How to Create the Best Skin Care Routine for Acne

Easy 4-Step Acne-Fighting Skin Care Regimen

A good acne skin care routine is important when you're prone to breakouts. Your daily skin care regimen can help to remove excess oil, keep pores clear, and help speed healing of existing blemishes.

With so many products available, and with so much conflicting information out there, creating a skin care routine for acne can seem confusing. But your daily skin care routine for acne doesn't need to be complex to be effective. In fact, you'll need just a few minutes twice a day—and often you'll have everything (or almost) everything you need already. What you don't have you can buy at the drugstore: There's no need to invest in expensive products.

skin care routine for acne
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Do's and Don'ts For Caring For Acne-Prone Skin

Here's a quick snapshot of things you should and shouldn't do when you're putting together a skincare routine for managing acne. The step-by-step instructions that follow offer more details.




Step 1: Cleanse Gently but Well

Using only your fingertips or a soft washcloth, thoroughly cleanse your face, including your jawline, neck, and in front of and behind the ears. There's no need to use rough pads or scrub aggressively; this won't get your skin any cleaner.

Make sure you're using the right cleanser for your skin. An over-the-counter acne treatment wash is a good choice if you have mild breakouts. Pick one that contains either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

If you're currently using prescription acne medications, you'll need a gentle, non-medicated cleanser instead. Unscented Dove, Cetaphil, or the old school amber Neutrogena bar are all good choices.

If you wear face makeup, or if your skin gets extra dirty or sweaty during the day (like if you play on a sports team or after you work out) do a double wash at night: cleanse, rinse well, and repeat. This ensures you cleanse away all traces of makeup, sweat, and dirt every night.

Don't use harsh bar soaps, antibacterial hand washes, and the like on your face. Harsh soaps won't clear your acne, but they will irritate your skin.

Step 2: Use Toner or Astringent

Depending on the ingredients they contain, astringents or toners can help remove excess oil, tone, and hydrate, or help fight blackheads and blemishes. Apply toner to a cotton ball or pad and gently smooth over the face and neck to help remove any leftover makeup, cleanser residue, and oil.

Astringents are designed to remove excess oil from the skin so, obviously, they are best for oily skin types. If your skin tends to be dry, either naturally or because you're using drying acne treatments, a hydrating toner is a better choice for you.

Also, pay attention to the alcohol content in the product because alcohol can be drying and irritating, especially for sensitive skin types. Alcohol-free products are the best choices if your skin is dry, or irritated by acne treatments. Be aware that even if your skin isn't incredibly dry or sensitive, alcohol-based toners can sting open pimples.

Regardless, if toners or astringents seem to over-dry or irritate your skin, simply don’t use them. Ditto if you're using prescription acne medications that are super drying (like isotretinoin or topical retinoids). You aren't going to harm your skin by not using a toner.

Step 3: Apply Your Acne Treatment Medications

After your toner has dried completely, or after you've washed and thoroughly dried your face, smooth on your acne treatment creams as directed. This could be a medication prescribed by your doctor, or an over-the-counter acne gel or cream. Let the medication absorb or dry completely before proceeding to the next step.

Need help choosing an acne treatment medication? Give your dermatologist or family physician a call.

Step 4: Apply an Oil-Free Moisturizer or Gel

It may seem counter-intuitive to moisturize already oily skin, but don't skip this important step. Acne medications can dry out skin, leaving it thirsty for moisture. To reduce dry and peeling skin, apply a light moisturizer twice daily.

Your moisturizer doesn't have to leave you feeling slick and greasy. There are many moisturizers for oily skin types available today that absorb fully and won't aggravate acne.

Moisturizing gels and lotions are generally lighter than creams. Either way, choose one that is labeled oil-free and noncomedogenic. You may need to try a few different brands to find one that you like.

Bonus Step: Sun Protection

This step you won't need for your before-bed skin care ritual, but it's a must in the A.M.

In addition, many acne treatment medications and exfoliating ingredients make your skin more susceptible to sun damage (called photosensitivity).

You don't necessarily need an additional sunscreen product, though. Many moisturizers contain SPF, giving you sun protection while you moisturize. If your moisturizer doesn't contain SPF then you should consider a separate sunscreen product.

Look for one that is designed for the face, rather than an all-over sunscreen product. Facial sunscreens tend to be less oily and don't have that sunscreen aroma.

A Word from Verywell

You really don't need the most expensive products on the market to get good results from your skincare routine. The most important "step" in your skin care routine is consistency: The more consistent you are with your regimen, the better results you will get.

Conversely, if you're only applying your acne treatments every once in a while, and rarely wash your face before bed, you're never going to get ahead of the breakouts. While skipping a day here and there isn't going to irreparably harm your skin, you'll definitely want to stay as regular with your daily skin care regimen as possible. Make a commitment to take care of your skin.

If you need help getting acne breakouts under control, or you just need some guidance on choosing the best skin care products for you, don't hesitate to give your dermatologist a call.

Extras like masks and peels aren't cure-alls but they can be used to pamper skin or give it an extra boost.

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Article Sources
  • Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwin HE, et. al. "Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2016; 74(5): 945-73.