Acne is a four-letter word that brings to mind several other four-letter words. If you’re one of the 50 million people who are affected by breakouts in the United States, we have some assistance ahead.
Dr. Ife Rodney, a board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist and founding director of Eternal Dermatology in Fulton, MD, and Dr. Howard Sobel, founder of Sobel Skin and Attending Dermatologist and Dermatologic Surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York are here to explain the causes and best treatments for acne (as well as offer their thoughts on whether or not facial and essential oils can help).
What Causes Acne?
“Acne occurs when the hair follicles become clogged by excess sebum (oil), bacteria or dead skin cells, which causes inflammation in the skin,” explains Sobel. This can result from using certain products that increase sebum production, from bacteria, or, as is common for women, a change in hormones.
“This type of hormonal acne is tied to fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone during the menstrual cycle and appears as deep cystic, tender bumps, especially along the jawline,” shares Rodney. You know the kind that you feel under the skin and take for-ever to go away? Those guys.
2020 also introduced us to “maskne,” or mask-related acne, which comes courtesy of the protective face masks we’ve been wearing lately. “Maskne occurs when bacteria build up inside of your mask and clogs your pores. This results in the whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples,” says Sobel. (A reminder here to make sure you wash yours regularly in hot water and have a backup mask at the ready so you can rotate a clean one in before each outing.)
“A lot of people are unaware that dry, sensitive skin is also prone to acne,” adds Rodney. “When this particular skin type becomes irritated, the skin compensates for its dryness by overproducing oil, which clogs the pores and causes acne.”
What are the most effective ways to treat acne?
“There is no one way to treat acne that is going to work for everyone since every person’s skin type and triggers may be different,” says Sobel. “However, there are definitely products and treatments that are more likely to work than others, but it’s important to consult your dermatologist before using a new product, as it can sometimes have an adverse effect when used incorrectly.”
According to Sobel, the most common way to treat acne is to use a topical treatment that works by killing acne-causing bacteria and decreasing oil production. These products typically contain ingredients such as retinoids, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. “Your dermatologist may also prescribe an antibiotic topical depending on the frequency and severity of your acne,” he adds.
No matter what you use, consistency is key when it comes to treating acne. “It’s not a one and done thing. Acne is a chronic condition, so whatever medication or skincare products you use, you need to use them for the long haul,” says Rodney.
And if you are experiencing severe acne that isn’t taking to any topical treatments, you should definitely see your dermatologist. He or she can prescribe an oral antibiotic to kill bacteria and decrease inflammation. Birth control pills may also be recommended to treat hormonal acne.
Aside from topical and oral treatments, are there any lifestyle habits to consider?
“When you are constantly sleeping on a dirty pillowcase or not taking all of your makeup off at the end of the day, you may be trapping bacteria into your hair follicles causing them to clog,” says Sobel. “Same goes for when you wear a cotton mask without washing it after each use. Any bacteria you are carrying will transfer to the mask and back to your skin.” (Again, because it bears repeating, wash your masks, y’all.)
“We’ve seen some links between acne and diet. Certain high glycemic foods like dairy products, chocolate, and fried foods can worsen or trigger acne,” adds Rodney. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “while diet may play a role in causing your breakouts or worsening your acne, keeping your skin clear requires more than a diet change. Using acne friendly skin care and acne medication helps to prevent new breakouts.” So, think of diet as one potential piece of the acne puzzle.
Is it safe to use facial oils on acne-prone skin?
“Yes, it is perfectly fine to use facial oils on acne-prone skin, but it depends on the facial oil and the frequency of use,” says Sobel. “There are many oils that are beneficial for your skin, and some facial oils can improve your acne by stabilizing sebum production. They can also work to soothe and heal pimples without causing more breakouts.”
Rodney agrees adding that, “while it is safe to use facial oils on acne-prone skin, be sure to use only a very small amount (a couple drops) on your entire face. The facial oil must also be non-comedogenic, meaning it is not likely to clog your pores.”
And since every person’s skin is different and will react differently, “if you suspect a facial oil is causing more acne flare-ups, discontinue using it immediately,” says Sobel.
Ahead, the three best facial oils for acne-prone skin.
1. Herbivore Lapis Blue Tansy Face Oil
In addition to adding a pleasant pop to your medicine cabinet, this vibrant oil is loaded with blue tansy, a Moroccan plant extract that has anti-inflammatory properties. Combined with azulene, a potent antibacterial ingredient, and blended with jojoba oil (which Rodney describes as “the closest to the skin’s natural oil in terms of composition”), it’s no wonder this bestseller remains a favorite for the acne-prone.
2. Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Universal Face Oil
“When it comes to dry, sensitive skin, rosehip oil is a great choice. It’s packed with Vitamins A, C, essential fatty acids like Omega 3s and Omega 6s,” explains Rodney. “Like retinol, vitamin A increases cell turnover in the surface layers of the skin to unclog pores. It also stimulates collagen in the deeper layers to make the skin look firmer, and reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration.”
3. The Ordinary 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil
And for pure, cold-pressed rosehip seed oil (at a fraction of the cost), you can always try out this fan favorite from The Ordinary. In addition to soothing inflammation and all of the aforementioned benefits of this star ingredient, it’s also been shown to help with any redness or hyperpigmentation leftover from past acne marks.
What about essential oils, doc? Are they safe to use and if so, what are the best essential oils for acne-prone skin?
“I don’t recommend using straight essential oils on your face as they can irritate and damage the skin— especially for someone with acne-prone or sensitive skin,” says Sobel. “Additionally, some essential oils and fragrances are known skin irritants and can be an allergen for many people.”
“If an essential oil such as chamomile is listed as a skincare ingredient in one of your products, that can be perfectly fine to use because they are diluted enough or are very gentle,” he clarifies, “but, again, I would steer clear of putting any essential oil in its pure form directly on your skin.”
Shop some safe essential oil blends ahead.
1. Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil
One essential oil that’s proven to treat acne? Tea tree oil. “Tea tree oil contains both anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties,” explains Rodney. Again, it can cause irritation if applied to the skin directly, so it’s best to use it in a blend, which is where this oil comes in. Formulated with tea tree oil, as well as salicylic acid, milk thistle, cucumber seed and chamomile, you get the pore-clearing benefits without the sting.
2. Biossance Squalane + Tea Tree Balancing Oil
Another go-to for us, this calming pick from Biossance. Loaded with tea tree oil, rosemary extract and squalene, it’s as clarifying as it is soothing to your skin.