Ask a Beauty Editor: Should You Moisturize Acne?

Woman taking care of her skin

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Ever wanted to pick the brains of a beauty editor? Or get beauty product recommendations from someone who’s tried them all? You have come to the right place. In our weekly series, beauty editor Hana Hong answers your biggest skincare, haircare and makeup questions, all submitted by Real Simple readers. Tune in every Tuesday and submit your own burning beauty questions here for a chance to be featured.

Reader question: I have to wear a cloth mask every day, all day when I work, and my face doesn’t look good with it. I don’t know if I should try to dry out these superficial blemishes or keep them moisturized. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! —Nelson Gibson

When you’re dealing with (pun intended) a bad acne breakout, the natural urge is to smother it with exfoliators and spot treatments. But PSA: Dehydration alone is not the answer to acne! Drying out your skin can cause your sebaceous glands to produce even more sebum to compensate for the lack of moisture. That means more congestion and potentially more breakouts on the rest of your face (hard pass, thanks).

Before diving into the right treatment, it’s important to understand what’s causing maskne in the first place. More professionally speaking, this is called acne mécanica, which includes all skin problems due to pressure, friction, rubbing, squeezing or stretching. Friction causes the top layer of your skin to release water and as a result, your skin loses its natural moisture. “The constant rubbing of the mask in contact with the skin can cause the skin barrier to break down and the hair follicles to open up, which then allows acne-causing bacteria to enter the skin,” says Hadley King, MD , board-certified dermatologist in New York. York.

Second, you have all that excess oil and sweat buildup. You already have oil, bacteria, and dead cells on your skin, but when you wear a mask, these things can build up and clog your pores. “The occlusive nature of a protective mask creates a moist and warm environment under the mask, which can lead to increased oil and sweating. This in turn leads to irritation, inflammation and rashes,” explains Dr King.

In short, maskne is a contradictory matter of dry skin and greasy, which complicates matters. However, the approach to getting rid of it is the same as for other types of acne. To answer your question, that means drying out pimples. and keeping them hydrated.

First, you want to support the skin barrier with a non-comedogenic moisturizer, ideally a soothing one that contains all three key components: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. “It’s important to look for products that contain all three because they work together to hydrate the skin, seal in moisture, and reduce mask friction,” says Dr. King.

Even though it may seem totally wrong to moisturize pimples, the main problem with acne is inflammation. So remember that she reacts better and improves when you calm her down. Another thing to note: most acne treatments do their job by decreasing oil production, so it’s important to have a moisturizer present as a buffer so your skin can tolerate the acne treatment.

Once you have your hydrating base, it’s time to get specific. When it comes to maskne, the focus should be on spot treatment — the goal is to dry out pimples, not your whole face. According to Dr. King, salicylic acid is an excellent pore-cleansing ingredient because it exfoliates the stratum corneum (the surface of the skin) and penetrates deep into the pores to remove oil.

Another star ingredient is benzoyl peroxide due to its antibacterial properties (read: reduces acne-causing bacteria on the skin). “It not only kills the P. acnes and Staph. Aureus bacteria that contribute to acne, it also helps prevent and clear clogged pores,” says Dr. King. She adds that micronized formulations are better because they cause less skin irritation and stabilize the molecule, so the shelf life is longer.

In addition to spot treatments, try incorporating a topical retinoid into your routine at least two to three times a week (or daily if your skin is already tight). This has a comedolytic effect, which means it helps remove grime from pores, leaving them less distended. By increasing cell turnover, the skin continuously sheds damaged cells and healthy skin is always what you see at the top.

Long story short, yes, you should hydrate maskne since maskne is inflammation – and inflammation needs hydration. But you can also — and should — layer it with targeted treatments, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids, to unclog pores and boost skin cell turnover. If these methods don’t work, talk to your dermatologist about starting a stronger prescription medication.

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