How to Create the Best Skin Care Routine for Acne

Easy 5-Step Regimen

A good acne skin care routine is essential when you're prone to breakouts. Your daily process can help your skin in the following ways:

  • Remove excess oil
  • Keep pores clear
  • Help blemishes heal more quickly

With so many products available and so much conflicting information out there, creating a skincare routine for acne can seem confusing. But your daily skin care routine for acne doesn't need to be complex to be effective.

You'll need just a few minutes twice a day. Often, you'll already have everything you need on hand. 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
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Here's a quick snapshot of things you should and shouldn't do when you're putting together a skincare routine for managing acne.

Cleanse Gently but Well

Using only your fingertips or a soft washcloth, thoroughly cleanse your face. Be sure to wash 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 cleaner.

Make sure you're using the right cleanser for your skin. What kind of cleanser you choose may depend on whether you use prescription acne medication. For instance:

  • OTC wash: An over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatment wash is a good choice if you have mild breakouts. Pick one that contains either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.
  • Non-medicated cleanser: 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 excellent choices.

If you wear makeup, or if your skin gets sweaty during the day, do a double wash at night: Cleanse, rinse well, and repeat. This extra cleanse ensures you wash away all traces of makeup, sweat, and dirt every night.

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

Use Toner or Astringent

This step is optional. Depending on the ingredients they contain, astringents or toners can help in the following ways:

How To Use

Apply toner to a cotton ball or pad and gently smooth over the face and neck. Doing so will help remove any leftover makeup, cleanser residue, and oil.

Astringents can be drying, so keep the following in mind:

  • Best for oily skin types: Astringents remove excess oil from the skin, so they're 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.
  • Look for alcohol-free products: 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 alcohol-based toners can sting open pimples even if your skin isn't incredibly dry or sensitive.

Recap

Toners can help remove excess oil, cleanser, and makeup. Regardless, if toners or astringents over-dry or irritate your skin, 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 toner.

Apply Acne 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.

Whether you are using prescription or OTC gels or creams, let the medication absorb completely before applying a moisturizer.

Need help choosing an acne treatment medication? Give your dermatologist or healthcare provider a call.

Apply Moisturizer

It may seem counter-intuitive to moisturize already oily skin, but don't skip this critical 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 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. This means it won't clog your pores. You may need to try a few different brands to find one that you like.

Apply Sun Protection

Many acne treatment medications and exfoliating ingredients make your skin more susceptible to sun damage (called photosensitivity). So, ensuring your face is protected from the sun is a good part of an acne skin care routine.

Many moisturizers already 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 a product that is for the face rather than an all-over sunscreen product. For example, facial sunscreens tend to be less oily and don't have that sunscreen aroma.

Recap

You will only need to apply sunscreen in the morning. Finding a moisturizer with an SPF can make this step a breeze.

Summary

An acne skin care routine should include a cleanser, toner, acne medication, moisturizer, and sun protection. If the toner is too drying, you can simply skip that step.

If you're using prescription acne medications, make sure to use gentle cleansers and other products. Moisturizers that include sun protection can save you time.

A Word From Verywell

You don't need the most expensive products on the market to get good results from your acne skincare routine. The most critical step is consistency. While skipping a day here and there won't irreparably harm your skin, the more consistent you are, the better results you will get.

If you need help getting acne breakouts under control, or you need some guidance on choosing the best skincare products for you, give your dermatologist a call.

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  1. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5):945-73.e33. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037