What is Acne-Prone Skin? A Closer Look at This Skin Type

How is it that some people wash their face with shampoo as their only skin care step and have clear skin, while many of us have meticulous acne-fighting skincare routines and still get blemishes? Given that you are reading Acne Club, there’s a good chance that you are also in the acne-prone skin group.

What is Acne-Prone Skin?

Acne-prone skin tends to develop acne more often than other skin types. While most people experience pimples while going through puberty, some will experience worse breakouts or deal with it longer well into adulthood. They might label their skin as acne-prone to help find the right products for their skin. This skin type tends to have excess oil production and may be quite sensitive, leading to frequent breakouts.

Understanding the acne-prone skin type is important to be able to effectively manage and treat it. Common characteristics of acne-prone skin are:

  • Oily Surface: Excess sebum gives the skin a greasy appearance.
  • Frequent Breakouts: Regular occurrence of various types of acne.
  • Sensitive Reaction: Prone to irritation and inflammation.

What Causes Acne-Prone Skin?

Acne-prone skin is a broad term that describes skin that frequently has blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and sometimes more severe forms like cysts and nodules. There are several different ways this acne can be caused, including:

Extra Sebum

Sebum is an oily substance produced by your sebaceous glands to moisturize your skin. It plays a vital role in maintaining the skin’s moisture and protecting it from external contaminants. However, when your skin produces too much sebum, it can mix with dead skin cells and block hair follicles.

Excess sebum also creates an ideal environment for the acne-causing bacteria Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) to thrive, which can cause inflammation in your blocked pores leading to red angry pimples.


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Your skin has its own set of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, known as the microbiome, which can influence acne. The bacteria C. acnes, is commonly present on human skin and it can help protect our skin, but it can also contribute to acne for some of us. Research has indicated that there’s a diverse population of C. acnes strains, some of which are more likely to contribute to acne development than others. The type that is naturally prevalent on your skin can contribute to it being acne-prone or acne-free. 

Additionally, the yeast Malassezia, which lives on your skin, can sometimes overgrow and cause red bumps on your face that look like acne, but is actually Malassezia folliculitis or fungal acne.

Cell Turnover

Normally, skin cells turnover and shed regularly, but in acne-prone skin, this process might not be as effective.

If dead skin cells don’t shed properly, they can mix with excess sebum (oil) and clog pores. This clogging is a primary factor in the development of acne because it creates an environment for acne-causing bacteria to grow and cause inflammatory acne. If you naturally have a slower or irregular cell turnover this can increase the likelihood that you’ll regularly experience clogged pores breakouts.

Acne-Prone Skin Routine

For those of us with acne-prone skin, most of the battle is finding a skincare routine that balances effective acne treatments with keeping our skin healthy and hydrated. Too many harsh active ingredients can irritate our skin and damage our skin barrier. And too many nourishing ingredients without treating acne can often cause clogged pores and pimples. 

Look for products designed for acne-prone skin that won’t clog your pores and adapt each step to your skin’s specific needs and responses. A dermatologist can offer the most tailored advice for your situation. A standard routine for acne-prone skin that strikes a balance between managing acne and maintaining overall skin health would look something like this:


Begin with a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser to remove excess oil and impurities without stripping the skin. 

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Applying targeted acne treatments with ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, topical retinoids, and azelaic acid can help clear pores and calm inflammatory acne. 

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Lightweight Hydration

Adding extra layers of lightweight hydration, also called skin flooding, is a great way to add extra moisture to acne-prone skin without relying on heavy products that might clog pores.

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It’s a common misconception that acne-prone skin doesn’t need moisturizing. Opt for a light, non-comedogenic moisturizer to hydrate without causing further breakouts. 

Sun Protection

Daily sunscreen application protects the skin from UV damage and can prevent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation left behind after pimples from worsening. 

Acne-Prone Oily Skin

Acne-prone skin is generally considered to be oily. Those of us with this skin type often have larger pores and an overproduction of sebum. Oily skin can keep your face well moisturized and even prevent wrinkles, but this excess oil can also mix with dead skin cells and clog pores, creating an ideal environment for acne-causing bacteria to grow.

While acne-prone and oily skin usually go hand in hand they are not mutually exclusive. You can have acne-prone skin without it being oily, or oily skin without a lot of acne. If your skin is oily and acne-prone, you will need to focus on mattifying products and balancing the oil on your skin. Ways to help prevent acne on oily skin include:

  • Cleanse: Remove excess oil without irritating your skin with a foaming cleanser.
  • Topical Retinoids: Retinoids help in reducing sebum production and unclogging pores through increased cell turnover.
  • Accutane: Also known as isotretinoin, a course of this prescription medication can significantly decrease sebum production.
  • Salicylic Acid: While it does not reduce sebum production, a salicylic acid product can penetrate oil to help prevent the build-up of oil and dead skin cells.

Hormonal Acne-Prone Skin

Fluctuations in hormones, such as androgens, can trigger sebaceous glands to make more sebum and cause your skin to be oily, leading from blackheads and whiteheads to cystic acne. Hormonal acne often appears on the jawline, chin, and lower face. 

In addition to the standard above treatments for oily acne-prone skin, if you are female your dermatologist may also suggest a medication to target these hormones. Birth control pills and anti-androgens like spironolactone and the topical treatment Winlevi can be effective in addressing the androgens that trigger excess sebum production.

Acne-Prone Combination Skin

Combination skin is a skin type where you have both oily and dry areas on your face. Typically, your T-zone (forehead, nose, and chin) is oily, while the cheeks and other areas of your face are dry or normal. 

When dealing with combination skin that is also acne-prone, different areas of your face may need different types of care. You might need to use acne treatment only on the oily areas of your face so you don’t irritate the rest of your skin. You can also use a light moisturizer on your T-zone and keep a richer moisturizer to use only on the dry areas of your face to keep it hydrated.

Acne-Prone Dry Skin

Acne-prone dry skin is a challenging mix where your skin tends to be dry and flaky, yet still develops acne. If you have dry skin that is acne-prone you will have to work a little harder to find products that hit the right balance for your skin of being moisturizing enough to support your skin barrier while not causing more acne. 

If you find that most richer moisturizers cause breakouts, you can switch to a hydrating cleanser and try to layer more lightweight and hydrating toners, serums, and moisturizers on damp skin to attempt to lock in some of the moisture. If you notice that your skin becomes dry seasonally based on your climate, try to shift your skin care products to be more moisturizing during that dry time of year and consider using a humidifier to help keep more moisture in your skin.

When using retinoids like tretinoin or adapalene on dry skin, start by using the sandwich method. Apply a layer of moisturizer before your retinoid and then another layer after to keep your skin from becoming more dry. As your skin adjusts you can begin to apply your medication directly onto the skin and then follow with your moisturizer.

Acne-Prone Sensitive Skin

A lot of acne-prone skin is also naturally sensitive and can become easily inflamed. Even if your skin was not sensitive to begin with, it can sometimes become sensitive from harsh acne treatments. This type of skin is more reactive to skincare products, and it can be challenging to treat because many acne treatments can further irritate sensitive skin. 

If you have sensitive acne-prone skin the key to treating it is to use gentle, non-irritating skincare products. This includes using mild cleansers, non-comedogenic soothing moisturizers, and acne treatments formulated for sensitive skin such as azelaic acid, gentler retinoids like adapalene, or lower strength salicylic acid. It’s also important to avoid ingredients that can cause irritation, such as alcohol and fragrances. To keep your skin from becoming irritated, streamline your skincare routine and gradually introduce any new products so you can monitor your skin’s reaction.

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Remember that having acne-prone skin does not mean you will always have acne, and having acne does not mean you are doing anything wrong compared to people with effortlessly clear skin. It also means that the skin care products those people use and love might not be the right choice for you. Use this self knowledge as a tool to find the right products and treatments that work for you and your skin.

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