Do You Need Moisturizer If You Have Acne?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 11, 2021
3 min read

Skincare has developed into a vast industry. When you go to the supermarket, a simple walk through the aisle for face wash and moisturizer can be overwhelming. It can be hard to understand how to take care of your face, especially if you’re experiencing acne or breakouts.

When you get an acne breakout, the top layer of your skin can seem oily. This may lead you to believe you should make your skin dry. Some people therefore don't use a moisturizer to avoid more oil on the top layer of the skin. 

You may even dry your skin out to help. However, as counterintuitive as this may seem, this is seldom the best course of action. This can irritate your skin even more than it is already. 

It doesn’t even address the actual cause of your acne. Acne begins in your sebaceous glands, near the top of your skin. These glands host your hair follicles and produce moisturizing oils.

Your skin will naturally moisturize itself by secreting oil through the sebaceous glands. Acne occurs when this process is disrupted, and the sebaceous glands produce way too much moisturizing sebum. This excess oil combined with dead skins cells stops up your follicles.

Depending on where your stopped-up follicle is, it can either create whiteheads or blackheads. Then usually harmless bacteria pollute these follicles and cause things like cysts, nodules, pustules, and papules.

To treat acne, you need to use something that targets your sebaceous glands and/or your follicles. Usually, a physician will prescribe one or possibly more of the following treatments:

  • Benzoyl peroxide 
  • Retinoids
  • Antibiotics 
  • Salicylic acid

All these treatments dry the skin, so your physician will usually also prescribe an acne-safe moisturizer to use in combination with the primary treatment. Moisturizers are excellent supporting players in your acne treatment plan.

However, simply offsetting the effects of other acne treatments isn’t the only benefit of using moisturizer for acne. Moisturizers offer other benefits in treating acne. They are:

  • Occlusive. Moisturizers create a thin hydrophobic film over the skin’s surface. By creating a physical barrier over the top layer of your skin, sebum production is reduced. 
  • Humectant. A humectant attracts water from the deeper levels of your skin to the top levels. 
  • Emollient. This is a property of moisturizers that soothes the skin. Many different ingredients can do this. 

Sometimes moisturizers are too heavy or have ingredients that can irritate your skin and make your acne worse. To guard against that, simply look for bottles of moisturizer that say they are:

  • Oil-free
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Made to not clog pores

While many moisturizers can help your acne, there are also ingredients in some moisturizers that can be detrimental to your acne-prone skin, including:

  • Heavy oils, waxes, and petrolatum. These ingredients can be too heavy and plug your pores.  
  • Fragrance and perfume. These could cause irritation or an allergic reaction. 
  • Methylparabens/parabens. These preservatives can also cause allergic reactions and irritate your pores. 
  • Retinoic acid. Often used for anti-aging, retinoic acid can be incredibly irritating. 
  • Salicylic acid. While it is an effective exfoliant, it can irritate sensitive or acne-ridden skin. 

The general advice for using moisturizers is to use them every day between two and three times a day. It is best to use them after bathing. 

Be aware that most people do not see any results from their acne-friendly moisturizer for at least 4 to 8 weeks. It can take a little bit of time for your skin to get acclimated to any sort of new regimen, so be patient.