Acne is an extremely common skincare concern—experts estimate that approximately 85% of teens and young adults deal with at least occasional breakouts.I For those with normal skin types, these breakouts often result from external factors, like stress or certain foods, and resolve quickly. If you have acne-prone skin, however, blemishes are less of an occasional annoyance and more of an everyday skin concern. They can be frustrating to deal with, especially if you’re already out of your teen years (because, yes—breakouts can persist well beyond puberty).
Thankfully, cultivating a targeted skincare routine for acne can help keep breakouts at bay. To help get you started, we consulted board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Brittany Oliver. Ahead, Oliver answers common questions about what causes acne and shares some of her favorite skincare ingredients for warding off breakouts. Find all the details, plus a complete, start-to-finish skincare routine for acne-prone skin, ahead.
What Causes Most Acne?
Let’s get this out of the way first: There is no single, universal cause of acne breakouts. As Dr. Oliver explains, “acne is multifactorial, meaning that there [can be] many factors at play when it comes to producing a pimple.” During puberty, breakouts are often linked to increased oiliness. Excess oil production can “mix with dead skin cells [and] clog hair follicles,” Dr. Oliver says, which can lead to breakouts.
However, as we mentioned above, teenagers aren’t the only ones who can experience acne. During adulthood, common causes of acne breakouts include stress, improper skincare, and hormonal fluctuations, like the kind that occurs during pregnancy. There’s also a genetic component: Those with a family history of adult acne may be more likely to experience it for themselves.
Discover Our Best Skincare Routine For Acne-Prone Skin
Understanding what triggers your acne is important, but so is how you address it. Here, learn how to manage your breakouts with our daily acne skincare routine.
Wash Away Pore-Clogging Impurities
While many different factors can contribute to breakouts, acne ultimately stems from clogged pores. Impurities—such as dirt, oil, and even makeup—can “accumulate throughout the day,” Dr. Oliver says, making you more likely to develop clogged pores. As such, she recommends cleansing twice daily to help remove impurities, ideally with a face wash tailored to your skin type and needs.
When you’re in the midst of active breakouts, look for a cleanser formulated with salicylic acid, such as our Blue Herbal Acne Cleanser Treatment. This foaming face wash helps purify pores to reduce blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of acne breakouts. When used consistently, it even helps prevent new blemishes from forming, making it ideal for those with acne-prone skin.
Tone to Balance Skin
According to Dr. Oliver, “toner can be a helpful addition to a great cleanser, gently removing excess dirt, debris, and oil from the skin.” We recommend toning with Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion, a Kiehl’s staple since its launch in 1964. The formula with menthol, camphor, and aloe vera, helps soothe skin after cleansing and balance areas prone to oiliness, like the T-zone. Use a clean cotton pad to swipe a generous amount over your entire face, or use it as a spot treatment to help address problem areas. For men, this facial toner also works great as a soothing aftershave lotion.
Address Skin Concerns With Serum
Acne can coexist with a wide range of skin concerns, a common one being dark spots and discolorations. If you’re prone to developing discolorations after your blemishes go away (a concern known as post-blemish marks), try adding Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector to your routine. The effective serum is clinically-demonstrated to visibly diminish a wide range of dark spots, including post-blemish marks.* It also helps visibly brighten the skin, reduce redness, and even skin tone over time. Plus, it’s gentle on the skin, making it suitable even for those with sensitive or dry acne-prone skin.
*Results based on expert grading in a 12-week clinical test.
Apply a Lightweight Moisturizer
Dry skin definitely requires moisturizer, but oftentimes, people assume that if you’re on the oilier side, it’s a step you can skip. That, Dr. Oliver says, is “a myth.” In fact, moisturizing consistently can help keep oily, acne-prone skin balanced and comfortable. Still, Dr. Oliver notes, it’s crucial to choose the right formula—ideally one that won’t weigh down your skin. Our pick: Breakout Control Acne Treatment Facial Lotion. Made with salicylic acid, aloe vera, and niacinamide, this lightweight lotion is clinically-demonstrated to help visibly diminish acne breakouts and improve the appearance of roughness and dullness.* It also helps prevent new blemishes from forming for visibly clearer, more even-looking skin with continued use.
*Tested in a dermatologist-controlled clinical study.
Spot-Treat Individual Blemishes
Even with a perfect skincare routine, external factors like stress may result in the occasional breakout. It happens. For “those pesky individual pimples that do break through,” Dr. Oliver recommends reaching for a spot treatment, ideally one with ingredients like salicylic acid or sulfur. To use it, spread a thin, even layer of the spot treatment onto pimples one to three times daily as needed. And remember not to pick at, squeeze, or try to pop pimples, no matter how tempting it may be—this can make the blemish look and feel worse.
Bonus Step: Detoxify Your Pores
Rare Earth Deep Pore Minimizing Cleansing Clay Mask
As we mentioned earlier, clogged pores are the primary cause of acne blemishes. To help keep your pores clear of acne-causing debris, we recommend incorporating Rare Earth Deep Pore Minimizing Cleansing Clay Mask into your skincare routine. This effective face mask with Amazonian white clay helps draw out impurities to deep clean and purify clogged pores. The unique formula is also clinically-demonstrated to reduce skin’s surface oil production by up to 46%, which may help minimize the appearance of enlarged pores.* You can use this mask one to three times per week or whenever your skin feels particularly congested. Learn how to apply your mask properly in our article How To Apply a Face Mask The Right Way.
*Results based on a two-hour instrumental test vs. untreated skin on 24 subjects.
Bonus Step: Try a Calmative Face Oil
A face oil probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re thinking of ways to enhance your acne-prone skin routine. And that’s understandable: After all, putting oily products on oily skin can seem counterintuitive at best (and counterproductive at worst). But some oils can actually help keep acne at bay. Here’s why: Many popular acne skincare ingredients, like salicylic acid and retinoids, can be drying if used excessively. And if your skin gets too dry, your body may produce more oil to make up for the lack of natural moisture in your skin. Ultimately, this can result in clogged pores and blemishes. Ensuring your skin is well-hydrated can, therefore, help keep your sebum production under control.
Of course, you want to make sure that the oil you’re using is suitable for your skin. For blemish-prone and problem skin, we recommend Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil Herbal Concentrate Face Oil, which is formulated with 100% naturally-derived ingredients, including hemp-derived Cannabis sativa seed oil.* This lightweight, non-comedogenic oil helps balance hydration and strengthens the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It also helps visibly reduce skin redness and relieve discomfort. Note that a little bit is all you need—just dispense two to three drops onto your palms and lightly pat the oil onto your face after moisturizing for calmer-feeling (and -looking) skin.
*We consider ingredients to be naturally-derived if they retain more than 50% of their molecular structure after being processed from a natural source.
What Else Can I Do For Healthy-Looking Skin?
After blemishes subside, you may be left with skin concerns such as roughness, unevenness, or enlarged pores. Retinol is one ingredient that can help address these concerns (and more).
We recommend those new to retinol start with a gentler formula, like our Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide. Suitable for all skin types, this retinol serum helps firm the skin, reduces the appearance of enlarged pores, and improves skin tone and texture. Plus, it’s uniquely formulated for gentleness and delivers visible results with minimal dryness, redness, or peeling.
If you’re already well-acquainted with retinol, try Fast-Release Wrinkle-Reducing 0.3% Retinol Night Serum instead. It contains our highest concentration of pure retinol and helps accelerate skin surface renewal for smoother-looking skin in just five days.* One thing to note: If you’re using products with salicylic acid as well, Dr. Oliver advises “tak[ing] it slow” or even alternating days to minimize the risk of irritation.
*Based on expert grading in a 10-week clinical study of 71 panelists