Growing up, I felt like my skin was the worst of all worlds: Simultaneously oily, acne-prone, and super sensitive, it embodied an unlucky combination of skins’ most demanding and contradictory states. And while I don’t mean to be rude to my complexion, finding functional skin care has been a consistent source of frustration. My skin needs something that curbs excess oil, but not too much, as that could over-dry it, triggering the production of more oil — and that’s an ambitious feat in itself. But the likelihood of products fitting both the aforementioned bill while still being gentle enough as to not irritate my sensitive skin without breaking me out? Seemingly impossible.
I spent years feeling like the confused math lady meme trying to figure out how to take care of my sensitive oily acne-prone skin. All the while, my face was red, angry, and bestrewn with blemishes. It was not the vibe — but that’s because I wasn’t treating it correctly.
“Having acne-prone skin doesn’t mean that you aren’t also sensitive,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells Bustle. “The gut reaction is to use harsh cleansers to remove excess oil, however I caution my patients against over-washing or scrubbing because it can lead to irritation and inflammation.” What’s more, Zeichner adds, is that while it may seem counterintuitive, oily skin still needs moisturizer (which I avoided in my youth since I was convinced it would break me out). “Skin oil and skin hydration are separate issues,” he asserts.
After years of extensive research, trial and error, and speaking to experts, I’m happy to share that I’ve finally found a formula that works. Plus, it turns out the oily, acne-prone, and sensitive skin combo is more common than I realized — so I thought I’d share my routine. This one’s for you, fellow finicky skin types.
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1. Makeup Remover
This seems obvious, but I’d be remiss not to reiterate: Don’t start your routine until all of your makeup is off, as residual dirt and makeup can clog your pores, ultimately preventing your skin care from doing its job. “The residue from makeup can clog pores and contribute to acne formation, prevent the absorption of moisturizes or ingredients in serum and medications, and inhibit the natural process of exfoliation or skin renewal,” Dr. Brendan Camp, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, tells Bustle.
Depending on how much foundation you wear, thorough removal could mean cleansing and then using makeup removal wipes, opting for micellar water, or a hybrid of all three. Personally, I use micellar water followed by a traditional makeup wipe before I turn to a facial cleanser.
2. Gentle Cleanser
I alternate cleansers depending on the state of my skin, and/or which products I plan to use that day. If I’m using toner (more on that below) and/or need to wash my face again in a short amount of time, such as after working out, I’ll opt for a gentle cleanser that doesn’t have active ingredients. On my most sensitive or dry days, I use HoliFrog’s Hashimoto Milky Wash (yes, I was influenced by Hailey Bieber’s “glazed donut” nighttime routine), though I cycle through a handful of favorite cleansers regularly. “The goal of cleansing is to remove soiling from the skin without compromising the integrity of the other skin layer,” Zeichner tells Bustle. “This can be done effectively with gentle cleansers on a daily basis.”(See!)
3. Acne-Fighting Cleanser
On days I’m not using a toner, I’ll wash my face with a sensitive-skin friendly cleanser that contains salicylic acid since the ingredient helps combat acne. I just make sure to use one that has a mild enough formula that won’t strip my skin of its natural oils, since doing so can backfire and lead to more oil production. “On days when there are breakouts or if you feel extra oily, a cleanser that contains salicylic acid can be helpful,” Zeichner explains. Camp concurs, explaining that salicylic acid is an example of a beta-hydroxy acid, meaning it’s lipophilic, which allows it to penetrate pores and remove excess sebum.
That said, salicylic acid can sometimes cause skin irritation if used too frequently. “Alternating days or every third-day use is a way to enjoy the benefits and avoid some of its potential side effects,” Camp says of cleansers with salicylic acid. A good rule of thumb for oily and sensitive skin is to stick to a BHA-based cleanser that’s gentle and contains soothing ingredients to balance the exfoliant — like aloe vera and glycerin, for example — and/or vary the days you use it.
4. Exfoliating Toner
Exfoliating toners recently made their way back into my routine, because — as I noted in my enthusiastic review of one of the products below — I spent years too hesitant to experiment with any form of chemical exfoliant. But experts affirm that using toners with exfoliating acids can be beneficial when it comes to combatting blemishes. Plus, according to Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Mudgil Dermatology, toners formulated with glycolic acid and/or salicylic acid are perfect for those with oily [and acne-prone] skin, as both promote cell turnover and help unclog pores without being too harsh. “Glycolic acid is a gentle exfoliant; as an alpha-hydroxy acid it does not penetrate the skin as deeply as salicylic acid,” Camp adds.
Typically, I’ll use a glycolic acid toner in the morning three times a week. At night, I use a salicylic acid toner, as my skin can handle it almost every night (not everyone’s can though!), skipping as necessary depending on how my complexion feels. If my face is in need of an exfoliant on an off day, I’ll opt for something super simple, like APTO Skincare’s Turmeric Facial Mist on a cotton round.
5. Vitamin C Serum
Vitamin C is widely considered the daytime antioxidant MVP due to its wide array of skin-boosting benefits, which include stimulating collagen production, increasing UV protection, defending the skin from environmental irritants and triggers, and improving hyperpigmentation. But it can also come in handy for breakouts. “We know that oxidation of skin oil promotes acne, and vitamin C may help prevent this and treat acne,” says Zeichner. Studies have found that topical vitamin C reduces redness and irritation from acne, so it’s a perfect daytime serum ingredient for those with irritable skin.
6. Resurfacing Serum
At night, I use a resurfacing serum formulated with a blend of glycolic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic acids. That may be a lot of strong exfoliants, but they’re essential for combatting pore congestion, excess oil, and promoting cellular turnover — all of which keep the complexion clear, explains Zeichner. Plus, according to Camp, serums with glycolic acid and salicylic acid are actually considered gentle for sensitive skin.
Since incorporating a resurfacing serum into my routine several months ago, I’ve noticed a major difference in my skin: It’s less dull, hasn’t broken out as often, and my hyperpigmentation has faded.
7. Lightweight Hydration
I’ve struggled with moisturizers more than any other skin care category: It took me years to find one that didn’t break me out, yet provided ample hydration. But I’ve learned I don’t have to use a moisturizing cream. “Gel moisturizers are a great option for people who are oily or acne-prone,” Zeichner tells Bustle. “They have a light consistency but offer hydration without weighing down the skin or feeling heavy.” And I must say, discovering gel moisturizers has been life (and skin) changing. In terms of ingredients, keep an eye out for hydrating superstars like hyaluronic acid, B5, and/or squalane. As for what to avoid? Anything comedogenic (read: pore-clogging).
8. Sensitive Skin-Friendly SPF
As someone who writes about skin care, I’m ashamed to admit that I spent years of my adult life intentionally avoiding sunscreen, as I was convinced it would break me out. In my defense, I had yet to find one that didn’t, so this fear was not unfounded. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that invisible, gel-like consistencies (for when I’m going bare-faced) and mineral makeup with SPF both work well on my skin. And now I wear sunscreen every day — which, according to Zeichner, is a sign you’ve found your SPF soulmate. If chemical sunscreens irritate your skin, Zeichner notes mineral options make for a suitable alternative, whether they’re transparent or tinted for cosmetic coverage.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., board-certified dermatologist in New York City
Dr. Brendan Camp, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology
Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Mudgil Dermatology