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Avoid These 7 Skincare Mistakes that Worsen Acne

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/5/2021

Washing your face is part of your daily routine. It’s something simple you do to keep your skin looking and feeling clean. What you may not realize, however, is that you might be doing it wrong.

In fact, you could be making any number of skincare mistakes and they could be making your acne worse. From scrubbing too hard to choosing the wrong cleanser, seemingly simple mistakes you make as part of your skincare routine might actually contribute to breakouts and acne.

Top Skincare Mistakes to Avoid 

Let’s take a closer look at some common skincare mistakes that worsen acne.

Mistake #1: Using Harsh or Abrasive Products on Acne-Prone Skin

If your skin is prone to acne, you might be using an exfoliating cleanser in an attempt to unclog your pores and reduce acne breakouts. What you may not realize, however, is that using harsh and abrasive products on acne-prone skin can actually make matters worse.

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells—cells that can clog your pores and contribute to acne breakouts. You have to be careful about choosing an exfoliant, however, because if you make the wrong choice, you could end up irritating or damaging your skin, ultimately making the problem worse.

The Solution: Rather than using a physical exfoliant—a gritty scrub or a rough facial cleansing cloth—look for chemical exfoliants like alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), beta hydroxy acids (BHA) or chemical peels. While physical exfoliants may buff away dead skin cells, leaving your skin feeling smooth, the friction involved may irritate your already-inflamed skin, leading to increased redness and breakouts.

Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, help loosen dead skin cells, so they naturally slough off. Just know that some chemical exfoliants can dry your skin, so be sure to use an oil-free moisturizer to prevent peeling and irritation. 

You may also want to consult your dermatologist to find the right chemical exfoliant for your skin type.

Mistake #2: Using Too Much or Too Little Acne Medication

Over-the-counter acne medications are great for spot-treating problem areas and for reducing breakouts. Like any skincare product, however, there is a right and a wrong way to use them.

One of the most common mistakes people make with acne medication is only using it on existing pimples. Your skin contains thousands of pores, any one of which can become clogged to produce your next pimple. 

If you’re only applying acne medication to existing pimples you might help those blemishes heal faster, but you won’t be preventing one from popping up right next to it.

While some women don’t use enough acne medication, others use too much. If you are prone to breakouts, you might think that slathering on an anti-acne product several times a day will help ward off breakouts while, in fact, the opposite might be true.

Over-the-counter acne medications contain blemish-busting ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and sulfur. While these ingredients help unclog pores to reduce the risk for breakouts, they can also dry your skin and contribute to irritation. 

If you overuse these products, you could end up with redness and peeling in addition to more frequent breakouts.

The Solution: The best thing you can do to keep your skin clear and breakout free is to apply a thin layer of anti-acne medication once a day. If you have sensitive skin, use the medication on the areas where your breakouts most frequently occur and spare the rest of your skin the potential irritation.

If you still have trouble with redness or irritation when using acne medication once a day, you might try adding a moisturizer to your regimen.

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Mistake #3: Not Wearing Sunscreen or Applying it Poorly

Wearing sunscreen is the best way to protect your skin from UV damage and it helps reduce the risk of skin cancer as well. What many women do not realize is that it may also affect the frequency or severity of your acne breakouts.

While sun exposure is important for producing Vitamin D, too much of it can dry out your skin. When your skin becomes too dry, it may overcompensate by ramping up oil production. 

The result is oily, greasy skin that leads to clogged pores and frequent breakouts.

Another common mistake women make with sunscreen is wearing too much or not applying it properly. Wearing a heavy layer of sunscreen can clog your pores and prevent them from breathing properly, increasing the risk for breakouts. You should also know that certain ingredients in sunscreen can irritate or dry out your skin.

The Solution: Look for an oil-free, non-comedogenic 30 SPF or above sunscreen that won’t clog your pores or irritate your skin. Apply an even layer of sunscreen about 10 to 15 minutes before you go out into the sun, so it has a chance to settle into your skin and become active.

Mistake #4: Squeezing or Picking at Your Pimples

As satisfying as it may be to pop that whitehead, doing so could actually spread the bacteria responsible for the pimple and lead to further breakouts. 

By squeezing a pimple that isn’t ready to pop, you might end up forcing the oil and bacteria deeper into your skin, leading to an even bigger blemish. You’ll also be introducing bacteria and dirt from your hands to the area which can increase inflammation.

Another problem with popping pimples is that you might interfere with your body’s natural healing process. Acne is the body’s response to clogged pores and bacteria. 

The resulting bumps on your skin are evidence that your body is trying to solve the problem. If you pick at the area, you might interfere with the healing process and introduce new bacteria to make matters worse.

Finally, picking at pimples can damage your skin and lead to scarring. When you pop a pimple, you’re forcing the oil, bacteria and other debris out of the pore and, in doing so, you tear the top layer of skin. The result is an open wound that could scar as it heals.

The Solution: Instead of popping pimples, use an acne spot treatment to heal the blemish naturally without leaving a scar. Start by washing your face with a gentle cleanser to clean your skin and apply a light layer of moisturizer to protect your skin against the drying effects of the medication.

Next, use a pea-sized amount of the spot treatment and apply it in an even layer over your skin. Again, applying the medication to your entire face is more effective than treating existing pimples alone. Just make sure you apply it evenly on problem areas like your forehead, cheeks and chin.

If your acne is severe, consider seeing a healthcare provider or dermatologist about acne creams that might be able to help.

Mistake #5: Using the Wrong Technique When Washing Your Face

Washing your face is easy, right? You simply wet the skin, rub on some cleanser, then rinse and dry. If your goal is to simply remove makeup or freshen up a bit, this technique might work. If you’re trying to prevent breakouts, however, you may need to adjust your technique.

One of the first mistakes women use when washing their faces is using the wrong cleanser. It’s important to choose the right cleanser for your skin type because making the wrong choice could contribute to breakouts and other problems. 

For dry skin, avoid foaming and exfoliating cleansers. For oily skin, use light, water-based products. For combination skin, avoid heavy and foaming cleansers.

If you have acne-prone skin, you may already be using an acne face wash that contains salicylic acid or another acne-fighting ingredient. 

What you may not realize is that these products take time to work. If you rinse your skin too quickly you could be preventing the active ingredient from doing its job.

Other common mistakes women make include not thoroughly rinsing after cleansing and waiting until the skin dries to apply moisturizer.

 If you don’t rinse your skin well, leftover cleansing agents might dry out your skin and lead to excessive oil production that triggers breakouts. In addition to rinsing well, you should also moisturize immediately so your skin receives the maximum benefit.

The Solution: To wash your face properly, wet your skin with lukewarm water and apply a small amount of gentle cleanser using your fingertips. Massage the cleanser into your skin to ensure that any active ingredients have adequate time to work. After cleansing, rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water and pat your skin dry with a clean towel or washcloth. Finally, apply a light layer of moisturizer, gently massaging it into your skin without rubbing too hard.

Mistake #6: Not Using Moisturizer or Using the Wrong Moisturizer

If you have oily skin, you are more focused on drying it out than adding more moisture in an attempt to reduce breakouts. What you may not realize is that even oily skin needs moisture. It’s important to understand the difference between oil and water content when it comes to your skin. Just because your skin is oily doesn’t necessarily mean it is hydrated. 

In fact, it could mean the opposite. When your skin loses moisture, the sebaceous glands produce more oil to retain moisture and to protect the surface of the skin. Unfortunately, this can also lead to clogged pores and increased breakouts.

Another common problem women make is using the wrong moisturizer for their skin type. If you choose the wrong moisturizer, it might be so thick that it sits on top of the skin instead of absorbing fully, adding to the problem of clogged pores. You could also end up with the opposite problem where the product is too thin to offer much real hydration.

The Solution: Keeping your skin properly moisturized is important when it comes to preventing breakouts, so you need to choose the best moisturizer for your skin type.

For acne-prone skin, you need a lightweight product that hydrates and nourishes your skin without clogging your pores. A water-based gel is a great example, as well as products made with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and dimethicone.

If you have dry skin, you may do better with a cream moisturizer that absorbs quickly into the skin to hydrate and soften it. Ingredients like lanolin, ceramides and shea butter are all excellent inclusions in a moisturizer for dry skin. 

You may even want to purchase separate moisturizers for day and night to maximize the benefit of your moisturizing routine. For oily skin, you want a moisturizer that helps lock in your skin’s natural moisture without being greasy or heavy. 

Some kind of serum or gel that contains hyaluronic acid is a great option because it will lock in your skin’s water content without sitting heavy on the surface. You should also make sure to choose a moisturizer that is oil-free.

If you have combination skin, you may need to purchase different moisturizers for different parts of your face. Use a lightweight acne moisturizer for the areas that need it (like your jawline and cheeks) but avoid putting too much on your T-zone where it could become greasy.

Mistake #7: Only Using Makeup Wipes to Clean Your Face

Makeup wipes are great. They come in convenient multi-packs and they make quick work of even the most stubborn makeup. The problem is that many women use them to remove makeup but fail to follow it up with a face wash.

First and foremost, they don’t actually clean the skin. For the most part, all they really do is smear around the dirt, oil, dead skin and makeup that is already on your face and adds to it whatever chemicals are infused in the wipes themselves.

Second, the act of scrubbing your face with makeup wipes can cause low-grade inflammation. Over time, that inflammation can lead to problems with uneven skin tone, early aging and more frequent breakouts. Some makeup wipes can also leave oil on your skin which may clog your pores.

The Solution: As easy as it may be to grab a makeup wipe to remove your makeup before bed, it’s definitely worth taking the extra minute or two to actually wash your face. Washing your face does more than just remove makeup; it also removes dirt, excess oils and dead skin cells that could contribute to breakouts.

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Clean, clear and glowing skin doesn’t have to be a fantasy. By making some simple adjustments to your current skincare routine for acne in an effort to remedy common mistakes, you can improve your skin health and reduce the frequency of your acne breakouts as well.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.