Conventional wisdom tells us that acne and oily skin go hand-in-hand, but the facts tell us otherwise. In tens of millions of Americans, acne affects the gamut of skin types, including those with dry or combination skin. Whether it’s a symptom of naturally dry skin or of an overly harsh acne-fighting regimen, skin that lacks moisture can dry out and peel. To keep skin hydrated while keeping acne at bay, turn to gentle acne cleansers and lightweight moisturizers.
Many face washes that target acne rely on skin-drying ingredients, such as salicylic acid. While these are effective against breakouts, when the skin lacks moisture, its outermost layer contracts, leading to breakage in the form of cracking, flaking and peeling. On the other hand, basic—the opposite of acidic—soaps wash away our skin’s natural barriers, inviting acne-causing bacteria. For a daily face wash that fights pimples sans peeling, find a middle ground; choose a pH-balanced cleanser, which keeps your skin dirt- and debris-free without overdrying. Likewise, cleansers with pyrithione zinc reduce acne-encouraging germs without robbing the skin of its natural oils.
Because oily sebum is a key cause of acne, popular treatments tend to dry the skin, which can either cause or exacerbate peeling problems. However, overly dry skin cells can actually clog the pores, leading to even more acne. To combat peeling and acne in one swoop, moisturize your skin at least once per day. Choose a non-comedogenic moisturizer, which won’t inflame acne or clog pores. Water-based moisturizers are ideal, and those that contain antioxidants, such as green tea, have added benefits. As a key ingredient, green tea acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and an antioxidant, and protects the skin from drying UV rays.
Benzoyl peroxide—a star player in numerous acne creams and gels—is a time-tested acne fighter, but you’ll want to take special care when using it if you have dry skin; using it as an all-over treatment can cause further dryness, cracking and peeling. While many assume spot-treating pimples with benzoyl peroxide can help get over a breakout, the fact is, it has almost no effect on pre-existing acne lesions and works better as a preventative measure. Many products boast of their 10-percent strength of benzoyl peroxide, but concentrations above 5 percent have been shown to be no more effective and are only more drying. Instead, opt for a lower percentage or a facial wash that will be gentler on the skin than a leave-on product like a cream or gel.
More to Know
Topical acne creams with tretinoin have a reputation for causing the skin to peel, but proper application eases this problem. Use these products only at night—as sunlight plus tretinoin equals irritation and dryness—and avoid using them in combination with salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or other drying treatments. Very gentle exfoliation can help encourage cell turnover and ease dry skin. If you choose to exfoliate, stick with lactic acid–based exfoliating washes, which are less irritating and more hydrating than glycolic acid–based products.
This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.