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How to Treat Acne if You Have Dry Skin

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 1/18/2021

Although acne is usually associated with oily skin, it’s far from uncommon to experience acne breakouts if you have dry, sensitive skin. 

Treating acne when you have dry skin can be a serious challenge. Many of the most effective, science-based acne treatments work well, but can worsen dryness and cause side effects like irritation, inflammation and even skin peeling.

On the other hand, some products that are designed to keep your skin moist and smooth may worsen acne. 

Luckily, options are available for acne that affects dry skin, including over-the-counter products, prescription medications and basic changes that you can make to your day-to-day lifestyle and skin care habits.

We’ve listed all of these below, along with more information on what you can do if you have dry, sensitive skin that’s prone to acne. 

How and Why Acne Develops

Acne develops when the hair follicles, or pores, in your skin become clogged due to dead skin cells, sebum and other substances. 

Sebum is a natural oil that’s produced by your sebaceous glands — small exocrine glands that open into your hair follicles. It plays an important role in sealing in moisture, preventing excess dryness and protecting your skin from bacteria and other potential sources of damage.

When too much sebum is secreted by your sebaceous glands, it can clog your hair follicles and cause them to develop into different types of acne. 

Another major factor in acne breakouts, dead skin, is also a byproduct of a natural process that your body uses to maintain your skin. 

Every 40 to 56 days, your skin undergoes a regeneration process that’s referred to as epidermal turnover. As part of this process, skin cells from the basal layers of your skin move towards the surface to replace cells in your epidermis — the outermost layer of your skin. 

Epidermal turnover plays a major role in helping your skin maintain itself. Every day, your skin is exposed to damage from the sun, wind and other factors. By continually renewing and repairing itself, your skin can keep itself protected and healthy. 

As a byproduct of this process, dead, leftover skin cells can gradually build up on the surface of your skin. Over time, these can mix with sebum and clog your hair follicles, contributing to acne breakouts.

A variety of factors, both within your body and in your environment, all play different roles in this process. 

For example, research shows that some hormones, such as testosterone and DHT, can interact with your sebaceous glands and stimulate sebum production. This is why acne breakouts are a common occurrence before and during your period

Because hormones play a major role in acne, some diseases and medical conditions that affect your hormones might increase your risk of dealing with acne breakouts. For example, acne is a common issue for women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Experts also believe that your genes might play a role in acne. For example, some studies have found that you may inherit a tendency to develop acne from your parents.

Your habits, lifestyle and use of certain products or medications may also play a part in your risk of developing acne. Lifestyle factors linked to acne include:

  • Cosmetics. Many cosmetics contain oils that can clog your pores and either contribute to or worsen acne breakouts. Similarly, a lot of hair products contain oils that can make their way from your hair onto your skin and contribute to acne.

  • Medications. Some medications are associated with a type of acne called drug-induced acne. Medications that may cause acne include vitamin B12, corticosteroids, antibiotics, lithium, thyroid hormones and numerous others.

  • Smoking. Research has found that smoking is associated with non-inflammatory acne breakouts. If you’re a frequent smoker, you may have a higher risk of developing acne as an adult than a non-smoker.

Our complete guide to the causes of acne goes into more detail on these factors and others that can affect your risk of developing acne. 

Types of Acne

Although we often think of all acne as the same, the reality is that many different types of acne can affect your skin. If you have dry skin that’s prone to acne, you may notice one or several of the following types of acne developing during your breakouts:

  • Comedonal acne. Comes are small, non-inflammatory acne lesions that can be open or closed. This type of acne is typically mild and easy to treat. Whiteheads and blackheads are both types of comedonal acne.

  • Inflammatory acne. Comedonal acne lesions that become red and swollen are referred to as inflammatory acne. This type of acne usually develops when bacteria gets trapped inside a clogged hair follicle.

    Common types of inflammatory acne include papules (small, red bumps) and pustules (small red bumps that contain yellow pus).

  • Nodular acne. Large inflammatory acne lesions are often referred to as nodular acne. This type of acne can be severe, firm and painful. Nodular acne can potentially cause scarring to develop, especially if it’s treated improperly.

  • Cystic acne. When severe acne forms deep beneath the surface of your skin, it’s often referred to as cystic acne. Cysts are lesions that are filled with fluid. This form of acne can be severe and may lead to discomfort and scarring. 

Since acne can vary in type and severity, the best treatment for acne can vary. If you only have mild comedonal acne, over-the-counter products may be enough to clear your skin. If you have severe acne, you may need to use more powerful medication. 

Understanding Dry Skin and Acne

Dry skin is a common problem. It tends to affect people as they age, although it’s still common to get dry skin when you’re in your teens, 20s or thirties. 

At its core, dry skin occurs when your skin loses water too quickly. You may notice that your skin becomes dry during periods of low humidity or when you spend a lot of time indoors in an air conditioned, low-moisture environment.

Like acne, a range of different factors can play a role in dry skin. You may have a higher risk of developing dry skin if you:

  • Are middle aged or older. Your skin tends to produce less sebum as you age, which can increase your risk of developing dry skin. You may have a higher risk of dry skin if you’re in your 40s or older.

  • Have fair, brown or black skin. People with these skin tones have an elevated risk of developing dry skin compared to people with a moderate skin tone.

  • Work in an environment with water or harsh chemicals. Spending time in water or areas with harsh chemicals can damage the protective layer of your skin, causing it to lose water and become overly dry.

  • Live in a cool, dry environment. Cold, dry weather can cause your skin to lose water and become overly dry.

  • Take long, hot showers. Hot water strips moisture from your skin, causing it to become dry. You might notice that your skin feels drier than normal after a long shower or bath, especially if you use very hot water.

  • Use certain medications. Some medications, including diuretics and statins, can make your skin feel dry. Dry skin is also a known side effect of some medications prescribed to treat acne.

  • Have a nutritional or vitamin deficiency. Some nutrients and vitamins, such as niacin, zinc, iron, vitamin A and vitamin D, play a role in keeping your skin healthy. If you don’t get enough of certain nutrients, it may contribute to dry skin.

  • Are affected by certain diseases and/or medical conditions. Skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and ichthyosis may cause dry skin. Kidney disease, thyroid disease, HIV and other conditions can also cause your skin to become dry.

  • Smoke. In addition to potentially worsening acne, smoking may premature age your skin and cause it to become dry.

When dry skin and acne occur at the same time, the results can be frustrating. Acne breakouts can be unsightly, painful and difficult to treat. Since your skin is dry, you may be less protected from infections that can worsen your acne.

Making things worse is the fact that dry skin is often easily irritated — something that can add to your risk of getting acne.

Luckily, options are available. In the section below, we’ve explained what you can do to prevent dryness and treat acne at the same time.

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How to Treat Acne on Dry Skin

Treating dry, acne-prone skin is often challenging. The main reason for this is that many of the most effective treatments for acne cause dryness as a side effect — something that’s definitely not good if you already have dry, easily irritated skin.

Because of this, it’s important to focus on solving both problems at once, all without aggravating the other. 

If you haven’t already done so, it’s best to talk to a medical professional to learn more about the factors that may be causing your dry, acne-prone skin. They’ll be able to help you treat your skin to prevent both dryness and acne. 

Most of the time, acne that affects dry skin can be solved by using the right skincare products or medications, as well as by making certain changes to your habits and lifestyle.

Skin Care Products and Over-the-Counter Medications

Over-the-counter skin care products can help you to keep your skin moisturized and wash away the substances that contribute to acne breakouts. Good options include:

  • Moisturizer. While moisturizer won’t treat acne, it will help your skin to retain moisture and avoid becoming dehydrated. A good moisturizer will also help to restore the outer layer of your skin, giving it extra protection against damage and infection.

    When you’re choosing a moisturizer, look for products labeled as “non-comedogenic” or “for acne-prone skin.” These are less likely to contain oils that could clog your pores and worsen your acne breakouts.

    Our Tidal Wave Moisturizer is a hyaluronic acid and squalane moisturizer that’s designed to hydrate your skin without leaving an oily residue or causing acne.

    If you have severe acne or very dry skin, talk to a dermatologist. They’ll be able to point you to the best moisturizer for your skin. In some cases, they may suggest a medicated moisturizer that contains ingredients like lactic acid or urea.

  • Cleanser. Cleansers are helpful for washing away the sebum and skin cells that lead to acne, but finding one that’s suitable for dry skin isn’t always easy.

    Try to look for gentle, irritant-free cleansers that are designed to clean your skin without stripping it completely of oil. Make sure to avoid cleansers that contain harsh chemicals or fragrances, as these can worsen dry skin.

    Our Deep Sea Cleanser, which is made from red seaweed extract and rosehip seed, is designed to cleanse and hydrate your skin at the same time.

Prescription Medications

If you have moderate to severe acne, your healthcare provider may recommend that you use a prescription medication to control your breakouts. 

Not all prescription medications for acne are suitable for dry skin. However, some can be used in combination with moisturizer and other skin care products to get rid of acne without causing your skin to become overly dry. Common acne medications include:

  • Tretinoin. Tretinoin is a topical retinoid that reduces the amount of dead skin cells that build up on your epidermis. It’s highly effective — so much so that it and other retinoids are often described as the mainstay of treating acne.

    Unfortunately, there’s one small problem with tretinoin. Although it’s highly effective, one of the most common side effects of tretinoin is dry skin, particularly in the first few weeks of treatment.

    To manage this, your healthcare provider may recommend beginning with a low-strength tretinoin cream. You may also need to use a moisturizer at the same time to manage any dryness that’s caused by your medication.

    We’ve talked more about reducing dryness from tretinoin and other retinoids in our guide to using retinoids during winter.

  • Clindamycin. Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic that’s used to treat inflammatory acne. It helps to prevent the growth of bacteria that cause inflamed acne and make swelling less severe.

    Your healthcare provider may prescribe clindamycin if you have inflamed acne caused by bacteria. Although it’s effective, clindamycin can worsen dryness. To manage this, your healthcare provider may suggest applying moisturizer after you use clindamycin.

  • Hormonal birth control. Some versions of the combination birth control pill, including Yaz®, Estrostep® and Ortho Tri-Cyclen®, are effective at treating and preventing acne.

    These medications work by altering the amounts of androgenic hormones produced by your body. We’ve talked more about how these birth control pills work, their effects on acne and more in our detailed guide to birth control and acne

Habits, Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies

While the right moisturizer, cleanser and medication can make a big difference, treating dry skin that’s prone to acne is also about changing your habits.

Often, a few small changes is all it takes to prevent dryness, avoid acne and keep your skin in optimal condition. Use the following habits, lifestyle changes and home remedies to keep your skin moisturized and free of acne:

  • Wash your face two times a day, at most. Although washing your face is an important step for cleaning away excess oil, dirt and other substances, washing too frequently can irritate your skin and worsen acne breakouts.

    Try to wash your face twice daily — once when you wake up and once again right before you go to bed. It’s also alright to wash your face after you exercise, especially if you feel sweaty.

  • Avoid the sun. Contrary to popular belief, spending time in the sun does not help to get rid of acne. Instead, it exposes you to UV radiation, causing cellular damage, premature aging and worsening issues like dryness.

    Whenever possible, try to avoid spending time outdoors during peak sunlight hours or using sunbeds. If you need to spend time in the sun, apply a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen and protect your face using a hat and sunglasses.

  • Don’t pop your pimples. While popping pimples can feel tempting, it’s generally not a good idea. Squeezing or popping pimples can push the contents deeper into your skin, increasing inflammation. It can also transfer bacteria into the clogged hair follicle.

    Both of these can worsen acne and increase your risk of developing scars. As such, it’s best to leave your pimples to heal naturally. If you have a severe breakout that you’d like to treat, contact a dermatologist to have the pimples extracted professionally.

  • Avoid scrubbing your skin. Instead of scrubbing your skin, wash it skin as gently as possible using your fingertips. Scrubbing can irritate your skin, increasing your risk of dealing with acne breakouts.

  • Make sure not to overuse acne treatments. While most acne treatments are great at preventing breakouts, some can cause dry skin. As such, it’s important not to overuse your acne products or medications if you have skin that dries out easily.

  • Use lip balm. Dry skin often affects your lips, causing them to become red, cracked and uncomfortable. Try to use a non-irritating lip balm to keep your lips moist while you treat acne.

  • After you wash, pat your skin dry. After you finish cleaning your skin, avoid rubbing it harshly with a towel while you dry yourself. For sensitive areas, gently pat your skin dry using a clean towel.

  • Apply moisturizer after you dry your skin. It’s best to moisturize while your skin is still damp, especially right after you shower or bathe. Use your moisturizer right away to lock in moisture and prevent your skin from drying out.

  • Use a humidifier. If you have a humidifier, switch it on when your skin feels overly dry or sensitive. If you use an air conditioner at home, avoid running it in dry mode, as this can significantly reduce humidity.

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In Conclusion

Acne and dry skin are both common problems. Although they’re usually simple to solve on their own, dealing with both at the same time can seem like more of a challenge. 

Luckily, options are available. Mild to moderate acne and skin dryness can often be treated with over-the-counter products such as a gentle cleanser and moisturizer. For severe acne, you may need to use prescription medications such as tretinoin or clindamycin.

If you don’t notice improvements in your skin using the methods listed above, consider talking to a dermatologist. They’ll be able to check your skin and provide expert advice to help you reduce acne breakouts and treat dry skin at the same time. 

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.