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Treating Breakouts: Can you use Acids or Retinol?

Know when to pull back on active ingredients and how to adjust your routine with breakouts

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Treating Breakouts: Can you use Acids or Retinol?
Written byAmelia CranstounContent Editor
Start your 2 minute skin quiz today and one of our aestheticians will create a personalised skincare routine for you!Take the skin quiz

Breakouts can be frustrating, especially when you're not sure which skincare ingredients to look for. Two popular choices for breakout skin are acids and retinol, but are they safe and effective when you have a breakout? 

Should Acids or Retinol be used when you have a Breakout? 

Since the two ingredients are effective for distinctively different reasons, we recommend considering the use of acids and retinol separately for individuals experiencing ongoing acne and those facing occasional breakouts due to things like hormonal or lifestyle factors. 

What can acids and retinoids do for breakouts?

What is Retinol good for?

Retinol is good for breakouts as it unclogs pores, normalises skin cell shedding, limits bacterial growth, and prevents new breakouts. It can take time for skin to adjust to retinol, so it should be introduced with caution, starting slowly and keeping skin moisturised Sunscreen should be worn at all times, with sun exposure limited

What are Acids good for? 

The most popular acne-fighting acid is salicylic acid, aka beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Salicylic acid is good for breakouts as it can help exfoliate the skin, unclog pores, reduce blackheads and whiteheads, and has anti-inflammatory properties to soothe redness and irritation

Choosing and Using Acids When You Have a Breakout

Acids are renowned for their skin-exfoliating properties, which can be beneficial for acne-prone skin. However, the key is to choose the right type of acid product and use it in your skincare routine judiciously. Here's some advice for using acids when you have a breakout:

  • Choose the Right Product: Salicylic acid or beta hydroxy acid (BHA) is oil-soluble, which means it can penetrate the pores and help unclog them, reducing blackheads and whiteheads. Depending on your skin, you might want to include this in a rinse-off cleanser, or leave-on format. 

  • Start Slowly: If you're new to acids or experiencing a breakout, start with a lower concentration and apply it only once or twice a week. Gradually increase the frequency as your skin builds tolerance. Overusing acids can lead to dryness, sensitivity, and worsen breakouts.

  • Patch Test: Before applying acid to your entire face, perform a patch test on a small area of skin. This will help you determine if your skin reacts adversely to the product.

  • Avoid Harsh Scrubs: When you have an active breakout, avoid using harsh physical exfoliants or scrubbing vigorously, as this can exacerbate inflammation and lead to more breakouts. This is particularly important when using acids, as they will already provide sufficient exfoliation to the skin.

  • Use with Caution: If you have ongoing acne or sensitive skin, it's best to consult an aesthetician before incorporating acids into your routine. They can recommend the most suitable products and guide you on their proper use.

Using Retinol When You Have a Breakout 

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and is well-known for its skin-clearing and smoothing benefits. Retinol is a gold standard ingredient in treating acne, but it can be tricky to introduce, especially for those with acne-prone skin. Here's some advice for using retinol to address when breakouts:

  • Introduce it Gradually: When you’re incorporating retinol into your routine, start with a low concentration. Begin by applying it once a week, at night. Slowly increase the frequency to every other night or as tolerated.

  • Prepare for a purge: Part of the way retinol works is by encouraging cellular turnover. This in turn pushes all the congestion within the layers of our skin to the surface, leading to a short period where breakouts increase (known as purging.) This is normal and part of the process, and will usually subside after one skin cycle (4-6 weeks.)
  • Sensitive Skin: If you’re sensitive or experiencing an inflamed skin barrier, it may be more sensible to start with azelaic acid instead of retinol, which has anti-inflammatory benefits and no drying side effects. If this is the case, we would always recommend speaking with an aesthetician to best advise.
  • Moisturise and Hydrate: Retinol can be drying, so it's crucial to keep your skin well-moisturised and hydrated. Use a gentle, non-comedogenic moisturiser to maintain the skin's moisture barrier. You can even opt to apply your retinol on top of your moisturiser if you’re finding your skin becoming dry.

  • Sunscreen is Non-Negotiable: Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so sunscreen becomes a must. Wear broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher during the day to protect your skin from harmful UV rays, and be sure to reapply every 2 hours in line with guidance from the British Association of Dermatologists

Can Acids and Retinol be used together? 

Avoid Mixing Acids and Retinol without professional guidance. Using too many exfoliating ingredients in your routine can lead to increased irritation and sensitivity, and make breakouts worse by damaging your skin barrier. Always check with your aesthetician or dermatologist if you plan to incorporate multiple active ingredients into your routine.

Tips to know when using both Acid or Retinol

For those dealing with persistent acne, it's essential to have a consistent skincare routine tailored to your specific needs. Here's some additional advice:

  • Gentle Cleansing: Use a mild, non-comedogenic cleanser to wash your face twice a day. Avoid harsh scrubbing, as it can aggravate acne.

  • Patience is Key: Acne treatments can take time to show results. Be patient and stick to your skincare routine, even if you don't see immediate improvements.

  • Avoid Picking or Squeezing: Resist the temptation to pick or squeeze your pimples, as this can lead to scarring and further inflammation. 

  • Diet and Lifestyle: Pay attention to your diet and lifestyle factors that might contribute to breakouts. Ensure you get enough sleep, manage stress, and maintain a healthy, balanced diet. We recommended keeping a skin diary if you suspect there are lifestyle triggers behind your breakouts. 

Using Acids or Retinol on the occasional Breakout

If you experience occasional breakouts due to hormonal fluctuations or lifestyle factors, you can modify your skincare routine accordingly:

  • Spot Treatments: Opt for spot treatments with ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or sulphur to address individual pimples.

  • Keep Your Skincare Simple: Stick to a basic skincare routine with gentle products, including a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. Avoid using too many active ingredients at once.

  • Identify Triggers: Pay attention to factors that may trigger your occasional breakouts, such as certain foods or stress. Knowing your triggers can help you take preventive measures.

When dealing with breakouts, the right skincare ingredients can make a significant difference in improving your skin's condition. Acids like salicylic acid can help unclog pores, while retinol can be beneficial for acne-prone skin when used with care. 

Consulting with an aesthetician when you have questions surrounding questions on active ingredients is always a good idea. Our service allows for a free initial video consultation with a Renude aesthetician who can provide a fully suitable, personalised skincare routine just for your skin's unique needs. 

Remember, consistency and patience are key to achieving clearer and healthier skin, regardless of the frequency or cause of your breakouts. Take our skin quiz to get started on your skincare journey. 

Amelia CranstounContent Editor
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Amelia CranstounContent Editor
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