Best Acne Products for Sensitive Skin and Low Humidity Climates

Cynthia Bailey, MD|December 6, 2016

blog where you can ask a dermatologist questionsHi Dr. Bailey,

I'm using salicylic acid 1.5% and it doesn’t exfoliate very well. It just barely loosens surface dead skin. Are the alpha hydroxy acids better for that? (I'm thinking of the lower concentrations) because I'm sensitive. I read that SA just dissolves the top layer and AHA remodels the stratum corneum so they work differently and it sounds like AHA would make skin look better if that info is correct (is that right?). Also, what do you recommend for a person with acne prone skin who needs hydration and worries about breaking out with suspect moisturizers? (I don't want a product that leaves skin dehydrated in low humidity like some products do that are just humectants alone where hydration evaporates quickly. PCA Hydrating Serum is a great one. I've been through tons and finally found one safe for acne prone skin and effective at keeping my skin hydrated being in air conditioning all day. ~ Lisa


Dear Lisa,

This is a great topic about how to build the best complete acne skin care routine for sensitive skin in low humidity and dry climates.

First things first, take a look at my Acne Advice pages. You will find a lot of information there about how I use products to treat acne for different skin types. I talk about how to pick the best moisturizers for breakout-prone skin. One product that my acne prone patients love is my Instantly Luminous Multi-Action Serum. Similar to the PCA Serum that your skin loves, my Luminous Serum has glycerin and hyaluronic acid. It has much more - none of which breaks out skin - including sodium PCA (a natural component of skin that binds moisture), tons of varied molecular weight hyaluronic acid and glycerin. This means that it's full of pharmaceutically pure and stable water-binding ingredients to fight that dehumidified, dry air conditioned air.

I typically start people with sensitive skin on the 2%/2% combination of salicylic acid (SA) and glycolic acid (GA) together for their synergy, in my Salicylic and Glycolic Acid Acne Treatment Pads. I find that combination of SA and GA helpful when used as both a cleanser and as 'toning' pads. Since acne prone skin is notorious for breaking out from time to time even when using the best skin care, I tell my patients to treat any new pustules with my 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide Treatment Cream. Extremely acne prone areas of the face are also nicely controlled by daily application of 2.5% benzoyl peroxide (BP) cream after toning with the pads. This 2.5% benzoyl peroxide strength is the sweet spot for BP acne treatment; it is unlikely to irritate sensitive skin, but is well proven to control the acne causing bacteria, p. acnes.  The Instantly Luminous Serum is non-comedogenic and thus also ideal for acne prone skin.

You are right that Salicylic Acid is not as helpful as Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) at exfoliating and changing the stratum corneum. Salicylic Acid is great at getting through oil, and therefore is a great help for keeping pores clean. That said, I find AHAs much better at brightening the complexion and dislodging black heads.

The product combination of glycolic/salicylic acids and benzoyl peroxide is the basis of my Ultimate Acne Kit. These products are also available individually if a person needs only one product to control their acne skin problems. I always recommend that people with dry skin and acne prone complexions, or who are exposed to low ambient humidity for long periods of time, use a non-comedogenic moisturizer on the drier areas of their complexion. The ideal solution is to layer my Daily Face Cream for Normal to Oily skin on top of their acne treating products. During sunlight hours, it is also important to layer a high-tech zinc sunscreen. I recommend one that is entirely oil free such as my Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreen.

Thus, the complete skin care routine for acne in low humidity, dry air conditions would include products for the 4 essential steps of a Complete Skin Care Routine:

  1. Cleanse (With the Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser containing 2% SA/2% GA to both brighten and treat)
  2. Correct (With the 2% SA/2% GA Acne Treatment Pads)
  3. Hydrate (With the Instantly Luminous Serum applied to the entire face. If needed, spot treat a breakout with the Benzoyl Peroxide 2.5% Treatment Cream. Additional moisture can be created by applying my Daily Face Cream for Normal to Oily Skin)
  4. Protect (With a final layer of Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreen)

This Complete Skin Care Routine is both acne treating and anti-aging, plus it locks in moisture, even in low humidity. It is the basis for healthy and attractive skin now and for years to come. It combines powerful acne fighting treatment with high tech skin hydrators and the best sun protection technology available today. These products blend pharmaceutically pure ingredients into stable formulas so that you can trust that the active ingredients are working to help your skin.  And finally, know that this skin care routine will feel good on your skin. I have designed my complete skin care routines to layer on smoothly, because it's important that your skin feels as good as it looks.

I hope that helps, Lisa. Thank you for sending such a great question that many people have.


Cynthia Bailey, MD Board Certified Dermatologist


Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only. 

Dr. Bailey great information! one thing with AHA’s what is the difference in results for example 5% aha ph 3.5 in leave on product versus 5% aha ph 3.5 in a cleanser. is contact time a factor for exfoliation ? how long does that acid work on skin before self neutralizing ? thank you

By vivian on 2016 12 07

Hello Vivian, There is a lot of interest in this question right now. I am planning a big treatise on AHAs, I need to get on that! Leave on products are more powerful as water removes AHAs. Contact time is a factor and it also matters what strength. When we peel skin with, for example, 50% it will keep peeling if we don’t neutralize it once stinging starts. Every complexion is different relative to penetration and neutralization and it also varies with product and/or what is layered next or under. Good news is you can see AHAs change skin within a week or so to get feedback on efficacy.

By Cynthia Bailey, MD on 2016 12 15

hi Dr. Bailey!

what about salicylic acid cleansers like 1%. what effect do they have a unclogging pores and exfoliating surface with short contact time vs leave on? since lipid soluble does water rinsing effect it like AHA?

second, is topical squalane acengenic ( not squalene) ?

thank you!!

By nicole on 2016 12 16

Hello Nicole,
Sal acid can be used as cleanser and it helps unclog pores. there is product residual after rinsing for most products such as the Foaming Acne Wash of mine. Leave on is always best but we use washes all the time with success. Squalane is considered comedogenic. I am going to write a post on comedogenicity soon. Thanks for the motivation to move that up the list.

By Cynthia Bailey, MD on 2016 12 19

Dr Bailey

I am confused on the using the illuminating serum alone. it only has humectants in it. not a small amount of a occlusive to trap the humectants. I read humectants alone in low humidity increase tewl.
does that mean then the serum will have to be reapplied throughout the day then for skin to stay hydrated? not every 12 hours?

By nick on 2017 01 17

Hello Nick, you are talking about the humectant ‘borrowing’ water from the skin to balance the lack of it in humid climates I believe. It is an interesting idea. Layer a more occlusive emollient or sunscreen on top and that will stop the transfer or ‘borrowing’ of epidermal water to hydrate atmospheric dehumidified air. Load the skin with water first by cleansing, apply the serum, layer with the Day Cream and/or a sunscreen with occlusive ingredients such as the dimethicone family.

By Cynthia Bailey, MD on 2017 01 18

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