The best skincare routine for acne according to dermatologists

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  • We spoke to the experts.

    If you’re suffering from acne, you’re not alone. According to Dr Stefanie Williams, it is one of the most common skin health issues that dermatologists see. So it’s no surprise that most people want to know how to get rid of it. Well, one of the best acne treatments out there is to perfect a skincare routine for acne.

    Having an effective and consistent skincare routine can make the world of difference, so we spoke to the experts to find out exactly what products to look out for, and what order to apply them in.

    Meet the experts:

    First things first, what is acne? Essentially, it’s a result of excess sebum on the skin. But there’s more to it than you think. “Acne is an extremely common skin condition which results from a blockage of the pores of the skin (thanks to the excess sebum),” explains Dr Ben Esdaile. “This results in red and pus-filled spots, alongside whiteheads and blackheads. More severe forms of acne can present with nodules and scarring.”

    Although acne typically appears on your face, there are other areas where it can develop. “The most common areas are areas of high sebum production, such as around the nose, cheeks and back,” says Georgie Cleeve. “However, there are different types of acne, different influencing factors and many resulting concerns, all dependant on the individual.”

    According to Dr Stefanie Williams, patients commonly assume only very severe cases of pimples are considered acne. In fact, acne is merely a medical term for spots, pimples, blackheads and whiteheads, and has no relationship to the severity of the breakout. So even if your breakout is only minor, it still is acne and would benefit from a proper diagnosis and treatment.

    What ingredients should you look out for in your skincare routine?

    It’s really important to know what ingredients to look out for when putting together an effective skincare routine for acne. “There are a number of over-the-counter ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and even zinc and niacinamide,” says Esdaile.

    “Salicylic acid is a great start and can often be found in cleansers but is also good as a spot treatment. Benzoyl peroxide can be an
    irritant especially if you have dry or sensitive skin, so it’s best to start at a low concentration. It can bleach your bedding and clothes, so be careful when using it.”

    “Niacinamide is great at calming the skin and I like using it in combination with the other products. When you start over-the-counter products make sure you are A) using them regularly and B) using them for at least a 6-8 week period to establish if they make a difference.”

    It’s important to remember that acne takes time to improve, so make sure you are consistent with your skincare routine.

    Alongside these over-the-counter ingredients, there are a number of effective ingredients available on prescription. You may have already heard of retinoids, which often come in the form of a cream or gel and can be used to treat acne. They work by accelerating new skin cell growth, explains Esdaile, as well as speeding up the removal of dead skin cells and debris that can block your pores. Always make sure to consult your doctor before trying these out on your skin.

    As important as active ingredients are, Dr Stefanie Williams also recommends doing research around the base formulation. “This is one of the most common mistakes breakout sufferers make. As a general rule, all products should not only be low in oils/lipids (even if you feel you have ‘dry’ skin), but also ultra-low in silicone derivatives such as dimeticone and cyclometicone.”

    What is an effective skincare routine for acne?

    1. Cleanser

    “When it comes to tackling acne it’s imperative to cleanse effectively and respect the skin’s condition,” explains Fiona Brackenbury. “Cleansing with ingredients like salicylic acid will penetrate the pores and unclog oil, impurities, proteins and dead skin cells which all build up and block the pores. Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory properties which are brilliant for acne-prone skin as often there is a lot of redness and inflammation surrounding the breakouts.” Make sure to avoid cleansers that leave the skin feeling tight, and don’t over-cleanse the skin, as this could lead to excess oil production.

    The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser, £10.99 | Lookfantastic
    Fiona recommends this cleanser by The Inkey List. Suitable for everyday use, this product works to reduce the appearance of blackheads, breakouts and discolouration.

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    CeraVe SA Smoothing Cleanser with Salicylic Acid, £12.5o | Boots
    Another great option is the CeraVe SA Smoothing Cleanser with salicylic acid. Developed with dermatologists, the gel formula gently exfoliates to smooth bumpy skin.

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    Delo Rx – Hybrid Cleanser, £85 | EUDELO
    Dr Stefanie Williams has created her own cleanser, which contains the highest concentration of active ingredients of any cleanser on the market, including salicylic acid.

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    2. An exfoliating toner

    “If the skin is congested I tend to recommend a salicylic-based toner to help unclog pores and keep breakouts at bay,” says Dr Raj Arora. The Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant helps to keep the skin free from dead skin cells to limit blocked pores. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t exfoliate the skin every single day, in fact, the website recommends using the product every other day at first to see how your skin reacts.

    Try to avoid physical scrubs and exfoliants, as the grains can knock off the top of spots, spreading bacteria and causing irritation and inflammation.

    Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, from £11 | Cult Beauty
    This non-abrasive formula contains BHA salicylic acid to remove dead skin cells both on the surface and within pores.

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    3. A lightweight moisturiser

    Dr Raj Arora recommends finishing your skincare routine with a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturiser and a good SPF to protect from UV damage. Make sure to check out our guide to the best moisturiser for oily skin.

    4. SPF

    Again, it’s important to choose a lightweight, non-comedogenic sunscreen that won’t clog your pores.

    5. Apply retinal at night

    Before diving into bed, make sure to apply your retinal. “Retinal is an anti-bacterial form of vitamin A, which is especially important when it comes to building an effective skincare routine for acne-prone skin,” says Fiona. “When the bad bacteria builds up and overtakes the good bacteria it makes the perfect home for acne, so lessening the bad bacteria leaves less room for acne to flourish.”

    Retinal also helps to speed up the cell renewal process, by pushing new skin cells to the surface and tackling blemishes and blocked pores from within.

    Medik8 Crystal Retinal Serum, £45 | Lookfantastic
    Fiona recommends the Medik8 Crystal Retinal Serum, as it starts off on a beginner’s strength, letting you progress up the retinal ladder to ensure you achieve maximum results.

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    You can also consider adding niacinamide to your skincare routine for acne. This clever ingredient helps to strengthen the skin’s barrier, by stimulating the skin’s natural production of ceramides. Reinforcing this protective layer will ensure that the skin doesn’t become irritated and stressed, which can make acne worse.

    Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster, £44 | Cult Beauty
    Fiona recommends this Paula’s Choice product, as it’s the perfect blend to help minimise breakouts, strengthen the skin’s barrier and minimise pores. Simply add 2-3 drops into your moisturiser.

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    What are the best spot treatments for acne-prone skin?

    Aside from your daily skincare routine, there are lots of different spot treatments that can help fight acne. These products can be used once or twice a week to help reduce breakouts.

    “Spot treatments like spot stickers should be used when there is a risk that you may pick a spot and ultimately cause scarring,” says Fiona. “ZitSticka Killa are a great way to tackle individual spots, with microneedles designed to dissolve whilst releasing salicylic acid and niacinamide into the area to reduce the appearance of the breakout.”

    ZitSticka Killa Clarifying Microdart Patch Kit, £27 | Cult Beauty
    These spot stickers have 24 microdarts to allow a potent potion of ingredients to enter and work beneath the skin’s dead skin cell layer.

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    Another salicylic acid spot treatment recommended by Dr Raj Arora is the FOREO ESPADA BHA+PHA Blemish Solution. It is a 2% salicylic acid gel designed to minimise the appearance of breakouts, pores and excess oil. The spot gel also has a combination of hydrating ingredients to combat the drying effect that many traditional spot treatments can have.

    FOREO ESPADA BHA+PHA Blemish Solution, £25.90 | Feelunique
    This concentrated yet lightweight spot treatment is a quick-fix acne antidote designed for targeted blemish control.

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    Dr Stefanie Williams often prescribes Duac 3% Gel for acne-prone skin, as it contains a mix of a topical antibiotic and benzoyl peroxide. However, Williams does not recommend using it as a full-face treatment for adult women, due to its high irritation potential. Instead, it’s best used as a targeted ‘spot-emergency’ cream.

    What products are best to avoid?

    “Using products that can further block pores can worsen acne,” explains Esdaile. “Greasy moisturisers containing ingredients such as paraffin, petroleum jelly and beeswax should be avoided. Care should also be taken with greasy hair products (such as wax) as this can
    induce forehead acne.”

    Fiona recommends avoiding concealers with wands, as they can spread bacteria after coming into contact with spots. Similarly, makeup brushes and foundation sticks also can transfer bacteria.

    So, there you have it. All the information you need about the best skincare routine for acne. Time to tackle those spots.

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