Do acne products make acne worse before it gets better? I’m so glad you’re here with me right now because this blog’s going to help you take back control of your acne. I know how it feels – you’ve found a new holy grail acne product – maybe it’s one you saw advertised, or one a friend recommended.
You’re crazy excited to use this new acne product. It promises to clear breakouts in weeks but you’re sure your acne’s getting worse.
But is that ok? Should an acne product make acne worse before it gets better?
The scientific answer is not black and white. There are grey zones we need to explore together. So take my hand because by the end of this acne help blog I’m going to have you feeling so much more confident and in control of your skin health.
Together we’ve got this.
Do Acne Products Make Your Acne Worse Before It Gets Better?
Ok, so first you must know there are 3 ways acne products can make your acne worse… and only one way happens before your acne gets better.
Imagine right now you’re at the gym. You’re working on mid-air leg raises (…what a coincidence, me too :)).
And so you’re strengthening your abs. You’re becoming the plank queen, you’re a pro at crunches and you’ve just added in some flutter kicks. Wahoo. You’re winning at this.
Tomorrow you wake up and your abs hurt – ouch.
You smile inside because you know these aches mean you killed it at the gym yesterday and new ab muscles are being born.
These aches are the good kind. An example of something getting worse before it gets better. Breaking down muscle fibres to rebuild them but this time stronger. Wahoo.
However, imagine a day at the gym when you’re pounding the crunches – maybe you’re late for meeting your bestie for drinks and so you crunch, crunch, crunch and OUCH. Your lower back pulls. You feel pain. It’s sharp and intense.
This pain is not the good kind, it’s a warning signal. A signal that something’s wrong. You should not push through this pain. This pain is your body telling you to stop, rest and re-assess.
The same is true of your acne my friend. But the challenge is – the good aches and the bad aches/pains can look the same in your skin. Acne that gets worse before it gets better in a good way can look exactly like acne that gets worse and stays worse.
But not if you know this…
Can Products Make Acne Worse?
Yes they can. Many acne products can make acne worse. There are 3 key ways acne products can make your acne worse…
- By causing an increase in your skin’s exfoliating rate which temporarily increases pore clogging (sometimes people call this purging)
- By irritating your skin (irritation can be a trigger cause of acne – an example is how masks caused acne for so many women during the COVID-19 pandemic – Maskne was real)
- By working against your ideal skin health (blitz-it acne products often do this, they can clear up some breakouts seemingly overnight, then 2-3 months later it feels like your new holy grail acne product has stopped working – I explain all about this inside my online acne healing course, Acne Warrior)
The first way acne products can make acne worse before your acne gets better is the ‘good’ kind. The kind that can be ok to ‘push through’ if you choose to. The kind that’s like waking up the day after the gym with achy abs that make you smile.
Why Are My Skin Care Products Making My Acne Worse?
The fact is when you have acne you have something called hyperkeratosis happening inside your pores. What a techy word eh. So fancy. But it’s really simple what hyperkeratosis means – hyperkeratosis simply means skin thickening inside your pores. This makes your pores prone to clogging and acne.
See here, this science quote tells you exactly what hyperkeratosis is;
hyperkeratosis occurs when keratinocytes or skin cells of the follicle become cohesive and don’t shed normally on the surface of the skinMedicinal Plants for Holistic Health and Well-Being, Academic Press, 2018, Pages 117-143
Psst – keratinocytes are the cells which make your skin (which is made of keratin).
It’s like someone got Pritt-Stick and slathered it all inside your pores.
Now – some acne skincare products help to confront, control and reduce hyperkeratosis in your pores. Wahoo. This helps to prevent pore clogging and breakouts. It’s like dissolving away the Pritt-Stick.
Acne products which help to reduce hyperkeratosis in your pores are speeding up your skin’s natural exfoliating rate (in science we call this skin cell turnover rate). This has amazing benefits long term because yes as part of a science-proven acne healing plan speeding up your skin’s exfoliating rate can help you get clear – wahoo – however short term – speeding up your skin’s exfoliating rate can clog your pores.
This means yes – acne products can make acne worse before it gets better.
This happens with products which speed up your skin’s exfoliating rate;
- Direct exfoliating products e.g. ones using salicylic acid or glycolic acid
- Retinoids e.g. retinol or Differin
Psst, you must know this if you’re serious about getting clear – skincare can’t do it all and you need to be following a science-proven acne diet too. Get started with your free copy of my acne diet cheatsheet – download yours here.
How Long Does Your Skin Purge Before It Clears Up?
The purging cycle can last for 2-3 months but you should definitely be seeing your acne getting way better in month 3.
If an acne product has thrown your skin into a purging cycle you’re likley to see a significant flaring of your acne within 1-2 weeks. This flare may continue for a further 1-2 weeks. But the awesome news is once you’re past this point your acne should be getting better. Your skin should be clearing.
But what should you do if your acne isn’t getting better?
Does Acne Treatment Make Acne Worse?
If your skin gets worse after starting a new acne treatment this could be a sign your new acne treatment is way too potent for your skin type. When an acne product is way too potent it causes irritation and irritation can be a trigger cause of acne.
Here are some warning signs your acne’s getting worse because a new acne product is irritating your skin:
- Your acne flared up overnight/within days/on day one of using your new acne product
- Your acne flare-up is way angrier than it usually is – red, hot, pink, swollen
- Your acne flare-up has continued for months and isn’t getting better (stop that new acne product right away)
Some acne products are like going from never having done abs day at the gym to doing 12 hours of back-to-back power burn abs workouts. You’re going to feel awful the next day and it’s not going to make you smile.
These are acne products you should skip: they’re not compatible with your skin type.
Does Acne Become Worse Before It Gets Better?
The final way your acne can become worse from acne products is if you’re using what I call a ‘blitz-it’ acne product that’s working against your skin’s natural biology. Yikes.
Drying lotions fit into this camp.
Drying lotions do lots of ‘bad things’ to your skin for quick acne-clearing results.
One of the bad things acne-drying lotions do is – drying out your skin. It’s in the name 🙂
When your skin gets dry, your skin’s pH level rises. Normally your skin’s pH level is around 4.2-5 – that’s its healthiest, happiest range. Wahoo.
But we know when your skin gets dry, your skin’s pH level rises. And we also know that…
P. acnes grows well in an environment with a pH range of 6.0~6.5, but when pH drops to 5.5, its growth noticeably decreases.Ann Dermatol. 2016 Apr; 28(2): 216–221.
Psst, p.acnes is acne bacteria and when your skin gets dry its pH easily gets to the 6-6.5 range. This means long term your skin gets super vulnerable to acne breakouts.
I teach you how to prevent this inside my online acne healing course, Acne Warrior.
Signs you’re using an acne product that is just plainly making your acne worse:
- Your new acne product worked for a month or two but now your acne feels even worse than before
- You saw immediate overnight results from this acne product in the beginning
- Your skin feels oily but also dry
- Your underlying skin health (i.e. hydration) feels worse than before you started using the new product
Do Acne Products Make Your Acne Worse Before It Gets Better?
You’re now armed with all you need to know to figure out if any new acne product you buy has a risk of making your acne worse before it gets better.
Let me talk you, real quick, through a few examples.
Say for example you’ve started using Proactiv. Your acne’s getting worse. You’re wondering does Proactiv make your skin worse before it gets better?
You look at the ingredients list of your Proactiv Solution Repairing Treatment and you see:
What I don’t see on this ingredient list are any exfoliating actives like salicylic acid or glycolic acid.
What I also don’t see are any retinoids like retinol.
But what I do see is benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide (and fragrance) – both can cause irritation and work against your skin’s long-term health. The most common side effect of using benzoyl peroxide is intense skin drying. This can make your acne worse long term.
Verdict: does Proactiv make your skin worse before it gets better? No – if your skin’s getting worse from using Proactiv Solution Repairing Treatment you should stop using it immediately.
Ok, so you’ve passed on the Proactiv Solution Repairing Treatment, you’ve just been ad-targeted on Facebook 🙂 and the internet gods now want you to buy Murads Outsmart Blemish Clarifying Treatment.
You look at the ingredients list and you see:
Did you see it? Salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid is a leave-on exfoliating liquid. It’s a direct exfoliating active – this means Murads Outsmart Blemish Clarifying Treatment has the potential to make your breakouts worse before they get better.
Verdict: does Murads Outsmart Blemish Clarifying Treatment make your skin worse before it gets better? Yes – it definitely has the potential to.
I hope you now feel so much more in control of your skin health. You have the power to understand if new acne products might make your acne worse before it gets better – and you also have the power to know when a new acne product just isn’t compatible with your skin.
Psst, if you want to make your acne better… before it just continues to get better and better 🙂 as well as setting yourself up with an acne-healing skincare routine your next step should be to start on a science-proven acne diet today. Get started by downloading your free copy of my 1-page acne diet cheatsheet here. It’s an acne diet scientifically shown to help reduce acne hormones.
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist, skin health expert & award-winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. Through her 1-2-1 services and video courses she’s here helping you get healthier, happier skin you feel comfortable, confident and like the freakin’ awesomesauce you are in. Select the option which best describes your skin health here to see and hear the amazing transformations you could be getting.