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Dermatologists: They’re just like us! They get pimples well into adulthood and deal with all the same annoying acne side effects we do: dry skin caused by medications, scarring, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and even the urge to pick. But unlike us, they have access to countless products and treatments — not to mention at least six years of graduate-level skin education under their belts (aka, a medical degree and derm residency). Here, five top doctors share the skin-care routines and tips that help keep their complexions clear.
In This Article:
- The routine for hormonal acne, including post-pregnancy flares
- The routine for managing blackheads while also smoothing wrinkles
- The routine for forehead acne, breakouts along the jawline, and dark spots
- Diet tweaks and products for hormonal acne
- The acne routine that also hydrates dry skin and treats hyperpigmentation
Jenny Liu, MD
She’s managing her hormonal acne and dealing with a new post-pregnancy flare.
Like many of us with acne, board-certified dermatologist Jenny Liu‘s skin is at the mercy of hormonal fluctuations. “Whenever I changed or stopped birth control in my late 20s, hormonal acne would hit me,” says the assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She also had a flare-up after having her first baby and is currently going through another (her second baby was born a few months ago). Even when her blemishes are under control, Dr. Liu struggles with eczema and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. But, she says, she’s not embarrassed to share those issues with her patients. “It helps me connect with them — especially my patients with skin of color who struggle a lot more with discoloration like I do.”
Cleanser: Dr. Liu likes a gentle, creamy cleanser in the morning (her current choice is e.l.f. Cosmetics Pure Skin Fragrance Free Moisturizer). At night, she uses one with benzoyl peroxide, an ingredient that plays nicely with her topical retinoid. “My favorite for dry skin is The Inkey List Supersolutions 5% Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser,” she says.
Treatment: Dr. Liu has prescriptions for a 15% azelaic acid gel (“It’s great for post-acne marks and safe during pregnancy”) and .05% tretinoin, a retinoid, in a non-drying cream base. (FYI: Companies such as Apostrophe and Curology offer customized tretinoin and azelaic acid prescriptions at varying strengths, starting at about $20 per month, depending on the plan you choose.) To help even out her skin tone, Dr. Liu also uses a vitamin C serum (either SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic or Epionce Intense Defense Serum) in the morning and a peptide product (Alastin Restorative Skin Complex or Neutrogena Rapid Firming Peptide Contour Lift Face Cream) at night. She has several serums in rotation to treat hyperpigmentation as well: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense, La Roche-Posay Glycolic B5 Dark Spot Corrector, and Urban Skin Rx Advanced Even Tone Skin Treatment.
Moisturizer: “This is such an important step for keeping your skin barrier healthy — especially with acne, where there’s a barrier defect to start,” says Dr. Liu. Mornings, she likes something light, such as La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer, EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex, or The Inkey List Supersolutions 10% Urea Moisturizer. At night, it’s a richer formula like Skinfix Barrier+ Triple Lipid-Peptide Face Cream or Biossance Squalane + Omega Repair Cream.
Sunscreen: UV protection is a must for skin health — and also to help prevent the formation of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) after acne. “I’m loving Purito Daily [Go-To Sunscreen SPF 50+] right now,” says Dr. Liu, who’s also a fan of Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun SPF 50+.
Extras: To keep her pores clear (clogged pores = recipe for acne), Dr. Liu exfoliates her T-zone occasionally with Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. If her skin isn’t too dry or inflamed, she also likes skin-brightening glycolic acid treatments, like Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum and Medik8 Sleep Glycolic Treatment.
The Inkey List Supersolutions 5% Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
Alastin Restorative Skin Complex
Urban Skin Rx Advanced Even Tone Skin Treatment
EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex
Biossance Squalane + Omega Repair Cream
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Cheryl Burgess, MD
Once an Accutane patient herself, she’s still struggling with blackheads at 60.
During medical school, Cheryl Burgess, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Washington, DC, had a front-row seat to an acne breakthrough: She was working in the dermatology department of the National Institutes of Health while its clinical research team was examining the safety and efficacy of oral isotretinoin (aka, Accutane) for cystic acne. At the time, Dr. Burgess was dealing with chronic acne that had plagued her since her teens. “I wore a lot of makeup to cover the blemishes, but I felt my acne wasn’t as severe as the cases I saw at the NIH,” she says. Eventually, about 10 years after oral isotretinoin was approved, dermatologists realized the medication was also beneficial for chronic acne sufferers who didn’t have the cystic variant. That’s when she decided to take it herself. “I took five months of Accutane therapy and haven’t had a problem in over 25 years,” she says. At 60, she still deals with a self-described “very oily” complexion and blackheads, and focuses her routine on addressing those while also protecting her skin and increasing cell turnover for fewer lines and a smoother texture overall.
Cleanser: Because she is prone to blackheads, Dr. Burgess uses products with salicylic acid to keep them at bay. One cleanser she recommends: Aveeno Clear Complexion Cream Face Cleanser, which has 2 percent salicylic acid.
Treatment: For antioxidant protection in the morning, Dr. Burgess likes the Skinbetter Alto Advanced Defense and Repair Serum, which also helps to improve texture and tone. At night, she uses Skinbetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream with line-smoothing retinol. Both are available in physicians’ offices, including — full disclosure — Burgess’s own. “Skinbetter is an excellent line. I use all of their products,” she says.
Moisturizer: Dr. Burgess says moisturizers from gentle, dermatologist-favored lines like CeraVe, Cetaphil, and La Roche-Posay are great for acne-prone skin.
Sunscreen: When you’re a skin expert and can’t find a sunscreen you truly love, you make your own. Dr. Burgess created (and uses) Invisible Zinc SPF 45, which she sells in her Washington, DC office. If you’re not going to be in the DC area any time soon, Burgess recommends physical sunscreens — such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — because she says they’re the most protective ingredients available. She suggests ones from La Roche-Posay. (In general, sunscreens with drying zinc oxide are a good choice for acne-prone skin; avoid ones rich in lipids, like coconut oil and cocoa butter.)
Extras: Dr. Burgess says blue light can also help with acne. She suggests in-office treatments with a wavelength of 400 nm, which is backed by solid data. In one study, adults who received two, 15-minute blue-light treatments every week for a month experienced a 65 percent improvement in the number of acne lesions.
Aveeno Clear Complexion Cream Face Cleanser
SkinBetter Science Alto Advanced Defense and Repair Serum
SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer
Carmen Castilla, MD
She’s contending with forehead acne, breakouts along the jawline, and the dark spots pimples can leave behind.
New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist Carmen Castilla, MD, gets why popping pimples is so satisfying. “I understand that inclination. You really just want your pimples to go away as fast as possible and picking does provide some psychological relief,” says Dr. Castilla, who has dealt with persistent forehead acne as well as hormonal breakouts along her jawline. She manages her own blemishes by eating healthfully (she has found that decreasing her sugar, dairy, and processed-carb intake helps her skin) and following a routine designed to prevent acne scarring, so she won’t develop discoloration that would require laser treatment. “I have melasma, which would make using a laser to treat any acne scars a bit more complicated,” she says.
Cleanser: Dr. Castilla washes her face with…water. You read that right! “Every facial cleanser I have tried has dried out my skin or led to more breakouts, so I just rinse with water,” she says. “Makeup-wise, I only wear mascara, so I remove that with Vaseline.”
Treatment: Skinbetter Alto Defense Serum has antioxidants that help with pigmentation and acne inflammation, says Dr. Castilla. Plus, “it doesn’t leave a sticky residue like some other antioxidant serums.” She also treats her acne by alternating between two prescription topicals: Two to three nights a week she applies Arazlo (.045% tazarotene, a retinoid) and on the other nights she applies Twyeno (.1% tretinoin combined with 3% benzoyl peroxide).
Moisturizer: Being only human, Dr. Castilla occasionally overuses retinoids, leading to dryness. When that happens, she gets relief from Bioderma Cicabio Cream.
Sunscreen: Dr. Castilla never forgets to protect her neck and has a specific sunscreen she prefers for that delicate area: La Roche-Posay Anthelios UVMUNE 400 Hydrating Cream SPF 50, which she picked up on a trip to Europe. On her face, she alternates between two tinted sunscreens that provide blemish-camouflaging coverage: SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50, a light lotion, and Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield SPF 50, which “provides a bit more coverage.”
Extras: In-office anti-inflammatory red-light treatments have also kept Dr. Castilla’s blemishes in check. And she’s gotten “strong salicylic acid peels.” These in-office treatments penetrate deeply to help remove debris in pores and improve the appearance of acne.
Vaseline Original Petroleum Jelly
SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense Sunscreen
Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield SPF 50
A. Yasmine Kirkorian, MD
Keeping things simple and tweaking her diet helps Dr. Kirkorian manage hormonal breakouts.
As chief of the division of dermatology at Children’s National Hospital, A. Yasmine Kirkorian, MD, is used to caring for teenage patients with acne — and it helps that she was once one of them. “I first experienced acne after puberty,” she says. “I think it makes me more likely to view acne as a serious problem that deserves aggressive treatment to help clear patients’ skin and improve their self-esteem.” A course of Accutane when she was in her 20s improved her complexion and these days her breakouts are more hormonal in nature, cropping up on her chin in a monthly cycle. Dr. Kirkorian keeps her routine simple and makes an effort to limit her intake of simple carbs and skim milk (studies have shown a correlation between acne and skim milk consumption). “I do still have some whole milk in my coffee, but otherwise don’t have much dairy,” she says.
Cleanser: Dr. Kirkorian isn’t particular about her morning cleanser, but in the evening, she showers with Panoxyl Creamy Wash, a 4% benzoyl peroxide cleanser, to kill acne-causing bacteria.
Treatment: Dr. Kirkorian has a prescription for a topical retinoid, which can help with acne (in part by regulating skin cell turnover to help prevent clogged pores) and also boost collagen production.
Moisturizer and sunscreen: One perk of being a dermatologist? You get lots of freebies at industry conferences, says Dr. Kirkorian. She cycles between samples of moisturizer and sunscreen from some of her favorite brands: Cetaphil, CeraVe, Aveeno, Purpose, and La Roche-Posay. (These brands are known for their gentle formulas that won’t strip skin’s protective barrier, which can exacerbate acne.)
Extras: Dr. Kirkorian has had several in-office glycolic peels to help lighten the dark spots left behind by acne. The ingredient sloughs away dead skin cells, helping to brighten areas of discoloration.
Panoxyl Acne Creamy Wash 4% Benzoyl Peroxide
Caroline Robinson, MD
Hydrating her dry skin and treating hyperpigmentation are part and parcel of her acne routine.
Chicago-based, board-certified dermatologist Caroline Robinson, MD, got through high school and college relatively unscathed by acne, with just some blackheads and whiteheads on her cheeks and forehead. But after she got pregnant (she has two kids), the real battle began. “My skin seemed to change completely during and after my pregnancies,” she says. “I was drier in some areas, my breakouts were more inflamed, and I developed post-acne dark marks.” (She says one of the toughest things about acne during pregnancy is that she wasn’t able to use retinoids, so she kept things simple and focused on products that helped to protect the skin barrier.) Now, a prescription retinoid helps to keep her blemish-free and she focuses her routine on products that hydrate her dry skin and treat the post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation caused by her adult acne bouts.
Cleanser: Acne sufferers are already dealing with an impaired barrier, so a cleanser that doesn’t exacerbate that issue is a must, according to Dr. Robinson. Her go-to is Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Gel Cleanser Fragrance Free.
Treatment: In addition to a prescription retinoid (a tazarotene gel), Dr. Robinson is a big fan of skin-brightening antioxidant serums. Currently on her vanity: Skinbetter Even Tone Correcting Serum (“I love how lightweight the formula is and I have been through too many bottles of this stuff to count”) and Revision Skincare C+ Correcting Complex, which she calls “one of the most advanced vitamin C products on the market.”
Moisturizer: Dr. Robinson uses Humanrace Humidifying Face Cream. “This contains a blend of hyaluronic acid, squalane, and snow mushroom, and has been saving my face lately. It’s rich without being too greasy and it deeply hydrates,” she says.
Sunscreen: A mineral-based, high-SPF sunscreen that’s truly invisible? Dr. Robinson says she’s found it in Skinbetter Tone Smart Lotion SPF 75. “This is my go-to daily sunscreen because of its oil-free, creamy lotion texture and ability to blend beautifully on all skin tones.”
Extras: “The Pat McGrath Labs [Divine Skin Rose 001] Essence has quickly become one of my favorites,” says Dr. Robinson. “It has a beautiful, lightweight, milky texture that gives skin a gorgeous glow.” She also likes Revision Skincare D.E.J Eye Cream, a multitasker that addresses hyperpigmentation and texture concerns with a peptide and vitamin C.
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Fragrance Free Hydrating Cleansing Gel
SkinBetter Science Even Tone Correcting Serum
Revision Skincare C+ Correcting Complex
Humanrace Humidifying Face Cream
SkinBetter Science Tone Smart Lotion SPF 75
Pat McGrath Labs Divine Skin Rose 001 Essence
Revision Skincare D.E.J Eye Cream
Acne is hard — and when you’re an adult with acne, it can be especially frustrating when much of the information out there doesn’t take into account the nuances of treating it in adulthood. This story is part of Allure’s Adult Acne Guide, which includes the best tips and product recommendations for treating adult acne. From the products dermatologists use on their own breakouts to first-person reviews of the newest, most promising in-office treatments for stubborn hormonal acne, we’ve got you covered.