Last Updated on August 7th, 2019
Stubborn acne on cheeks can seem impossible to treat, but a few key lifestyle changes could actually do the trick. Unlike the forehead and nose, which are in the notoriously oily ‘T-zone,” the cheeks are part of the “U-zone,” which is typically drier. That doesn’t mean cheek acne is rare though. It just means oil is probably not the main culprit for acne on cheeks. It may even be the opposite; excessive dryness can lead to acne just as surely as excessive oiliness can. The good news is that acne on your cheeks often doesn’t require expensive treatments or additional products. If anything, you may actually want to use fewer products on your cheeks, or add one very simple product: a water-based moisturizer. This article will explain why a water-based moisturizer is best if you are acne-prone (or even if you aren’t!), explore what might be causing your cheek acne, and answer some frequently asked questions about acne on cheeks.
Article Table of Contents
If you have acne in your T-zone and your U-zone, you’ve probably noticed that they are very different, but if you’re new to T-zones or U-zones or even acne, let us explain. Your T-zone is an area of your face that includes the forehead and nose, and your U-zone is the complementing area, including your temples, cheeks, and chin. They are split up into separate sections primarily because of how your skin produces oil differently in those zones. The T-zone produces a significant amount of oil, or sebum, because it has the highest concentration of sebaceous glands2 anywhere on the body.
Sebaceous glands secrete sebum, and where there’s excess sebum, there’s sure to be acne as well. Sebum can clog pores and create blackheads and whiteheads, but it can also lead to pimples by providing more food for acne-causing bacteria, which consume sebum. Generally speaking, oil is heavily associated with acne.
So are you weird for having acne in your U-zone? Not at all! It is very common for people to get acne in their U-zone as well, it’s just caused by a different reason. There are relatively few sebaceous glands in the U-zone when compared to the T-zone, which can prevent pores from getting clogged by sebum, but the lack of oil can sometimes lead to its own problems. Oil can clog pores, but it also protects the skin from irritants and outside bacteria, so without it, the skin is vulnerable in many ways. When the skin is irritated it can become inflamed in order to protect itself, and this closes off the pore and traps dead skin cells and acne-causing bacteria under the surface, often leading to acne. Because the U-zone doesn’t have much extra oil to protect it from irritants, it is extra susceptible to irritation, inflammation, and acne.
Rosacea is a skin condition that can look very similar to acne sometimes, but it requires very different treatment, so it’s important to know the difference3. There are several kinds of rosacea with a variety of symptoms, but generally speaking, rosacea is a condition where the face can flare up with significant redness and sometimes swelling. People with rosacea are often more prone to blushing, and their blushes are often deeper and last longer. In some cases, blood vessels in the skin become visible and bright red, while in others, the eyes may become swollen and red. One common symptom of rosacea is acne-like breakouts. Unlike acne, though, it is not necessarily caused by inflammation, bacteria, or excess sebum.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes rosacea yet, but they have found that many people have triggers, or things that can worsen their rosacea. Some of the most common triggers4 are sun exposure, feeling emotional, spicy foods, and hot weather. Acne may be worsened by sun exposure and stress, but spicy foods and hot weather should have no effect on acne, so if you notice your “acne” worsening after a particularly hot dinner, you may want to talk to your doctor about rosacea.
Rosacea and acne often look alike, but it will help significantly in treatment if you know which one you’re dealing with. Rosacea responds much better to gentle treatments and there are a few oral medications that could help that are not usually prescribed for acne. Acne, on the other hand, usually requires ingredients that are too harsh for rosacea to really get rid of the acne. If you have rosacea and you’re using acne products to treat it, you may be making things worse. And if you have acne but are only using rosacea treatments, your acne will probably barely change at all.
One of the best ways to get rid of acne on cheeks is to take a look at what products you’re using on your face. Many skincare products aren’t very acne-friendly and there are all kinds of ingredients you should be on the lookout for.
Acne Treatment Products
Believe it or not, the products you use to treat your acne may be causing it. This is because many acne products are far too harsh. Acne treatments use chemicals designed to help kill acne-causing bacteria and exfoliate the skin5, which is great and effective, but many use too much of these chemicals in order to get rid of acne right away. The problem is, the acne will go away at first, but then it will return when the acne treatment starts irritating your skin.
The far better option is acne treatment products that take slightly longer to work, but treat your skin gently. Our favorite of these on the market right now is Exposed Skincare. They just do a good job of taking care of your acne and your skin (and your wallet).
Sunscreen and Makeup
Sunscreen is an essential part of skincare, especially if you have acne. Many acne medications, topical or oral, can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun and make you more susceptible to burns, so it’s important to use sunscreen every day, even if it’s cloudy. But you don’t want that sunscreen to clog your pores and lead to even more acne, so there are a few labels you should look for. If a product says it’s “non-comedogenic,” “non-pore-clogging,” or “oil-free,” it should be safe to use on acne-prone skin. Non-comedogenic just means non-pore-clogging, which usually means it’s oil-free or uses small amounts of oils.
Makeup works in much the same way. Many of us with acne find ourselves wearing makeup to cover our acne blemishes, but we have to be careful with what kind of makeup we use. Some makeup products can clog pores and just add to acne6. The best way to avoid this is to look for makeup that is non-comedogenic, non-pore-clogging, or oil-free. Makeup containing lots of oil is sure to clog your pores and generate more acne.
When using sunscreen or makeup, one other key way to prevent acne on cheeks is to remove them before going to bed, using a gentle facewash. Because sunscreen and makeup can be thick, it’s tempting to really scrub to get it off, but that will almost definitely make acne worse, especially on the cheeks because it is already more sensitive to irritation. It’s best to apply the facewash gently, making small circles with the pads of your fingers until there’s a nice lather, then rinse.
Another daily care product that could add to acne on cheeks is shaving cream. Many shaving creams contain sodium lauryl sulfate, the chemical responsible for the way shaving cream foams up. Sodium lauryl sulfate can also be found in toothpaste, shampoo and other person hygiene products, and it is known for irritating the skin7. Many shaving creams also contain fragrances, which are created by chemicals that can also irritate the skin. Because acne on cheeks is often caused by irritation, be on the lookout for products that contain sodium lauryl sulfate. For alternative shaving options, many shaving gels do not contain sodium lauryl sulfate and some brands offer fragrance-free options.
Cheek acne can be worsened by certain skincare products, but it can also be irritated by minor things in your daily life. The two biggest things you can change to reduce acne on cheeks are changing your sheets and pillow cases regularly and being careful not to touch your face too much.
When you sleep, oils and dead skin cells from your face transfer to your pillow case, and then when you lay your head down again the next night, those same oils and skin cells are transferred back to your skin. After too many nights, this process becomes bad for your skin and could cause more acne. If you can wash your sheets once a week or once every two weeks at the most, it could help reduce acne.
Another small way to improve acne is to avoid touching your face when you can help it. Many of us pick at our skin, run our hands over our face, or just rest our cheeks in the palms of our hands when we’re tired, bored, or stressed. This isn’t great for acne, because our hands contain all kinds of oils and bacteria, and if we touch our face in a way that irritates the skin (like picking or rubbing) it can get inflamed, trapping those oils and bacteria under the surface and creating a pimple. Try to pay attention to your little actions throughout the day, become aware of how often you pick at your skin to determine if it might be a factor in your acne.
One of the best solutions we can offer to help reduce cheek acne is a good water-based moisturizer. Keeping the skin hydrated and healthy can reduce inflammation, which should in turn reduce acne. We specify “water-based” because there are many moisturizers that are oil-based or even alcohol-based, and those will not help if you have acne. Moisturizers made with oil are much more likely to clog pores, and alcohol-based moisturizers are likely to irritate skin. A good water-based moisturizer, like Exposed Skincare’s Moisture Complex, can protect your cheeks from irritants, thus protecting them from acne.
We love to recommend DIY acne treatments because they’re a cheap and fun way to take care of your skin, but when it comes to cheek acne, it’s important to be careful with DIY. There are many household items that can supposedly help with acne that would actually be very bad for acne on your cheeks. Lemon, toothpaste, and baking soda, for example, should never be used on cheek acne because they will almost definitely irritate the skin even more, causing more inflammation and more acne. One home remedy we can always safely recommend (unless you are under 2 years old) is honey. Honey promotes antioxidants, helps with wound healing, kills bacteria, and reduces inflammation. Applying a small amount of pure honey to your cheeks each night can protect your skin and reduce your acne. If that’s a little too sticky for you, there is some research that proves that eating honey can also have positive effects for your skin8.
I looked up rosacea, and it seems like that’s what has been going on with my skin for years. My dermatologist always said it was acne, how do I ask for rosacea treatment instead?
Well, if you really think you have rosacea rather than acne, you may want to search for a different dermatologist. If you’re right, it’s very odd that your dermatologist didn’t catch it, and you may want a second opinion or just a doctor who is more observant. That isn’t a viable option for everyone though, so if you’re stuck with your current dermatologist and are wondering how to bring up the possibility of rosacea, we recommend coming to your visit prepared. Print out a few of the resources you found that make you think you are actually dealing with rosacea rather than acne, and highlight a few of the key sections about which symptoms you relate to.
Even though the dermatologist definitely should have noticed that it was rosacea before prescribing years of acne treatments, it’s best not to start with a confrontational tone. If possible, simply say that you were reading up on potential solutions for your cheek acne when you realized it might be rosacea. Ask if they’ve ever considered that diagnosis for you, and listen to what they have to say. There’s no clear-cut way to diagnose rosacea, so you’ll have to have an open conversation with your doctor. Don’t hesitate to explain why you think rosacea is a better explanation for your symptoms than acne, but also be sure to listen if the doctor says they disagree.
You and your doctor both want you to receive the best care possible, so it’s important to be honest about what you think is going on, but also to be open to disagreement. You know your body better than anyone, and the dermatologist knows skin conditions better than anyone, so together you should be able to come up with a solution.
Why do I mostly have acne on my cheeks and in the U-zone if it’s more common to get acne in the T-zone? My T-zone usually has less acne.
This is a pretty good indicator that you have a dry skin type. The main skin types are oily, normal, dry, and combination. Those with dry skin tend to have less oily T-zones and thus less acne in that area, but their U-zones are often very dry, leading to more acne in that area instead. Unlike people with oily skin, you are unlikely to benefit from strong exfoliation. Instead, gentle, moisturizing products are likely to help with your acne.
If you have acne in your U-zone and T-zone, you may have combination skin, which is skin that is both oily and dry. Your T-zone may be extra oily and your U-zone may be extra dry, causing acne in both places. Gentle products applied all over are usually best for combination skin, but you may want to apply a drying product to the T-zone if gentler products aren’t doing the job.
I didn’t realize how much I touch my face throughout the day! Got any tips for how to do it less?
This surprised us too, once we started paying attention! The first step is realizing how much you touch your face, but once you know, it can still be hard to stop. Some of our favorite tricks include mindfulness and sitting on your hands.
Mindfulness is all the rage right now because it really does help us slow down in a society that just gets busier and busier. Mindfulness is all about being in the moment and appreciating every action you take. Becoming more aware of your surroundings and making every action intentional may help prevent you from messing with your face. It’s simply a habit, usually borne out of boredom or tiredness, but if you focus on living in the moment, calmly, the urge to touch your face may pass.
Our other solution is slightly more childish, but it works in a pinch. If you’re really struggling to leave your face alone, you can always sit on your hands for a bit. This may be difficult if you’re sitting at your desk taking notes or typing a report, but if you’re in a meeting or at a lecture where you can just listen, sitting on your hands can prevent picking.
My acne is so much worse than everyone else’s. It’s not just on my cheeks, it’s everywhere all the time. What do I do?
Acne has a way of doing that, of making us feel incredibly alone, even though statistics show that nearly everyone has acne at some point9. But just because other people have it doesn’t mean they have it the way you do, and it doesn’t mean your acne is somehow not a big deal just because everyone else has it too.
Having acne can be very difficult, the research proves that. Because of the way the skincare industry talks about acne to get us to buy their products (calling acne “ugly,” “dirty,” or “embarrassing”) many of us internalize that shame, and it can lead to serious mental health issues, like low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. So don’t feel crazy if you’re upset by your acne, that’s exactly what the skincare industry wants.
Still, just knowing that it’s all a scam to get you to buy things doesn’t make all those feelings go away, and it’s not a crime to want clear skin. If your cheek acne has turned into all over acne, a prescription retinoid could help a lot. Retinoids like Retin-A or Tazorac contain concentrated forms of vitamin A that help increase skin cell turnover and keep skin healthy. Retinoids are a popular choice for moderate to severe acne, although they can be harsher than some other treatments and come with a few side effects.
We also recommend a gentle skincare routine. It can be tempting to try and scrub your acne away, but this always makes it worse because it irritates the skin, causing more inflammation. Treat your face and yourself gently. Physically ignore all the negative messages the media sends about acne. Change the channel, mute Spotify, do what you have to do because acne is not “gross,” “dirty,” or “ugly,” it is a normal skin condition that can get a little out of hand for some people. It’s okay to dislike your acne and want clearer skin, but you don’t have to listen to emotionally manipulative advertisements. That you can control.
To be your most trusted ally in your pursuit of clear, healthy skin.