Proof the universe hates me: I’ve struggled with extremely breakout-prone skin since middle school, and we’re not talking the usual surface-level zits that Clean & Clear can take care of. Over the years I’ve had cystic acne and other kinds of deep-rooted pimples to the point where I had to take antibiotics and use Retin-A as a teen. Oh, and my skin scars super easily, so I always have various dark marks on my face.
While I’ve thankfully left the worst of it behind now that I’m in my 20s, my skin is still next-level breakout-prone. I am absurdly afraid of trying new products because no matter what, they almost always cause breakouts. The struggle only gets harder in the winter, too. You’d think my skin, which is super oily most of the year, would be better off in the cold, but somehow it still gets dry AF in winter.
Come November or December, all the stuff I usually rely on to keep my blemishes semi under control is useless. My beloved acids just make my skin red and destroy its natural barrier, the go-to light-textured gels are nowhere near hydrating enough and my face becomes an angry mess with dry patches everywhere. Dr. Sonya Abdullah, Medical and Cosmetic Dermatologist at Dermatology on Bloor in Toronto, explains that if skin is over-exfoliated in winter, it can become irritated, red, tight, flakey and dehydrated with more prominent-looking fine lines. Following with a moisturizer containing moisturizing all-star ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides or glycerin is essential. The challenge is finding the right balance of products for acne-prone skin.
After more than a year of looking for solutions, including detailed research into products, happy accidental discoveries and lots of testing, I’m happy to say I’ve found a routine that works for me. It’s not 12 steps or anything, but it’s also not a quick fix. You have to commit.
Full disclosure: This routine works well for me. I can’t guarantee how your skin will respond, because we’re all special snowflakes (obligatory winter pun). But I can tell you that I am absolutely obsessed with ingredients. Years of persistent, severe acne has instilled in me a paranoia about what’s in my products, reading ingredient labels and Googling everything I don’t know just to be safe. So it’s fair to say at least some part of this routine will work out for you.
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Some people don’t wash their skin at all in the morning, but I’ve found that my skin gets flaky during the day if I don’t. Dr. Abdullah says that year-round, using non-soap cleansers around a pH of 5 is ideal to avoid stripping the skin. I use a little bit of the Fresh Soy Face Cleanser because of its moisturizing texture—I worried the soybean oil in it would clog my pores, but it’s proven safe. It’s not drying, but it’s not one of those cleansing milks or other products that leave residue and clog skin.
At night, I do what probably counts as a double-cleanse. I use the Bioderma Sensibio Micellar Water to remove sunscreen and any makeup, but I don’t let it sit on my face. Immediately after, I use the Drunk Elephant Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser, spending at least 20 to 30 seconds really going at it and trying to get into the crevices around the nose, etc. I’ve been using it since the summer and it’s a gel texture, so I thought it might be too drying in winter, but it has a tiny bit of oil in it that keeps it from stripping my skin. And honestly, the gel-ness of it makes my face feel cleaner.
I know I said acids screw up my skin in winter, and they do, but I’m too breakout-prone to not use any at all. I can’t use salicylic acid day and night like I do in summer, and I can’t even use it every night without drying my face out, so I cut down to every two or three nights. “Winter skincare means adapting use of drying or exfoliating ingredients,” says Dr. Abdullah. “This can be done in a number of ways—reducing the frequency of use, pairing it with a more intense hydration protocol or switching ingredients altogether.”
Paula’s Choice CLEAR Extra Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution is the best IMO because it’s not filled with alcohol and actually made with green tea, an antioxidant. (It also comes in regular strength). Salicylic acid provides enhanced penetration into the oil gland to fight acne, has bacteria-fighting properties and even fights hyperpigmentation, so it’s my go-to.
I hate to waste product, so rather than using a cotton pad I literally dump a bit onto my fingers or face after cleansing and drying. I don’t put it on areas around my mouth because that’s my driest area. And side note: The brand’s RESIST Advanced Pore-Refining Treatment is a low-key saviour when it comes to deep-rooted zits because of its higher beta-hydroxy acid concentration. It’s technically meant to improve skin texture, but I find dabbing just a bit on an incoming cystic zit can really keep it at bay—it won’t cure it for good, though, and if you use too much it might make your skin flaky, so be careful. “At higher strengths, [salicylic acid] can certainly induce flaking or exfoliation, especially in the winter,” warns Dr. Abdullah.
If I leave my skin too long after washing, it dries out fast. Dr. Abdullah also says that applying moisturizers when the skin is still damp helps lock in moisture, so I don’t quite dry my face all the way before moving on with my routine using the First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Wild Oat Hydrating Toner. When you think “toner,” you probably think of those awful concoctions full of alcohol or other drying ingredients that claim to clear breakouts. That’s not what this is. It’s closer to a lotion (a light, hydrating fluid) and has all the good stuff: squalane, oat extract, licorice root extract, feverfew extract and more.
“Oatmeal [has a] soothing effect on the skin. It is also known to stimulate ceramide production, which are essential components to the skin barrier,” says Dr. Abdullah. “Licorice root extract is a great ingredient to treat hyperpigmentation.” But she warned that both feverfew and squalane should be used with some caution. While feverfew is calming, it is also an allergen for some people and can cause irritation if you have hyper-sensitive skin. Squalane is great for dry skin, but it can trigger acne in oilier skin types—I haven’t had this problem with the toner, luckily, but I avoid using pure oils on my skin.
OK, The Plant Base Time Stop Collagen Ampoule is the hero product of my life. I found it on SoKo Glam last year when I was desperately browsing the serums for something that seemed like it would hydrate without causing breakouts. The ingredients looked good, so I took a gamble, and it paid off bigtime. This stuff is hydrating AF—it’s thicker than other serums, and it feels like a non-occlusive protective layer. It makes my skin look glow-y, which is tough to do in winter. Warning, though: It has a teensy bit of retinol in it, so don’t go overboard.
An alternative is the First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Hydrating serum, which has a texture more like a clear gel moisturizer. It’s less hydrating but sometimes I’ll use both this and the Plant Base serum at the same time.
When it comes to serums for dry acne-prone skin, Dr. Abdullah says to “look for water-based preparations containing active ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and ceramides.”
“If using an oil-based serum, mineral oil is non-comedogenic but many others may trigger acne or other types of inflammation,” she says. “Lastly, [be careful] with ingredients such as Vitamin E and squalene, which are sebum inducers and drive acne.”
I still haven’t found the perfect winter moisturizer. All the richer ones have heavier ingredients like shea butter or other guaranteed breakout triggers, so instead I modify the one I use in summer. Any person as mired in skincare canon as I am will tell you CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion has a sterling rep, and I can confirm the rumours are true. It’s filled with ceramides, and it’s just a bit heavier than a gel texture. “Ceramides are a natural and essential component of the skin barrier,” Dr. Abdullah told me. “They are part of the mortar between the bricks that make up the protective layer of the skin. When functioning properly, [they] ensure that moisture is retained within the skin and that irritants are unable to enter.”
In winter, I put two pumps of the CeraVe on the back of my hand and mix it with a small drop of The Ordinary’s Pycnogenol, a high-potency antioxidant that is beyond moisturizing. If my skin is extra dry, I might do three pumps of moisturizer or two drops of Pycnogenol.
I’ll only use mineral sunscreens because, as Dr. Abdullah explains, they’re generally less irritating than chemical-based ones. I have spent so much money and time trying different ones that caused white casts, stung my eyes, smelled weird or didn’t provide adequate protection. But I’ve finally found my holy grail: Skinceuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense.
How do I love it, let me count the ways. It’s watery and light, it doesn’t smell strong, it has a slight tint to offset the white cast, it doesn’t cause breakouts for me and it leaves the subtlest sheen that makes your skin look healthy. It contains zinc oxide, which offers both UVA and UVB protection, though it also needs to be reapplied more often because it’s less resistant to water or sweat—no lie, I only apply once in the morning, but it’s better than nothing.
Miraculously, the Skinceuticals worked in summer when my skin was an oil slick and it’s still working fine now when temps dip far below zero. I don’t know if it would leave a cast on darker skin (my skin is a warm-toned beige), but this reviewer writes that the initial grey cast disappears if you rub it in a bit.
And there you have it: my dry acne-prone winter skincare routine. My life is still a mess, but my face is a damn diamond.