What Is an Acne Facial?

An acne facial is used to clear out blackheads and blocked pores.

An acne facial treatment can help clear out blackheads and remove dead skin from blocked pores. Some people may want to add them to their regular acne care, alongside medication and other skin treatments you do at home and/or as directed by your dermatologist.

These acne facials, like extraction procedures, are typically done by a licensed esthetician rather than another type of provider. They're not a necessary part of your acne treatment routines, but what an acne facial can do is support your skin care regimen.

Each esthetician has their own style, but acne treatment facials generally follow the same basic procedure. Here's what you can expect during your first acne facial.

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Pre-Facial: The Consultation Form

Sulfur mask application on a woman

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The very first thing you'll do when you arrive at at the dermatology office, salon, or spa is fill out a client consultation form. And these can be very detailed!

Your skin care therapist will need to know about your skin, as well as your health history and any medications you're using—whether they're for the skin or not.

Among other reasons, it's because some medications (like antibiotics and some steroids) can increase your sensitivity to sunlight or otherwise limit the benefits of an acne facial.

Types of Facials

There are different facial styles meant for different purposes: exfoliation, hydration, and anti-aging are just a few. Your provider will choose the best approach for a safe, effective acne facial based on your responses to questions about your skin and health issues.

Researchers have shown that certain creams, cleansers, and make-up can be important adjunct treatments alongside your medications, in some cases even decreasing their side effects. So it's important to provide a complete history.

2

Prep: The Treatment Room

After the client consultation form is filled out, the esthetician will then escort you back to the treatment room.

They will step out for a moment while you change into a gown, which fits under your arms like a tube top or strapless dress, or simply remove your shirt.

Once changed, you'll lie down on the treatment bed. Your esthetician will likely take a few minutes to ensure they've gathered the appropriate products for your skin type and treatment, and explained to you what you can expect.

3

Facial Step 1: Deep Cleansing

You may choose to come to your acne treatment facial with makeup-free skin, but it's not necessary. Your esthetician will begin by removing any makeup and doing a thorough cleansing.

After the first cleansing, your skin will be cleansed again to make sure all traces of dirt, oil, and makeup are removed. The cleansing isn't just for your face. Your neck, chest, and shoulders may also be treated, depending on your acne concerns.

Certain cleansers, such as those with alpha-hydroxy acids, are common in skin care and can help to prevent acne. Don't hesitate to ask your provider about the products they use.

4

Facial Step 2: Steam Treatment

Some acne facial treatments include steaming with a special steamer machine. It billows warm steam over your face for several minutes.

Although most people think the steam is to "open" the pores, that's not really the case. What the steam actually does is soften the pores, along with any plugs of sebaceous matter that may be in them, so they can more easily be cleaned out.

If the steam gets too warm for you, let your esthetician know. They'll move it back a few inches so you're more comfortable.

5

Facial Step 3: Exfoliation Procedure

Exfoliation is an important step in any facial, but especially for acne treatment facials. Exfoliating procedures help remove dead skin cells and debris that can clog your pores. An added benefit is it leaves your skin feeling super soft and smooth.

There are many exfoliating options, from a simple scrub to microdermabrasion to superficial chemical peels. Salicylic acid peels are commonly used during acne treatment facials and have been shown to be effective.

The type of exfoliation procedure your esthetician uses will depend on your skin and also the type of acne medications you're currently using.

If you're using topical retinoids or isotretinoin, your esthetician will do an extremely gentle exfoliation or none at all. That's because these medications already ultra-exfoliate the skin.

Acne treatment facials are most helpful for mild acne, minor blemishes, and mild comedonal breakouts. For moderate acne to severe acne, acne facials will not be incredibly helpful. These more serious forms of acne should be treated by a dermatologist with prescription medications. You'll get much better results.

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Facial Step 4: Blemish Extractions

Acne facial treatments often include the removal of comedones (blackheads) from your pores. Extractions are done by applying gentle pressure either with the fingers or with a small tool called a comedone extractor.

Extractions may not be entirely comfortable, but they offer benefits for acne care. They shouldn't hurt, so tell your esthetician if you're feeling pain.

Benefits of Extraction

The benefit of extractions is that you'll actually see improvement immediately. Blackheads and milia (small, hard, white bumps) are gone, but if you have a lot of blackheads they can't all be extracted in one session. Estheticians can't extract inflamed blemishes, like cysts, either. Only a dermatologist can drain a cyst.

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Facial Step 5: Application of a Mask

For your acne facial, an esthetician will determine what type of mask will be most beneficial to your skin. It's usually applied with a small brush.

Sulfur masks are often used during acne treatment facials because sulfur can be helpful in clearing acne. For super oily skin types, an oil-absorbing clay mask may be used instead. Or, if your skin is a bit red from inflamed pimples or from the extractions, a soothing mask might be the best choice.

Some providers are looking at how clay masks can be used to deliver additional agents, such as infusing the clay mask with tea tree oil when treating acne.

While the mask is setting, an esthetician may treat you to a neck and shoulder massage, or massage your hands and arms.

If you want to try a do-it-yourself facial, keep in mind that it's typically not effective for treating acne even if it makes your skin feel better.

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Facial Step 6: Toner or Astringent

Once the mask is removed, a toner or astringent is applied over the entire skin. Although toners and astringents are similar, and the terms are often used interchangeably, there are subtle differences.

Astringents are meant to remove excess oil from the skin. They leave the skin feeling fresh and looking matte. Astringents often contain alcohol to give the skin a tight and cool feeling.

Toners, on the other hand, aren't oil-removing. They tend to be gentler so they're appropriate for dry or sensitive skin types. Unlike astringents, toners contain very little to no alcohol.

The esthetician will choose a toner or astringent for you, depending on your skin's needs.

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Facial Step 7: Moisturizer and Sun Protection

The last step of your facial treatment is an application of moisturizer and sunscreen.

A light, noncomedogenic moisturizer will be applied over your entire face, neck, and chest area. The moisturizer will be for acne-prone skin so it won't leave you feeling super oily or clog your pores.

Sunscreen is a must too, for all skin types. The exfoliating treatment you had during the facial can make your skin more sensitive to the sun temporarily, so it's important to protect your skin before you go outside.

Sun protection is important every day. Daily sunscreen use will protect your skin from premature aging, dark spots and uneven skin tone, and skin cancer.

A Word From Verywell

In some cases, acne facials can be helpful in creating and maintaining clear skin. But acne facials alone won't completely clear your skin, so you'll still need daily acne treatment. If you're under the care of a dermatologist, always get their OK before you make an appointment for your acne facial.

10 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. Bureau of Labor Statistics. What Skincare Specialists Do.

  2. Lees, M. Clearing Concepts: A Guide to Acne Treatment. Chicago, IL: Cengage Learning.

  3. Ricci F, Masini F, Fossati B, Frascione P, De Waure C, Capizzi R, et al. Combination therapy with hydrogen peroxide (4%), salicylic acid (0.5%) and D-panthenol (4%): efficacy and skyn tolerability in common acne vulgaris during sun exposure period. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2016;20(2):232-6. PMID: 26875890.

  4. Araviiskaia E, Lopez Estebaranz JL, Pincelli C. Dermocosmetics: beneficial adjuncts in the treatment of acne vulgaris. J Dermatolog Treat. 2021 Feb;32(1):3-10. doi:10.1080/09546634.2019.1628173.

  5. Pivot Point Academy. How to Perform a Facial Treatment.

  6. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018 Apr 10;23(4):863. doi: 10.3390/molecules23040863.

  7. Zhang L, Shao X, Chen Y, Wang J, Ariyawati A, Zhang Y, et al. 30% supramolecular salicylic acid peels effectively treats acne vulgaris and reduces facial sebum. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2022 Aug;21(8):3398-3405. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14799.

  8. Zhang Z, Zhang X, Fu Z, Cao L, Xiong Z, Tang Y, et al. Fibrous palygorskite clays as versatile nanocarriers for skin delivery of tea tree oils in efficient acne therapy. Int J Pharm. 2022 Jul 25;623:121903. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpharm.2022.121903.

  9. Craven, H. Face toners and astringents: which product and ingredients are best for my skin. dermcollective.

  10. Pfenninger, JL, Fowler, GC. Pfenninger and Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. New York, NY: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Additional Reading
  • "Questions and Answers About Acne." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). National Institutes of Health.

  • Gerson, Joel; Ph.D.. Standard Textbook for Professional Estheticians. 8th edition. Albany, NY: Milady Publishing.

  • Titus S, Hodge J. “Diagnosis and treatment of acne.” American Family Physician.

  • Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwid HE, Berson D, et. al. "Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

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