- Sensitive skin is easily irritated by many cosmetic products.
- Acne treatments should be used in lower concentrations and less often than other skin types for best results.
- DIY remedies work as gentler alternatives to commercial products.
The best acne treatments for sensitive skin are products that are relatively gentle and used moderately to minimize the risk of irritation.
Sensitive skin is characterized by a weakened moisture barrier, the outermost protective layer of skin. It is caused by dryness, overuse of skin care products and skin disorders such as rosacea and eczema. The signs of sensitive skin include reactiveness to skin care products, dryness, redness and itchiness. Because sensitive skin is easily irritated by skin care products, it can be difficult to effectively manage breakouts.
Acne Treatments for Sensitive Skin
The same active ingredients recommended to manage acne can also be used for sensitive skin, but in lower concentrations, and less often.
Using acne products once or twice a week will minimize the risk of drying out your skin. More frequent use may resolve blemishes faster, but is likely to cause a reaction and negatively impact your skin’s overall feel and appearance.
The following ingredients reduce acne by exfoliating dead skin and killing blemish-causing bacteria.
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that stimulates natural exfoliation and has comedolytic properties, meaning it inhibits the formation of pimples. While salicylic acid is gentle on the skin, results can take up to four weeks to appear with regular use.
Acne products typically contain 0.5–2% salicylic acid; for sensitive skin, choose products with 0.5% to minimize adverse effects.
Benzoyl peroxide works by killing the bacteria that cause acne and removing oil and dead skin cells. It is a standard over-the-counter treatment for moderate-to-severe acne.
Benzoyl peroxide works quickly, reducing lesions within several days. However, it can cause dry skin, redness and peeling and must therefore be used in moderation on sensitive skin.
Apply 2.5% benzoyl peroxide (the lowest percentage available) once a week and only to areas of active breakouts in order to minimize your skin’s exposure to the product.
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil has natural antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been found to reduce acne lesions in people with mild-to-moderate acne.
Because it works similarly to benzoyl peroxide, it is a good alternative for those with sensitive skin. However, it works more slowly than benzoyl peroxide and may require several weeks of use for your overall number of blemishes to be noticeably diminished.
Tea tree oil must always be first diluted with water. For every 1 to 2 drops of tea tree oil, add 12 drops of a carrier oil such as olive, coconut or almond oil. Moisten a cotton swab with the diluted mixture and apply to those areas of your face that usually break out, carefully avoiding the eye area.
You can use this oil two to three times a week. You can increase the frequency of application if you find it is well tolerated.
How to Pick Anti-Acne Products for Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin benefits from a simple skin care routine that exposes it to as few products as possible, minimizing contact with potential allergens.
Avoid products such as cleansers that are meant for use on your entire face to reduce exposure to potentially irritating ingredients. Instead, look for products that can be targeted at specific areas of the face, such as spot treatments, serums or gels.
The most effective products are ones that contain active ingredients in low concentrations and soothing, hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, aloe vera or chamomile. These serve to mitigate the irritation caused by acne-fighting ingredients while working to restore your skin’s natural protective barrier.
Natural and Home Remedies
DIY remedies work well for sensitive skin because if you do experience a reaction, their comparatively short list of ingredients makes it easy to identify the trigger. They also not contain any of the known irritants commonly found in skin care products, such as fragrance.
These at-home remedies can improve acne by exfoliating the skin, restoring pH levels and destroying bacteria. You can customize them by adding or removing ingredients according to your skin’s needs.
Oatmeal face mask
This face mask gently exfoliates while reducing inflammation and fighting acne-causing bacteria. Honey is a natural antibacterial, while oatmeal can help restore the skin’s pH levels. The lactic acid present in yogurt provides additional exfoliation.
- 2 tbsp ground oatmeal
- 1 tbsp plain yogurt
- 1 tbsp honey
- Combine all ingredients in a small bowl
- Spread evenly over the face and wait 10–15 minutes
- Rinse with lukewarm water; pat dry
Strawberry face mask
The naturally occurring salicylate in strawberries gives this mask its exfoliating properties. Salicylate is a chemical derived from salicylic acid with similar pore-unclogging ability. Since the exfoliating effect is mild, it is unlikely to irritate sensitive skin.
- 2–3 strawberries
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tbsp yogurt
- Mash strawberries with a fork
- Add honey and yogurt; mix well
- Apply to clean skin and let dry for 15 minutes
- Rinse with lukewarm water; pat dry
Anti-Acne Routine for Sensitive Skin
Every morning, wash your face with a gentle lotion or cream-based cleanser. Follow up with an oil- and fragrance-free moisturizer containing a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF. Repeat the routine in the evening, exchanging your sunscreen-containing moisturizer for a nighttime product.
If this routine causes skin sensitivity, simplify your morning skin care by only rinsing your face with water and applying a moisturizer, leaving the cleanser to once a day in the evenings.
Every few days, or as often as your skin can tolerate it, add an extra step to your morning routine: Apply a product containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or tea tree oil to areas of active acne before you moisturize.
You may also wish to alternate the acne-fighting products you use throughout the week. For instance, apply salicylic acid on Mondays and Fridays and benzoyl peroxide, which is harsher on the skin, only on Wednesdays.
Do’s and Don’ts of Acne Control for Sensitive Skin
Follow a few basic rules to minimize your skin’s exposure to potential triggers.
- Do use products that are fragrance-free
- Do pair your acne treatments with hydrating ingredients
- Don’t use highly concentrated acne medication
- Don’t apply acne treatments to your entire face
Acne in sensitive skin is best treated by using a minimal number of products with active ingredients in low concentrations.
For best results, use 0.5% salicylic acid products to stimulate exfoliation and prevent new blemishes, and 2% benzoyl peroxide products to kill acne-causing bacteria.
To reduce risk of irritation, apply products only to the acne-prone areas of your face and limit use to a few times a week, rather than every day.
This minimalistic approach can help manage your acne without causing further irritation to your skin. If your skin does not improve after several months, seek the advice of a dermatologist.
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