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Skin care tips for sensitive, acne-prone skin

How can you fight acne blemishes without irritating your sensitive skin? Skin care experts weigh in on the best tips and treatments for fighting acne without being a bully to your sensitive skin.

Acne-prone woman washing her face

Is it possible to get tough on acne without roughing up sensitive skin? Skin experts say yes — as long as you take the right approach specific to your skin care needs.

“Having both sensitive and acne-prone skin can be a big challenge for most who are trying to find solutions,” says Cecilia Wong, founder of NYC-based Cecilia Wong Skincare. “One reason is because most skin care ingredients used to treat acne contain benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. These two ingredients can seriously inflame and irritate sensitive skin.”

So, what can you do?

Use a gentle cleanser to remove oil

It’s important to wash your face each night to remove the surface oil and makeup that can contribute to acne, but you don’t want a cleanser that strips your skin of all its moisture.

“If the skin is too dry, it will actually produce more oil to further complicate acne,” says Machelle Burgess, CRNP. Instead, look for a gentle cleanser that will remove surface oils and makeup without stripping and disrupting your natural pH.

Simple offers a full line of cleansers and other skin care products. With plenty of vitamins, and no dye, perfumes or harsh irritants, their line is ideal for sensitive skin. Purpose is another skin care brand for those looking for gentle, pure products. Their Gentle Cleansing Wash (, $6) cleanses gently without irritating your skin. It’s oil-free, soap-free and hypoallergenic.

Use a new washcloth each day

Licensed esthetician Summer Gray says to cleanse your face with a soft, gentle washcloth made of lightweight terry cloth or soft cotton flannel. “It’s tempting to want to reuse your washcloth for several washes, but the best way to avoid adding unwanted bacteria to your skin is to start with a clean cloth every time you wash,” she says.

What about exfoliation?

Avoid harsh scrubs, says Wong. “No exfoliation! Scrubbing the skin will disrupt acne and spread bacteria, resulting in more acne forming, increased inflammation and redness,” she says.

Dr. Cheryl Karcher, a board certified dermatologist and the official dermatologist for NBC and the Miss Universe Organization, agrees that using harsh exfoliants can irritate acne-prone skin. “The main goal for sensitive, acne-prone skin is to keep the skin barrier intact,” she says. “Most people with acne think they should exfoliate or scrub a lot but you must not.”

Topical solutions and moisturizers

Topical solutions and moisturizers

Lightweight oil-free moisturizers will keep your sensitive skin hydrated and balanced, without breaking you out. We love Green Beaver daily facial moisturizer (, $17). However, if you are using Retin-A or retinoids, make sure you are using a moisturizer with SPF to protect your skin. Try the Soothing Sensitive Skin Daily Calming Moisturizer (Ulta, $15) from Yes to Cucumbers. It is formulated with organic cucumber, sweet almond oil and aloe. Plus, it’s free of parabens and phthalates, and has SPF 30 to protect your skin.

Topical solutions like Retin-A are effective at treating acne, but can irritate those with sensitive skin. If your doctor prescribes this type of product, make sure it is the lowest dose so as not to irritate your sensitive skin.

“[You] may even need to skip two days between applications, gradually increasing the days the treatment is applied,” says Burgess.

In addition to daily use of sunblock, facial plastic surgeon Dr. Houtan Chaboki says the timing of applying your topical treatments can make a difference in the sensitivity of your skin. He says to reduce skin irritation, “apply medication at night after washing the skin and allow skin to dry before [applying] skin care products.”

For a do-it-yourself treatment, Wong offers this all-natural skin care regime for sensitive, acne-prone skin. “Mix a few drops of lavender oil in a bowl of water, soak a washcloth and wash your skin with it. Lavender not only soothes and heals sensitive skin, but it’s great for calming acne. It’s antibacterial, antiseptic and has a decongestant effect.”

Avoid pore-clogging ingredients

Skin care products that contain isopropyl palmitate, laureth-4, octyl stearate and sodium lauryl sulfate can clog pores and cause acne. Jane Dudik, licensed esthetician and owner of The Acne Treatment Center in Vancouver, Washington, says to always read the labels and steer clear of products containing these pore cloggers and irritants to sensitive skin.

High-tech treatments

New high-tech treatments using light therapy are gentle enough for sensitive skin and have a superb track record of fighting acne. Wong recommends LED Light Therapy facials for its ability to heal skin tissue, calm inflammation and redness.

“It’s great for someone who has acne, as the treatment kills bacteria and calms the inflammation from acne,” she says. “I recommend a facial once a week for six weeks.”

Microdermabrasion treatment is also growing in popularity among those suffering from acne, but it’s not for everyone. If you have moderate or severe inflammatory acne, you should look for alternative treatments. Though chemical peels can be effective on acne, they can do a number on sensitive skin. Peels that contain glycolic acid and other AHAs can cause burning, stinging and painful peeling.

Finally, your diet can have a big effect on your sensitive, acne-prone skin.”Sugar is not a direct cause of acne, but for some, items like sugar, caffeine and complex carbs can trigger inflammation in the body,” says Gray.

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