Acne skincare: what to use and what to avoid5 minute read

New to the series? Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 first.

When you’re suffering from acne, it’s so tempting to believe that a miracle product exists.

Here’s how it goes: you see a product crop up on Instagram, you read about it in a magazine, or perhaps you just hear that something worked for a friend of a friend. You frantically get your hands on the product. You start using it and you’re full of hope. You don’t notice a difference straight away, but you figure it would be unreasonable to expect that.

A few more days roll by and you notice a change. Just as you think your prayers have finally been answered, your skin flares once more. Perhaps it’s just my skin purging, you think. Surely your skin will start to clear soon?

But with every day that passes, you start to feel a bit cheated. Your acne is still there.

After a few weeks, you’re fairly certain you’ve wasted your money. This product doesn’t work for you. You’re disappointed, and even a little desperate.

But the disappointment is soon overtaken by hope. A few days later you hear about another product…and the cycle continues.

Can skincare cure acne?

Good skincare can certainly help your acne, but it’s rarely enough to conquer it on its own.

In my book The Happy Skin Solution, I talk about the trap of ‘monotherapy’. That’s just a fancy word to mean ‘relying on one intervention’, be that a cream, a pill or even a new cleansing method.

The problem with acne is that it’s a multifactorial condition. It involves your gut, your immune system, your hormones, your skin microbiome and even your mind [1]. When you consider this, it’s obvious that one product can’t solve it all.

But this is wonderfully freeing. Once you realise that you don’t have to keep searching for that elusive miracle product, you open your mind to the fact that there’s so much you can start doing to support your skin today.

It’s an inside and an outside job. On the inside, you need to help your hormones, look after your liver and be kind to your gut. One the outside, you need to consider your skin’s pH, microbiome and inflammatory processes.

So, what does that mean for your skincare routine?

The Happy Skin Solution Cover

Skincare tips for acne

The good news is that the best products for acne-prone skin aren’t necessarily the most expensive. In fact, you can alleviate acne by choosing fewer products—and using them wisely.

You can read more about this in The Happy Skin Solution. For now, here are a few tips to get you started:


Look out for preservatives. These are designed to prolong a product’s shelf life by killing bacteria, but the problem is they can also wipe out friendly bacteria on your skin [2]. This can have a knock-on effect on acne. Common preservatives include:

– parabens (propylparabens, butylparabens, isopropylparabens, isobutylparabens)

– methylisothiazolinone (MI/MIT)

– methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI)

– benzisothiazolinone (BIT).

You can’t avoid all preservatives but you can choose products that make an effort to use fewer of them. Just as you would with food, get into the habit of reading products’ ingredients labels.

Get friendly with bacteria. Probiotic skincare is far from an exact science, but some people do find it helps to calm their skin. If you’d like to try probiotic skincare on the cheap, you can also apply natural, live yoghurt to your face, leave it for ten minutes and then rinse off. Although this isn’t yet supported by research, anecdotal accounts suggest it can help to calm acne. Please note, you shouldn’t apply yoghurt to your face if you have a dairy allergy.

Consider tea tree oil. One clinical trial found that tea tree oil was just as effective as benzoyl peroxide at reducing acne lesions, and it had far fewer side effects [3]. Never use tea tree oil neat on your skin. Instead, use a product that contains both tea tree oil and a carrier (such as aloe vera gel), as this would have been formulated with the dermal limit of tea tree oil in mind. Tea tree products can take a few days to work, but they’re a useful tool for minimising a new breakout.


Use soap. Your skin is happiest at a slightly acidic pH [4]. But most soaps and soap-based cleansers have an alkaline pH. This means that every time you wash your face with soap, you raise the pH of your skin for a few hours. If you continually wash your face with soap, you can induce a long-term change in your skin’s pH [5]. Look for the words ‘pH balanced’ on product labels, as this means the product’s pH is close to that of natural skin.

Overwash or over-exfoliate. A scientist in the 1930s discovered that when he washed his hands and arms, his skin microbial population decreased from 4.6 million to 1 million [6]. Wash your face as little as you feel comfortable with, or ideally no more than twice a day. Try not to exfoliate more than twice a week.

Use any oil on acne-prone areas. Some people swear by oil cleansing, but it isn’t always the best choice for acne-prone skin. Not only can some oils block pores, but they also contain substances that are pro-inflammatory when applied topically. Case in point: oleic acid in olive oil. Your skin’s immune system recognises this natural substance as a danger signal. Your immune cells start talking to each other to spread the message, starting a cascade of reactions that results in skin inflammation [7]. Experiment and see what works for you. If you use a facial oil and your skin hasn’t reacted, great. If you’re not sure, it can be worth replacing it with an oil-free moisturiser.

Skincare is just one piece of the acne puzzle, but it can be an important one. You don’t necessarily need the newest product or even the most luxurious one—you just need products that treat your skin with the kindness it deserves.

To learn more, get your copy of The Happy Skin Solution.

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Dr Thivi Maruthappu


Dr Thivi Maruthappu is the UK’s first and only dual-qualified Consultant Dermatologist and Nutritionist, and the pioneer of the (much-needed!) Nutritional Dermatology field. She runs busy NHS dermatology clinics, conducts academic research and delivers lectures worldwide. She’s also recently authored her first book, Skin Food, which aims to make holistic skincare accessible for everyone.



Porter magazine called her a ‘Global Skincare Expert’, and Caroline Hirons described her as ‘one of the best facialists in the world’. In the skincare industry, Marie Reynolds is in a league of her own. I had the privilege of experiencing one of Marie’s facials as a young journalist—and I can still remember every exquisite detail more than a decade later.

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