If you struggle with acne-prone skin, you have likely developed quite the fear of winter. After all, it’s freezing outside, the air inside is dry, and everyone raves about using a thick moisturizer. But to you, these are the enemy: They feel heavy and greasy on your face and body, leading you to worry if they’re clogging up your already-sensitive pores. And as if acne-prone skin isn’t stressful enough, adding on the cold, harsh climate of winter can further exacerbate one’s skin, says Adrienne O’Connell, DO, the medical director and president of Laguna Beach Aesthetics.
“As it is crucial to hydrate our skin with a good moisturizer in the winter, we do have to be careful if we are prone to acne. Moisturizing creams and balms can clog pores, which in turn can trap in sebum and cause acne breakouts,” she explains. So how can acne sufferers keep their skin clear and radiant — without completely drying it out? Here, a guide from experts.
Meet the Experts
Adrienne O’Connell, DO, is the medical director and president of Laguna Beach Aesthetics.
Anne Chapas, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder and medical director of Union Square Laser Dermatology.
Caroline Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Tone Dermatology.
Shawnda Dorantes, APRN, MSN, FNP-C, is the founder and Master Injector at Beauty Lounge Medical of Beauty Lounge Medical Spa.
Reid Maclellan, M.D., is an adjunct faculty at Harvard Medical School and the director of Proactive Dermatology Group.
See a dermatologist.
Before you purchase or begin using a new product or change your routine, it is important to figure out what is causing your acne and ways you can control it, says Anne Chapas, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder and medical director of Union Square Laser Dermatology. “Acne forms when sebum, the oily substance on skin, combines with dead skin cells and clogs pores,” she continues. “Talk to a dermatologist and find out if you are using the wrong skin care products, too many skincare products, or if you need to look into a prescription or in-office treatment to get to the root cause of your acne.”
Find the perfect moisturizer.
Once you’ve been given the green light from your derm, it’s time to figure out what type of moisture will provide the hydration you need but doesn’t create build-up, resulting in breakouts. The truth is that the right moisturizer, one that is hydrating and non-comedogenic, can help strengthen the skin’s moisture barrier and improve acne over the long term, says Caroline Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Tone Dermatology.
“Dry and rough skin, itch, redness, dullness, breakouts, sensitive skin, and wrinkles are all signs of a compromised skin moisture barrier,” she continues. “When compromised, the skin barrier has difficulty holding on to water and performing important skin functions like keeping good things in and bad things out. Poor moisture barrier function is directly related to acne severity.”
When shopping for a moisturizer that’s safe and effective for acne sufferers, avoid ingredients like petroleum, mineral oil, alcohol, or dimethicone. Instead, choose a product that contains glycerin, as glycerin is typically suitable for all skin types, says Shawnda Dorantes, APRN, MSN, FNP-C, founder and Master Injector at Beauty Lounge Medical of Beauty Lounge Medical Spa.
Exfoliate regularly — but don’t overdo it.
“Exfoliating your skin regularly during the winter months can be beneficial for acne-prone skin in the winter since it will help remove deep skin cells,” says Reid Maclellan, M.D., an adjunct faculty at Harvard Medical School and the director of Proactive Dermatology Group.
“With the cold air, your skin dehydrates, and it is important to exfoliate to help replenish the skin. This can help cell turnover. This is also beneficial because it helps your skin absorb the other products you are using,” he explains.
However, while exfoliation is a key component of healthy, glowy skin, doing this too frequently can make your condition worse. “Over-exfoliation can disrupt your skin barrier leaving your skin more susceptible to irritation, inflammation, and in some cases, acne, Dr. Chapas warns. She recommends using a gentle chemical exfoliant like a low-percentage glycolic acid or lactic acid once a week and moisturizing afterward.
Winterize your acne treatment.
Much like you winterize your closet — aka pack up those summer clothes — it’s essential to swap out your skincare routine when the temperature drops. As Dr. Robinson explains, Many acne treatment products, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids, do not necessarily need to be used daily to be effective at controlling acne. And since they can create dryness, irritation and potentially flaky skin, she says to consider reducing the strength or frequency you use them.
As an example, when you use bacteria-killing benzoyl peroxide, it’s usually a leave-on formula such as a gel or a lotion. “This can be irritating for those with the most sensitive skin or for those prone to drier skin in the winter, so they should consider a wash-off benzoyl peroxide cleanser a few times a week instead.”
If you’ve been using a strong or exfoliating cleanser daily all year, now is the time to swap over to a gentle cleanser, Dr. Maclellan says. He explains that harsh cleaners and dry air can irritate the skin, while a gentle cleanser adds hydration.
Don’t skip sunscreen.
Here’s our ongoing reminder to never, ever (ever!) skip SPF. Though most of us rarely think of sunscreen when it’s snowing or super-cold outside, it can benefit your acne-prone skin, according to Dr. Robinson. As she explains, sunscreen can help protect against the worsening of post-acne marks and dark spots and is one of the most important steps we can take to promote skin health.
We only recommend products we have independently researched, tested, and loved. If you purchase a product found through our links, Sunday Edit may earn an affiliate commission.