ€”itâ€™s a tough combo!â€ she says.
These breakouts are treatableâ€”it just takes a certain amount of knowledge to make sure you donâ€™t worsen the skinâ€™s dryness in an effort to banish zits! â€œIt is a challenge to treat acne if you have dry skin, because acne treatments can actually dry you out more,â€ explains board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. â€œSo it is important to use appropriate cleansers and moisturizers to address dry skin and minimize the risk of medication-related irritation.â€
How to Prevent Breakouts When You Have Dry Skin
Below, dermatologist-recommended tips on how to prevent breakouts when you have dry skin.
Stick to a Regular Skincare Routine
Find what worksâ€”and stick with it. â€œKeep a regular skin routine,â€ Rabach recommends. â€œIntroducing a new product can throw off a good routine and cause a setback in a cycle of breaking out and then being too dry.â€
Cleanse Twice a Day
Wash your face twice a day, but donâ€™t strip it. Rabach recommends choosing a milky-textured cleanser, as it wonâ€™t strip the skin of its natural oils.
Try a Retinol (in Moderation)
Retinol (aka every dermatologistâ€™s favorite ingredient) works to unclog pores by sloughing away dead skin cells, helping pores stay clear. Of course, retinol is equally famous for being potentially irritating and causing dryness (!) and flaking for some users. So, for dry skin, Rabach recommends using them sparingly â€”â€œmaybe once or twice a week instead of nightly.â€ If you find youâ€™re still sensitive to retinol, try sandwiching it between moisturizer.
Alternate Your Actives
Be careful not to overwhelm your skin with stronger, active ingredients. â€œIt is important to start with one treatment at a time,â€ explains board-certified dermatologist Charlotte Birnbaum, MD. â€œHold off on using products with alpha- hydroxy acids (like glycolic or lactic acid) or beta-hydroxy acids (salicylic acid) while starting retinoids, and add them in once a week only when your skin is already tolerating retinoids,â€ she suggests.
Moisturize (and Don't Be Afraid of Oils)
Itâ€™s common for people with acne-prone skin to be afraid of moisture, but the fact is all skin types need moisture. â€œThose with acne tend to be afraid of oils, when in fact, they are a great way to add moisture back into the skin,â€ Engelman says. She explains that â€œfor acneic skin, face oils help to reduce inflammation. This effect helps reduce breakouts and minimize post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that can occur after acne flares.â€
Beware of Stripping/Over-Exfoliating the Skin
Treat your skin gently. â€œAvoid loofah-type face scrubbers and handheld mechanical face washers,â€ Rabach says, "as these may increase dryness and irritation.â€ Another tip: Stay away from drying, astringent products. â€œAvoid alcohol-based toners as they often do little to treat acne, and they make it that much harder to tolerate more efficacious treatments like retinoids,â€ Birnbaum says.
How to Treat Breakouts When You Have Dry Skin
A number of factors can cause sudden breakouts when you're an adult, including fluctuating hormone levels, stress, and products in your skincare, haircare, or makeup routine. If you recently added a new product to your rotation, you could also be experiencing purging. This is when your skin temporarily reacts to an ingredient that is triggering cell turnover (often a retinol or acid) with a flare-up. How can you tell the difference? Purging will typically be caused by ingredients that exfoliate the skin, and the spots will heal quicker than your standard breakouts.
Moisturizer can definitely help reduce your breakoutsâ€”so long as you pick one with the right ingredients. Look for an option that contains both acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid, and soothing ingredients like aloe vera.