Let us be frank. Harsh ingredients — like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid — might have had a place in your skincare regime when you were fifteen. But now that you’re decidedly not in your teens, it might be time to rethink how your skin may be responding to products designed to wage war on oily teenage skin.
We polled you, our community, to see what “burning” acne questions you have (see what we did there?). One question we received about harsh products struck us. We reached out to our chief dermatologist, Dr. Robin Schaffran, for her expert answer.
Dear Dr. Schaffran:
Can months of damaging the skin barrier with harsh products cause cystic acne?
“Cystic acne is almost always a result of hormonal influences combined with some genetic predisposition,” Dr. Schaffran explains. In fact, cystic acne typically has little to do with damage to the skin barrier. There are many things that can influence hormones such as stress, illness, and, some research argues, diet. However, a damaged skin barrier results in rashes, irritation and burning/stinging/peely skin, but not cystic acne.
While a damaged skin barrier doesn’t cause cystic acne, Dr. Schaffran warns what it can do is make any existing cystic acne more noticeable, calling more attention to those pimples. When your skin barrier is damaged, causing red, peeling skin, you may also be less likely to apply sunscreen since your face is so irritated, making you more prone to sunburns. And we all know that sun damage is never a good thing.
If you have cystic acne, you should think twice before applying harsh ingredients (like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid) to your face. So what should you use? Dr. Schaffran recommends products containing Bixa Orellana seed extract, a plant-derived ingredient clinically proven to reduce sebum production (read: pore-clogging oil), and squalane, which strengthens your skin barrier while balancing oil on the skin. Both are key ingredients in ClearBalm’s 3-Step System, which Dr. Schaffran formulated to target inflammation and oil gland overproduction in cystic acne without irritating the skin.
In short, prolonged use of harsh products on your skin can cause damage to your skin barrier, presenting as rashes, peeling, and irritation. It can also draw attention to any cystic acne you may already have—so opt for a calming yet powerful plant-based option.