Everybody knows that acne-prone skin produces too much oil. But in their war against sebum and pimples some people go too far. Despite excessive sebum production many acne patients also struggle with dry skin, which can result from over-washing or as a side-effect from some drugs. Whatever the cause it’s important that you deal with it, because lack of moisture makes your skin more sensitive and prone to break outs.
In this post I’m going to show you how to deal with dry skin. We’ll look at how damage to the skin barrier allows moisture to escape and what it means for the health of your skin. Moisturizing being the obvious solution I’ll also give you the basics on moisturizers and how to choose something that’s suitable for your skin.
Dry skin basics
The outermost layer of the skin acts like a barrier between you and the outside world. Medically this is referred as the skin barrier function. To get an idea of how it works just image a brick wall. The cells are like bricks and the natural oils in your skin are the mortar that binds them together. The cells that act like bricks are filled with water and fats to the point where they are swollen. This swelling is good because it packs the cells tightly together and makes it hard for anything to penetrate the barrier.
The fats on top of your skin are also a natural water barrier. They prevent too much moisture from escaping your skin. Without this skin barrier layer your vital internal organs would dry out and you would quickly die. So it’s pretty important.
When you wash your face with soap or other harsh cleanser something bad happens. The detergent strips away lot of the natural oils from the skin. It strips away the mortar that holds the bricks together. This also allows water to evaporate out of the skin.
When this happens repeatedly the cells in the skin barrier lose water and shrivel. So the barrier becomes less effective, allowing even more moisture to escape the skin. In the end your skin becomes dry, and if the situation gets even worse the skin starts flaking. This happens because the enzymes the separate dead skin cells need sufficient moisture to work properly.
Soaps and detergents are just one cause of dry skin. But regardless of the cause the basic mechanism remains the same.
Now that you understand the basics, let me give you a reason why you should do something about it.
Dry skin can cause acne
For some people dry skin causes itching and other annoyance while other people barely even notice it. But in all cases dry skin can make your skin more prone to breaking out.
Any injury to the skin barrier function causes an immediate immune response. The skin barrier function is vital for your survival and your body tries to repair it immediately. Immune response of course means more acne-causing inflammation in the skin.
Weakened skin barrier also allows bacteria and chemicals to penetrate deeper into the skin. The skin becomes more vulnerable to infections from acne-causing bacteria. And pollution and chemicals in skin care products may penetrate the skin. Both of these things mean more inflammation in the skin.
So if you are looking to get clear skin it’s in your best interest to deal with dry skin and have healthy skin barrier. But before we get to that let’s go over some common causes.
Here’s a list of things that frequently cause dry skin.
- Soaps and cleansers with harsh detergents, such as sodium lauryl sulfate.
- Benzoyl peroxide, retinoids and other topical acne drugs may cause dry skin.
- Cleansers that are too alkaline, look for pH-balanced products.
- Winter and low humidity. Very dry environment can suck moisture out of the skin.
- Long hot showers and baths.
- Chemical irritants in personal care and household products. One example is laundry detergent residues.
- Some medications, such as Accutane.
What to do about it
The obvious first step is to remove the irritant or factor that causes dry skin. Sometimes that’s possible, it’s easy to stop using soap or switch to a milder cleanser. But sometimes it’s not. Like what are you going to do about the dry climate in winter, or maybe there just aren’t suitable alternatives to the product that irritates your skin.
Moisturizer for acne prone skin
So what can you do in those cases? Moisturize. Obvious, I know, but sometimes answers are like that. Anyway, before you dash out to get the greatest and latest moisturizer let’s talk little bit about what moisturizers are and what you should look for.
Because regardless of the brand or price they all pretty much work the same way. Pretty much all moisturizers contain substances that attract moisture. When these humectants penetrate the skin they also bind moisture into it. A good moisturizer also seals the moisture into the skin. They do this by creating a lipid (fat) layer on top of the skin, and in this way act much like the natural oils in the skin.
Because most moisturizers work pretty much the same way it may not make sense to pay for the higher end brands. Many dermatologist written articles in fact recommend just using the cheap stuff.
What to look for
But this doesn’t mean you can slap just any old grease on and call it good.
Choose a suitable formulation
Moisturizers are a mixture of water and fats. Heavier formulations have more fat and are often called creams. Whereas lighter ones have less fat and more water and are usually called lotions. Creams are of course better at moisturizing but they can also cause more problems in acne-prone skin, especially if they contain mineral oils. Light lotions are the best choice for daily maintenance, but you might need a heavier cream for initially repairing your skin.
This should be obvious but bears saying, if you apply moisturizer on your face choose something that’s formulated for facial skin. By and large they are all noncomedogenic and won’t make your face look too greasy.
Go for non-irritating products
All moisturizers contain some irritating ingredients. The formulation just wouldn’t work otherwise. These are ‘necessary evil’. But in other cases it’s mostly just ‘evil’, such as some preservatives, fragrances and colors.
Look at the label for words like nonirritating or hypoallergenic. In many of the cleanser studies I’ve seen products from Dove are usually rated as the least irritating. Hopefully that carries over to their moisturizers also.
And for those who don’t trust the labels or just want to get geeky, here’s a list of irritants commonly used in moisturizers:
- Propylene glycol
- Alpha-hydroxy acids
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Benzalkonium chloride
- Formaldehyde releasers
- Benzyl alcohol
- Urea – irritating only in higher concentrations
- Pyrriolidonic carboxylic acid
Keep in mind that things like urea are very effective at binding moisture and studies show moisturizers containing urea reduce skin irritation. Urea becomes irritating when it’s used in concentrations of 5% or higher.
Similarly alpha-hydroxy acids can make the skin thinner and help to keep the pores open. That’s why they are often used in medicated moisturizers aimed at acne patients.
Glycerin is usually a safe choice for sensitive skin. It’s non-irritating and effectively binds water into the skin.
Those little extras
The main job of your moisturizer is to repair the skin barrier function and help the skin to retain moisture. But it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing moisturizer can do for you. Often manufacturers include antioxidants, vitamins and other active nutrients into their formulations. So moisturizer becomes a vehicle for delivering these to the skin.
I recommend you take advantage of this and look for the following:
- Green tea, see my post on green tea for why this is important.
- Vitamin E is the main antioxidant that protects sebum.
- Vitamin C makes vitamin E more effective when they are used together.
- Vitamin B3 (nicotinamide/niacin) is found to be effective moisturizer in some studies. Other studies have found that topical B3 is quite effective in treating acne.
- Aloe vera or other antioxidants.
- Ceramides are naturally occurring fats in the skin. Compared to healthy skin acne-prone skin has fewer ceramides. So applying them in a moisturizer might help.
- Natural oils and essential fatty acids. Some studies indicate that fatty acids (such as omega 3 and 6 and GLA) can soother inflammation in problem skin.
Don’t get too obsessed about these things. You won’t find a product with all of these in it. Vitamins B3 and E are probably the most important.
How to moisturize – important!
How you moisturize is also important. Above we talked about humectants and how they attract moisture into the skin. They can only pull moisture from the water that’s in the skin. They can’t pull in moisture from the environment. To get the best effect you should moisturize right after shower and while your skin is still a little wet. During shower water penetrates the skin and you want to lock it in with a moisturizer.
So after a shower pat your skin light with a towel to get rid of excess water. As your skin is still little wet, apply the moisturizer and wait for your skin to dry.
The first one being I’m incapable of writing short blog posts, but I digress. Anyway, dry skin. It happens because of damage to the skin barrier function allows too much moisture to escape the skin. Soap, harsh cleansers and acne medications are the most common cause for acne patients. The first step is to remove what’s irritating your skin.
Next step is to moisture. We talked how all moisturizers work more or less the same way, so paying the premium may not do any good. Most acne patients probably do better with lighter, water-based lotions rather than heavier creams. As your skin is probably already irritated go for something that’s minimally irritating. And if you can find something with vitamins B3 and E as extras then you have a winner.
And to get the most of your moisturizer you have to use it properly. Apply the moisturizer immediately after taking a shower and while your skin is still little bit wet.