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Woman doing an acne skincare routine

7 Essential Steps to Washing
Your Face When You Have Acne

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It's not just a splash-and-go situation.

Cleansing your face may seem simple enough, but for those with acne, the way you do it can have a huge impact. It’s a delicate dance—you want to keep skin clean, but you also don’t want to strip it with harsh ingredients, steamy water, or overzealous scrubbing. Below, find the best skincare routine for acne from Jerry Tan, M.D., an adjunct professor of dermatology at the University of Western Ontario and an Acne Store advisory board member. 

1. Choose the right cleanser for your skin type

Figuring out the best formula comes down to whether or not you’re currently using acne medication as a topical treatment or if you want those acne-fighting actives in your cleanser, says Tan. And that’s personal preference, as one study shows that both medicated topicals and washes can be effective for acne-prone skin. [1] People who find they respond well to benzoyl peroxide, for example, may not like that it can bleach their sheets or clothes in cream-form. In that case, opting to use it in wash form can be a smart solution. But you can also try facial cleansers spiked with other acne fighters like salicylic acid and glycolic acid. Finding the best skincare routine for acne and for your individual skin may take some trial and error. 


If you’re using topical retinol, which may be drying, Tan’s recommendation changes slightly: “In this case, you want to choose a cleanser that’s very gentle.” That may mean avoiding true soaps with harsh lye and instead looking for synthetic detergents in face washes and beauty bars. Other common irritants to steer clear of in your facial cleanser, advises Tan: alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and sodium lauryl sulfate. “For the most part, look for cleansers that are tested to be non comedogenic, which means they won’t clog pores, and are fragrance- and essential oil-free to minimize the risk of allergic reactions.” 

2. Prep your skin (if necessary)

Once you’ve picked your cleanser, help it perform optimally by first stripping away any makeup on the skin—if you’re wearing it, that is. Tan’s suggestion: Gently remove cosmetics like foundation and concealer with a soft, non-exfoliating face wipe (to avoid further irritation) or, in the case of stubborn eye makeup, a cotton ball saturated in makeup remover. 

3. Use the right face washing technique for acne

Now it’s time to put your chosen formula to the test. Tan cautions that those fancy cleansing brushes and nubby washcloths, while appealing, can cause irritation. He prefers the low-tech approach: “I don't generally recommend anything except for what you have in front of you, which is your cleanser, tap water, and your hands.” Not only is this tactic unlikely to further inflame your skin, it allows you to feel where the cleanser is and detect spots on your face where you may need more or less.  


As for the temperature of the water, “[It] should be warm or lukewarm. If it’s too hot, you’re heating and stressing the skin, and that’s not a good thing,” says Tan.

4. Rinse and dry your face

Tan recommends starting with a quick rinse and then feeling around to check for any remaining product. “If it's not off, then [rinse] it again,” he says. Simple as that. When it comes to drying, very gently dab a clean towel onto your skin. “No scouring or scrubbing—leave that for the pots and pans,” he says.

5. Facial treatments for specific concerns 

For those using a medicated cleanser, skip ahead to the next step. For everyone else, now is the time to apply your acne product of choice. And note: You’ll want to reserve photo-sensitive ingredients like tretinoin for night-time use only—that way, they can’t degrade in the sunlight before they have a chance to work their magic. (Some other retinoids like tretinoin in microsphere, adaplene, tazarotene, and trifarotene are not degraded by light and can be used in the daytime too). Regardless of which active you choose, Tan suggests waiting five to 10 minutes after applying it to allow the product to absorb before moving on. “Your face shouldn’t feel like it's sticky or tacky before you apply another product,” he says.

6. Moisturize your skin

Now it’s time to hydrate. Your first step is choosing a moisturizer with the correct formula for your specific skin type. Tan would like you to look for something labeled non comedogenic and fragrance-free. If you’re acne-prone, try to avoid moisturizers that feel too thick or greasy—they may clog pores. From there, you just want to go with a texture and consistency you genuinely like. After all, he says, “The best moisturizer is the one you’ll actually use.”

7. Check your frequency of your face washing

The general guideline for acne prone skin is to wash your face twice a day: Once in the morning to start fresh; once at night to wash the day away before bed. But, Tan says, there are times when a third cleanse might be warranted. Among them: After a workout, after being in an environment with lots of airborne dust and debris, and after any special occasion when you may have been wearing heavy makeup. In those cases, go with a gentle cleanser rather than one formulated with acne fighters to prevent upping irritation. In fact, says Tan, “Whenever you're not quite sure how to wash your acne prone skin, [the rule] is to be gentle.” 

References:

[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366450/

Jerry Tan, M.D.

Dr. Jerry Tan is a member of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists and an adjunct professor of dermatology at the University of Western Ontario and in private practice in Windsor, Ontario. He is the principal of Windsor Clinical Research Inc., a research site for clinical trials, and the Healthy Image Center, a cosmetic dermatology treatment facility. Dr. Tan graduated from Queen’s University in medicine and trained in dermatology at the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan. In 2009, he was awarded the Canadian Dermatology Foundation Lectureship Award for excellence in dermatology research. In 2019, he was named Dermatologist of the Year by the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance.

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