Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

How to Treat Acne on Sensitive Skin Without Making Everything Worse

By Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

When it comes to curing acne, sensitive skin requires sensitive treatment. 💡 Acne remedies that work well on resistant skin can make acne on sensitive skin worse, especially ingredients that are added to make a formula seem organic, herbal, and natural.

Acne treatments can make acne worse on sensitive skin, so be sure to select products with mild concentrations.


  • Sensitive skin responds to harsh treatment by making oil.
  • The wrong acne treatment on sensitive skin can make acne worse.
  • You can tell whether you have sensitive skin by reactions of your skin to ☀️🧼🧴 fragrances, sun, laundry products, and alcohol.
  • If you have sensitive skin, it is very important to use only very mild concentrations of benzoyl peroxide.
  • If you have sensitive skin, you will have probably have more problems with brown spots left after acne heals than you will have from acne itself.
  • Certain lightening products can make brown spots darker if used on sensitive skin.
  • Certain common acne treatments can make pimples worse if used on sensitive skin. 📝 This article lists alternatives that work.

Sensitive skin is a type of skin that is highly reactive to stress. When we undergo mental or physical stress, the pituitary gland in the brain releases a hormonal messenger known as corticotrophin stimulating hormone to activate the adrenal glands. When the skin undergoes stress, it also releases corticotrophin stimulating hormone to sebum glands.

Sensitive skin responds to stress by making oily sebum. Corticotrophin stimulating hormone also instructs mast cells in the skin to release histamine. This is the same chemical that causes allergies. In sensitive skin, it’s possible to have an allergic reaction without coming in contact with an allergy-inducing substance. Sensitive skin is “allergic” to stress. And it responds to stress by becoming red, itchy, irritated, and oily.

How to Tell Whether You Have Sensitive Skin

How can you know whether you have sensitive skin? Here are some reliable indicators:

  • You get 🔴🔴 bright red pimples on your face.
  • Makeup, toners, astringents, exfoliants, and sunscreen sting or burn when you put them on your face.
  • Any kind of jewelry other than 14-karat gold makes you break out (anywhere you place it on your body).
  • You have been diagnosed with rosacea.
  • Your friend tells you 🧑🏽‍🤝‍🧑🏽 that you must have rosacea.
  • Using bubble bath, moisturizer, shampoo, or massage oil with fragrances added makes your skin feel dry or itchy or makes you break out.
  • Using scented laundry sheets or static control sheets in your dryer makes you feel itchy or makes your skin break out.
  • Coming in from cold air to a warm room makes your skin break out, especially in the middle of your face.
  • Drinking hot beverages or eating spiced food ☕🌶️ makes your skin break out.
  • You get pimples instead of sunburn when you are out in the sun, or when your skin gets hot.
  • Anger and embarrassment make your face and neck red.
  • People ask you if you are sunburned, even if you are not. 🔆 Or you really are sunburned all the time (which is not a good thing).

If three or more of these characteristics apply to you, chances are that you have sensitive skin. And it’s also possible that you have rosacea.

The Difference Between Rosacea and Common Acne

Rosacea is a condition of skin inflammation that begins in blood vessels, not in pores. People who have rosacea tend to have weak capillaries, especially in the skin of the face over the cheeks, on the nose, and around the eyes. When these tiny blood vessels expand to cool the blood, they begin to leak. This makes the skin red in tiny dots around the leak. If this happens too many times (usually over a period of years) the skin can develop lumpy scar tissue around repeated leaks, giving the skin, especially the skin of the nose, a bumpy, lumpy kind of disfigurement known as rhinophyma.

Trying to get oil out of your pores won’t do you any good if you have rosacea. But trying to get oil out of your pores won’t do you any good if you have common acne on sensitive skin, either.

All you will accomplish by using harsh chemicals or detergent treatments of either rosacea or common acne on sensitive skin is stimulating even more redness and even more sebum production. It’s possible to have both common acne and rosacea—which is the likely result of treating rosacea with the methods used to treat acne on resistant skin. Sensitive skin requires sensitive handling.

How to Take Care of Sensitive Skin

Many people who have sensitive skin have a problem with acne, but they are more likely to be concerned about spots left behind once acne heals. If you have sensitive skin, your skin overreacts to inflammation. The melanin pigment that darkens the skin also protects it against free radicals and inflammation. If you have sensitive skin, chances are you will have brown spots in your skin left over from its fight against inflammation long after the acne inflammation goes away. 👧🏽👦🏿 The darker your skin, the more prominent the spots.

Minimizing inflammation minimizes discoloration of the skin. Here is what you need to to prevent lasting reminders of acne flares long after they have healed:

  • If a product makes your skin tingle, itch, turn red, or burn, just don’t use it. This means you may not be able to use any prescription strength benzoyl peroxide formulas at all, although you may be able to use up 2.5% benzoyl peroxide in an over the counter product.
  • If a product contains scents, fragrances, herbal essences, or essential oils, just don’t use it. Almost any botanical ingredient can irritate sensitive skin.
  • Avoid frequent sun exposure. Tanning the skin builds up melanin, which concentrates into spots to fight inflammation that comes with either common acne or rosacea.
  • Don’t bother with alpha-lipoic acid (often used to treat raised acne scars) or diethylaminoethanol (DMAE, often used to treat indented acne scars). Your skin won’t tolerate them, and they will at best replace acne scars with brown spots. It is easier to conceal scars than spots.
  • Don’t use skin lighteners that contain hydroquinone or vitamin C. These may cause unintended spotting of the skin. Use skin lighteners that contain arbutin and/or kojic acid. These will not cause unintended spotting of the skin.

And what about day-to-day skin care if you have active acne on the skin?

A good product for keeping the skin clean is Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash, Redness Soothing Facial Cleanser. 👍🏻👍🏽👍🏿 If (and only if) you don’t experience any kind of redness, irritation, or peeling of the skin after using the product, you may use up to 10% benzoyl peroxide gels as a spot treatment for pimples, but you should not use more than 2.5% benzoyl peroxide over your entire face. You should also not use tea tree oil over your entire face, although a dot of 10% tea tree oil cream (it has to be about 10% to do you any good, just smelling like tea tree oil is not enough) will often take the red out of pimples while it kills acne bacteria.

Whatever you do, don’t place hot steamy washcloths or ice cubes on a pimple. Heat and cold damage blood vessels and can make redness worse—and permanent.

You can cover up pimples with concealer you apply with a feather brush to the skin. Place a tiny bit of yellow concealer, less than the size of a pea, on the back of your recently washed hand. Add a tiny amount of:

  • Neutrogena On-the-Spot Acne Treatment, Vanishing Formula, or
  • ProActiv Advanced Blemish, or
  • Kinerase Clear Blemish Remover

and work them together. Apply the mixture of concealer and pimple treatment to the pimple with the brush, and then use your clean fingers to smooth out the edges of concealer on the skin around your pimple. Be sure to remove the concealer at night to help pores stay open.

Comments 20
Comments (20)
Add Comment
Kelly s Reply

Can you tell me how effective salicylic acid is on sensitive skin. I've been advised to use it in the am ( in a moisturizer ) and a benzo peroxide product at night.

April 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm Reply
Izzie Reply

I have tried several different types of OTC products for acne, even those that say 'for sensitive skin.' Nothing works. I'm a woman, who's had 2 kids, I'm almost 30, and I still break out like a 15 year old boy. I have narrowed down to a few shampoo/conditioner/body wash products that don't really cause it to get worse, but if doesn't help it to get better at all. Like fit instance, I can use some Pantene products and Caress body washes, but not all of products of those brands. Most of the and products, even the Neutrogena oil free acne wash doesn't work, they seem to make it worse. Scents, perfumes and dyes don't bother my skin though, I can use just about any laundry detergent, perfume, etc... My face gets it worst, and if I'm not careful about washing and conditioning my hair first before I wash my body, my back and shoulders and sometimes even my thighs break out as well. Please help!

August 10, 2015 at 5:46 am Reply
Nour Reply

I know I'm not an expert but I would ask your dermatolgist if BP gel 5% benzoyl perxiode is for you or you should try lower percentage of something else.

February 22, 2017 at 12:07 pm Reply
keth Reply

you might wanna your body's acidity levels and switch to natural alkalizing foods that clear acid and toxins from your body, as well as using natural mild products like natural oils and butters....clear away synthetic and processed things from your diet and the products you use

September 3, 2017 at 8:19 pm Reply
Ken Reply

@izzie: I feel you, I'm 21 and I still break out like crazy. I tried neautrogena oil free wash as well and it made my skin worse. I went to a dermatologist recently and they told me to use the least amount of products possible to cleanse my face and to use GENTLE cleanser on it. Neutrogena makes a face wash called ultra gentle daily cleanser and it's the foaming formula. It works REALLY well so far. In the AM, I use that and Olay Complete for sensitive skin moisturizer with SPF 15 and that's it. For night, I wash again with the same cleanser, a prescription topical antibiotic (which I haven't picked up yet actually), and neutrogena on the spot vanishing cream. It's only been a day and my skin looks much better, even without the prescription. Try it!

August 14, 2015 at 5:16 pm Reply
Kay22 Reply

This doesn't really help me to be honest. I have sensitive skin prone to vicious hormonal cysts but only occasionally. The only way to prevent this as I can not tolerate (due to health problems any hormonal drug therapy & Drs don't prescribe antibiotics long term for my type acne) is some type of topical Ie retinoids, BP, salicylic acid, or azalea can acid - all potentially irritating evn at low concentration. If I don't use these i get the odd deep cyst which scar badly so I'm lost as to what we are supposed to do with sensitive skin and anything worse than "spots".

September 19, 2015 at 5:19 pm Reply
neha Reply

I am in same situation kay, i used BP & retionoids 2.5 but getting worse and cannot have antibiotic and other medications for long term have you ever tried chemical peeling ??

July 14, 2016 at 12:21 pm Reply
artista Reply

I have SUPER sensitive skin and I sometimes end up with "Burns" on my face from too-strong acne treatments. My skin is pretty oily, too. My dermatologist recommended the Citrus Clear products - OMG I love them! They literally work overnight and it doesn't burn, sting or leave marks on my face like some in the past have.

September 24, 2015 at 8:17 pm Reply
pinky Reply

I have always had really really sensitive skin and have found that I can use Clinique super gentel face wash every other day on it (I think its clinique 2?). If I use it every day it dries my skin out though. That's the closest I've gotten. The neutrogena oil free acne wash definitely is too harsh and makes my skin worse. If I feel that my skin is too dry after I wash it I use clinique moisture surge and sometimes a little aloe vera (definitely make sure your skin responds well to aloe vera before putting it on your face). Tea tree oil does seem to help with some spot treatment, but I have to use the gentlest stuff I can find. I have a friend who swears by menuka honey, but I haven't tried it yet.

October 11, 2015 at 1:10 am Reply
deepika Reply

tiz is very good solution 4 me. my skin is problematic tats way i cannot use any makeup items or eat seafood items

November 25, 2015 at 3:15 pm Reply
andaridian Reply

I have sensitive with acne skin. I knew this since my doctor suggested to use very mild treatment. Well, I recently noticed that I DO have high sensitivity toward stress. Everytime I stress out, I will break out. They are deep acnes with white head, itchy, disturbing and a lot. I really hate this since my skin never absen of their existance. I use physiogel cleanser to clean my face and acne feldin for couple hours a day. I have a little progress yet I still want clear skin. I want to impress my fiance's family and coleagues.

January 29, 2016 at 11:26 pm Reply
Lizbeth Reply

I need help in finding out what I can use for my skin. I bought clenique and my face got an allergic reaction to it. I got a lot of little pimple type on my face. I stopped using it because it just made my face not feel good. Yesterday I bought 'Bioré' I thought I was going to work really good because it actually made my face feel clean. And I have never felt my fave so clean and nice. But I'm braking out again... I don't know if a have sensitive skin or not. I just need advice on what I should do.

February 7, 2016 at 7:30 am Reply
Gav Reply

I've been using Duac prescribed by my GP to combat acne; and it works! I am unfortunately though left with red scarring - not too bad, but not too good either. I have oily, Mediterranean type skin and I think this contributes a lot to my acne. I ensure to keep fit and only drink water every day. However I occasionally smoke which makes the acne appear again. Does anyone else experience this? And does anyone have a solution for eridicating acne scarring/red skin? Thank you - G

March 13, 2016 at 10:56 pm Reply
doyin Reply

Am battling with acne sometimes my face get clear and sometimes I react to the product I use my face turns red or it start peeling, M tired I don't know what do do again, please help me

February 20, 2017 at 7:45 pm Reply
Echo Reply

Hey my dermatologist recommended me to use these products: acne soap,anti biotic astringent and a refining solution. All of these stings and makes my face appear very red especially when its hot. She told me to use those products twice a day and she told me that i cant be exposed to sunlight because it will make my face more redish. But the products is doing its job, my pimples is slowly getting removed but my only problem is the redness.

March 12, 2017 at 4:13 am Reply
Michaela Palmer Reply

I have had acne before but my skin is so sensitive that sometimes i get red bumps all over my face. My dermatologist says they dont have anything in them but I dont know the best way to get rid of them. Please let me know if you have any suggestions!

September 12, 2017 at 10:16 pm Reply
Trina Reply

Same here :(. I had bad acne before and somehow got rid of it for about 2 years and now everythings back. Im not sure what triggered it this time. Everything I use from the store burns my face like crazy. Ive been using ghe Johnsons & Johnsons head to toe wash. Baby stuff is the only thing that doesnt kill my skin and makes my face less red.

October 9, 2017 at 12:28 pm Reply
Carmen R Reply

Thanks for this article ❤️

November 4, 2017 at 4:36 pm Reply
Charity Reply

I just started using castel soap kirks,ad eusurn for moisturizer the shea butter at night.I have sensitive skin it burns and I have red bumps. Can any one recommend a body and and face cleaner that works.Including moisturizer that works.I really need help.Doctor said to use dove but wasn't cleaning good and drying.She recommend eucurin not sure yet about that one.Oh I like coconut oil except it dry s my skin out on my face .

April 3, 2018 at 4:35 pm Reply
Courtney Reply

I used to get very bad acne and have super sensitive skin. I used Neutrogena and it didn’t work. I’ve used avenno and that also didn’t work. Also clean and clear. I then found proactive + which is 3 steps. When I apply it My face turns bright red and burns. Although it keeps my acne away well. I wake up very puffy and dry. During the afternoon my fave usually gets very oily and bright red and hot. Do I continue to use Proactive since it is working for my acne? Or should I consider something else?

June 11, 2018 at 9:13 pm Reply