Putting together a skin-care routine can be overwhelming. From cleansers and moisturizers to sunscreens and retinols, there are dozens of potential elements that could go into your day. Before you buy anything, though, it’s important to understand your skin type and your individual needs and goals. A product that might be your friend’s holy grail could be a total dud for you if you have very different skin types — and sometimes even if you don’t. Fortunately, here at the Strategist, we’ve talked to lots of dermatologists and facialists over the years to learn what ingredients and formulas work best for all different types of skin. Based on the many recommendations we’ve gathered plus our own intrepid testing, we’re putting together a new series of routines for oily, dry, and sensitive skin. First up: oily skin.
Oily skin tends to feel slick and greasy as the day goes on. People with oily skin might also notice enlarged pores and more frequent pimples, as excessive sebum production can lead to acne. Generally, you’ll want to choose oil-free, non-comedogenic products that won’t clog pores, and look for exfoliating ingredients that’ll remove dead skin cells and excess oil. Oily skin can tolerate more frequent washing and exfoliating than dry skin, but you’ll still want to make sure you’re using a lightweight moisturizer so your skin won’t be left dehydrated. All of the products below are Strategist-approved for controlling oil and breakouts.
Washing away bacteria, makeup, and other pore-clogging gunk should be the first step in any routine. Cleansers come in many forms, including oils, creams, and foams, but when it comes to oily and acne-prone skin, experts agree that gel formulas are best because they’re designed for the deep cleaning that oily skin needs, but they don’t strip the skin, meaning you’ll get that squeaky clean feeling without any tightness. Facialist Sofie Pavitt loves this best-selling K-beauty cleanser because it helps ward off pimples. “It has BHA [beta hydroxy acid], an active ingredient that really cleans inside the pores” but is still easy on the skin, she says. It’s also a favorite of Strategist contributor Rio Viera-Newton, who says, “if your skin is oily, this cleanser will prep your skin for the day by providing you with the perfect level of pH, meaning it ensures nice, soft skin but also preps for whatever toner or essence you’re putting on next.”
If you prefer a creamy cleanser with a rich lather, this one from French brand La Roche-Posay also contains powerful ingredients, like salicylic and alpha hydroxy acids, that exfoliate the skin and clean deep into pores. “It loosens dead cells and increases cellular turnover to reveal new skin,” says dermatologist Sonia Batra, a co-host of The Doctors. “The acids work to rid skin of common acne concerns such as oiliness, pimples, and blackheads.” Tess Adams, facialist and co-founder of New York’s Take Care Spa, agrees that these acids “can be imperative for healing cystic or severe acne.”
Get any dermatologist talking about must-have ingredients in a skin-care routine, and we guarantee that vitamin C will be one of the first to come up. It’s an antioxidant that can reduce inflammation, fight free-radical damage, brighten skin, diminish fine lines and wrinkles, and reduce the appearance of discoloration and dark spots. If you’re acne-prone, you’ll have to be cautious when shopping for vitamin C serums as many are packaged with ingredients like vitamin E that, while very moisturizing for those with dry skin, might clog up pores. SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic is considered the gold standard of vitamin C serums, but dermatologist Julie Russak, founder of the Russak Dermatology Group, says this serum from the same brand is “the better choice for oily skin types” because it doesn’t contain vitamin E. It even made our list of the best products for cystic acne since it improves skin tone by reducing hyperpigmentation caused by old acne spots.
Retinol is another ingredient that no skin-care routine should be without. A form of vitamin A that boosts skin-cell turnover, retinol is considered the gold standard for treating both wrinkles and acne. “It’s even been shown to increase collagen production and brighten and exfoliate skin,” says dermatologist Whitney Bowe. There are tons of different retinol products out there, but Differin gel is the hands-down favorite among dermatologists for oily and acne-prone skin. “It treats acne deep in the pores and prevents new acne from forming,” says cosmetic dermatologist DiAnne Davis. The active ingredient in Differin is adapalene, which is actually a retinoid (a stronger form of retinol) that, until a few years ago, was available only with a prescription. Now, you can get the same powerful treatment over the counter. Ellen Marmur, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai’s department of dermatology, adds that Differin is also “oil-free and fragrance-free, so aside from the retinoid, it doesn’t have any other irritants, which helps oily skin.”
Since your oily skin makes you more likely to develop pimples, it’s a good idea to keep a spot treatment in your arsenal for handling any blemishes that do pop up. This dermatologist-approved treatment attacks acne from two fronts — hence the “Duo” in its name. It’s got 5.5 percent benzoyl peroxide to kill acne-causing bacteria plus exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid to strip pores of debris and dead skin cells. Morgan Rabach, a dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical NYC, says that it helps pimples shrink and disappear faster, and dermatologist Samer Jaber, the founder of Washington Square Dermatology, praises its beneficial “anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial effects.”
According to Rio, these patches — a perennial best seller among our readers — have “truly magic powers” for healing popped pimples. Made from hydrocolloid, the patches treat zits in three ways: They form a protective seal over the open skin, absorb gunk and oil from the pimple, and create a moist environment that’s ideal for wound healing.
When your skin is naturally oily, the last thing you want to do is weigh it down with a heavy, greasy moisturizer. But you don’t want to skip moisturizer entirely, since oily skin can still become dehydrated — which actually can lead to the skin producing more oil. Experts say the best options for oily skin are formulas that are oil-free and non-comedogenic (meaning they won’t clog pores). This lightweight gel moisturizer checks both boxes. Hadley King, a clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, explains that its key ingredients, glycerin and hyaluronic acid, “are both humectants, so they can hydrate the skin without the need for emollients that may feel too heavy for oily skin.”
You may not need a night cream if your skin is very oily, but if you’re using strong products for treating acne — like Accutane, benzoyl peroxide, retinol, or salicylic acid — you do run the risk of drying out your skin. Adding a night cream to your routine, even if it’s just once a week or during the winter, when your skin is drier than usual, can help replenish that lost moisture. Dermatologist Georgina Ferzli of Sadick Dermatology in New York City recommends this water-based option for oily, acne-prone skin. “It’s thick without being occlusive, hydrating, and feels almost whipped and fluffy when going on,” she says.
This wash-off face mask contains AHA and BHA for chemical exfoliation and microcrystals for gentle, physical exfoliation. The combination makes it one of our top picks for controlling oil production and preventing breakouts. “Acne-focused wash-off masks tend to really dry out my skin, but this one left me feeling super-soft and smooth,” says Rio. It’s also a favorite of Taryn Toomey, founder of The Class.
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