How to Treat Acne With Dry Skin

Most people associate acne with oily skin, so it may catch you by surprise when your dry skin starts breaking out. But acne in dry skin types isn't as uncommon as you might think. Although it can happen at all ages, acne and dry skin are usually found with adult acne.

Treating acne in dry skin can be challenging. Many of the acne skin care products you find over the counter are generally made for oily-skinned folks and can be way too drying for dry skin types (although there are now more skincare products specifically for treating acne in dry skin).

And acne treatments themselves are drying. Even if your skin isn't typically dry it may become so once you starting using an acne medication regularly.

Whether your skin is naturally on the dry side or this is a new development thanks to your acne treatments, the following steps will help you manage dry skin while getting breakouts under control.

skin care routine for acne
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verwell

Choose the Right Product

There is no way around it; acne treatments cause dryness. But certain forms can be more drying than others.

Over-the-counter (OTC) acne medications that come in pads or pledgets (think Stridex pads and the like), astringent solutions, and water-based gels tend to be more drying than other forms. You'll probably prefer the feel of treatment lotions, creams, or ointments. These are often more emollient and less drying.

If you're using prescription acne medications, let your dermatologist know that your skin tends to be dry so that he can choose one that's most appropriate for you. All acne treatments dry out the skin, though, so you'll have to take more steps to keep your skin feeling good.

No matter which treatments you're using, use them correctly. Don't slather on more, or more often, than directed. This will put your skin on a fast track to dryness, peeling, and flaking.


Click Play to Learn About Acne Treatments for Dry Skin

This video has been medically reviewed by Casey Gallagher, MD.

Give Your Skin Time to Adjust

Dryness, peeling, and irritation are typically at their worst during the first few weeks after starting on acne treatment. To combat this, it's best to start off slowly.

Try using your treatments every other day or just three days a week initially. Build up to using them every day as your skin adjusts.

If your topical acne treatments are really doing a number on your skin, despite a slow and steady beginning, let your dermatologist know. She may recommend leaving them on for just 20 or 30 minutes and then washing them off. This will allow your skin to adjust without becoming overly irritated.

You can let the treatments set for longer and longer periods over the course of several weeks until you can leave them on all day (or night) without your skin becoming too dry.

For seriously dry, irritated skin, you may want to stop using your acne treatments for a few days. Give your skin a breather. Once your skin is feeling better, you can slowly start using your treatments again. You should let your dermatologist know if you're doing this, though, to get their advice.

Moisturize Daily

Regular use of a moisturizer is one of the best things you can do to combat dryness. Moisturizers help seal in moisture and act as an occlusive barrier to protect the skin. Apply a good moisturizer as often as needed to keep dry skin at bay, but at least twice daily.

By choosing a moisturizer carefully, you needn't be worried about it breaking you out. Look for an oil-free, non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic brand. (It will say so right on the label.)

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, don't choose an acne treatment moisturizer. They contain medications that can further dry the skin. Instead, pick a highly emollient brand that you feel moisturizes your skin well.

For an extra layer of skin protection, apply moisturizer first and then layer your acne medications right over the top. Some dermatologists feel the moisturizer helps act as a buffer, reducing dryness and irritation caused by acne medications. (Get your dermatologist's advice for your specific situation, though.)

If you are dealing body acne, make sure your body lotion is oil-free as well. You may also want to steer clear of highly scented lotions if they seem to irritate your skin.

Moisturizers containing lanolin, mineral oil, or petrolatum also have their drawbacks. Lanolin is a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis, while low-grade mineral oil tends to be comedogenic. Although petrolatum is invariably greasy, it can be combined with silicone derivatives to make it less greasy.

Use Non-Foaming Cleansers

You don't want a harsh, stripping cleanser. It won't help clear acne faster but will dry your skin out in a hurry. Instead, go for a clean-but-not-overly-dry feeling.

Non-foaming cleansers, also called cream cleansers or lotion cleansers, are typically less drying than foaming options. Pay attention to how your skin feels. Super tight, dry, or itchy skin after cleansing is a good clue it's not the right product for you. Instead of soaps, they are made with gentler synthetic detergents (syndets).

Again, if you're already using a topical acne medication, don't use an acne treatment cleanser even an OTC one. Choose a cleanser that is non-medicated (unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise, of course). If you're using a topical treatment for body acne, you may want to steer clear of acne treatment body washes as well.

Studies suggest that synthetic detergent (syndet) cleansers are less irritating and more effective at reducing acne lesions than bar soap.

Avoid Overwashing

Don't over-wash the skin, or you may be stripping away the small amount of oil your skin needs to protect it from dryness. In most cases, twice a day cleansing will do. And if you're not getting sweaty or dirty, you can get by with a nightly face-washing only.

Facial washes or soap is optional for extra dry skin. Even gentle cleansers can burn, sting, and irritate already parched skin. Using plain water is perfectly acceptable, and preferable in this case. If you need to remove makeup try an oil-based, fragrance-free makeup remover.

Be gentle while cleansing your skin; no harsh scrubbing. A gentle buffing with a soft cloth can help get rid of annoying flaky skin.

Protect Skin From the Elements

Cold, dry air and blustery winds can chap your already dry skin. And don't think that if the weather is fair and balmy you're in the clear. The sun isn't doing your skin any favors either.

The combination of heat, humidity, and intense ultraviolet radiation can trigger a flare-up of inflammatory acne, referred to as acne tropicana, acne majorca, or tropical acne.

Sunscreen is a must for everyone. Just like with your moisturizer, choose a sunscreen that is non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic. Natural sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide tend to be gentler on already dry and irritated skin.

A Word From Verywell

With careful selection of your skincare products and treatment medications, you can control acne and dry skin, all at the same time. Just a few simple changes to your skincare routine may be all you need to get your skin feeling better.

But if you are having trouble getting acne under control, or if your dry skin seems severe, don't hesitate to call your healthcare provider. They can help you choose an OTC acne product, prescribe a prescription medication if needed, suggest skincare products, and help you develop a skincare routine that is right for your skin type.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chularojanamontri L, Tuchinda P, Kulthanan K, Pongparit K. Moisturizers for acne: what are their constituents? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(5):36-44.

  2. Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter acne treatments: A review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(5):32-40.

  3. Dréno B, Bettoli V, Araviiskaia E, Sanchez Viera M, Bouloc A. The influence of exposome on acne. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2018;32(5):812-9. doi:10.1111/jdv.14820

Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.