Dealing with sensitive skin or acne can be some of the most tiresome and frustrating skin-care battles. But what happens when you have both? For people struggling with sensitive skin and acne, trying to treat one issue or the other can prove to be both confusing and difficult. Many people with sensitive or reactive skin often tend to shy away from acne-fighting ingredients, as they can be too harsh on the skin, but it leaves them still dealing with pesky breakouts.
So, can you use acne-fighting ingredients on sensitive skin and simultaneously treat breakouts without excessive irritation? The short answer: yes. Ahead, expert dermatologists and skin experts walk us through the best acne products for sensitive skin.
Acne Products and Sensitive Skin: How to Make It Work
While many people with sensitive skin and acne tend to shy away from acne-fighting ingredients and products, New York dermatologist Heidi A. Waldorf, MD affirms that with the right things in mind, people with sensitive skin can use acne-fighting products to treat breakouts. “The key to using acne products for sensitive skin is to maintain your skin barrier while you are using them, which means not over-drying your skin,” Dr. Waldorf explains. “Over-drying the skin is the number-one mistake I see acne patients make.”
Navigating Acne Products for Sensitive Skin: What to Look For
Though we know it is possible to use acne products on sensitive skin, the most important thing for individuals struggling with both issues is to utilize extra caution and discretion when picking out products. Dermatologist and creator of Sajic Skin, Dusan Sajic, MD, explains that “While sensitive skin can make it more difficult to use many acne products, there are numerous strategies that can help reduce the intolerance and irritation that such patients can experience.” For Dr. Sajic, some of the most helpful strategies include starting low and slow when it comes to concentration of active ingredients and frequency in usage, sandwiching active products with moisturizer, and using products with microdelivery systems.
“When navigating acne products for sensitive skin, first look for acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, benzyol peroxide and niacinamide,” begins Dr. Waldorf. “The first two help sweep out the sebaceous follicles—salicylic acid in particular is attracted by the oil in the pores. Benzoyl peroxide has antibacterial effects while niacinamide reduces inflammation and may reduce sebum. Then, look closely at the labeling to determine if the product is meant for oily skin or dry, sensitive skin. Products for dry or sensitive skin often have ingredients in the base that help to protect the skin barrier hydration and reduce irritation.” CeraVe’s Renewing SA Cleanser ($15) is a great option for gently exfoliating those dead skin cells from the face and introducing the skin to the benefits of salicylic acid without irritation.
“Over-the-counter (OTC) retinols are generally alcohol-based and can be 20-40 times less potent than prescription retinols, which are true retinoic acids,” adds Dr. Sajic. “An option for sensitive skin could be to use a 0.01% prescription retinol, which might have similar strength to a 1% OTC retinol. However, the skin’s conversion process is always factor. Even low doses can cause issues in sensitive people so be careful. Topical retinol may also not be strong enough for your level of acne, and you may need to combine with other ingredients, but combination can lead to increased risk of reactivity.” Dr. Sajic adds that bakuchiol, green tea and azelaic acid are also good ingredients to look for when treating acne on sensitive skin.
Sensitive Skin Acne Products to Try
We all know that entering the skin-care isle at any retailer can be overwhelming to say the least. Luckily, Dr. Waldorf and Dr. Sajic have plenty of suggestions for getting started with acne products on sensitive skin.
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Caudalie Vinopure Line (Starts at $25)
Described as the brand’s “natural solution for acne-prone skin,” Dr. Waldorf recommends this collection to patients with sensitive skin and acne because of the combination of acne-fighting and skin-soothing ingredients. “The Caudalie Vinopure line contains salicylic acid with niacinamide, polyphenols (antioxidants) and essential oils which reduce inflammation,” Dr. Waldorf explains.
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Sajic Renutriate Sensitive ($245)
“For individuals grappling with acne and sensitive skin, my team and I specifically designed Renutriate,” explains Dr. Sajic. “You can visit the website for a user-friendly quiz that assesses your skin’s sensitivity, guiding you to the right product choice. This line effectively blends potent acne-fighting elements with calming agents like ceramides, glycerin, allantoin, silicone, cholesterol, and dimethicone.”
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“Another product I’ve found to be effective for those with sensitive skin battling acne is Aczone (dapsone gel),” says Dr. Sajic. “Aczone works as both an anti-inflammatory and an antimicrobial, making it beneficial for reducing the redness and swelling often seen in acne lesions. What sets it apart is that it doesn’t have the typical drying or irritating side effects commonly seen with other topical acne medications, making it an ideal choice for sensitive skin. However, it’s important to note that Aczone is available only through a prescription.”
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“Finally, if you really want or need a prescription-grade retinol, I feel Arazlo strikes a good balance between potency and minimal irritation,” Dr. Sajic explains. “While it might require an initial adjustment period, using the tactics and products mentioned above can ease the transition.”