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Acne on Dry Skin: Causes, Treatments and Prevention

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/03/2020

Dealing with acne breakouts? Acne is extremely common, affecting tens of millions of adults in the United States every year.

Although acne is commonly associated with skin that’s too oily, it’s far from uncommon to get whiteheads, blackheads, pimples and other types of acne when you have dry skin.

Luckily, both dry skin and acne are treatable, with a large variety of over-the-counter products and prescription medications available to keep your skin moisturized, healthy and free of acne, all at the same time. 

Below, we’ve explained how dry skin and acne can develop, as well as the factors that may contribute to your skin issues. We’ve also explained what you can do to treat both issues and enjoy smooth, healthy, blemish-free skin throughout the year.

How Acne Develops

Acne develops when the hair follicles, or pores, in your skin become blocked due to a buildup of sebum and dead skin cells .

Sebum is a type of oil that’s secreted by your sebaceous glands. It’s important for keeping your skin hydrated, protected and healthy. When your sebaceous glands secrete too much sebum, it can build up on the surface of your skin and cause your pores to become blocked. 

Dead skin cells can also build up on the surface of your skin. Your body is constantly producing new skin cells in order to repair damage and replace old cells. Over time, the dead skin cells that build up on the skin can contribute to blocked pores and acne.

In addition to sebum and dead skin cells, bacteria can play a role in acne. When a blocked pore contains bacteria, the bacteria can multiply rapidly, causing an infection to develop and the acne to become inflamed and painful. 

There’s no single type of acne. Instead, you may notice whiteheads, blackheads or inflamed, infected pimples developing on your face and body. 

Although acne is common during your teens and 20s, the factors that cause acne can continue to affect your skin throughout your life. In fact, it’s far from unusual to experience acne in your 30s, 40s and beyond.

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How Dry Skin Develops

Like acne, dry skin is a common skin condition. It’s medically referred to as xerosis and can affect people of all ages and backgrounds.

Dry skin can feel scaly, rough, painful and itchy. It often has a peeled, dehydrated appearance and visible inflammation. Severely dry skin can be very itchy and red, with some areas of skin cracking and even bleeding.

A variety of factors can cause dry skin. Sometimes, dry skin is caused by the environment and its impact on your skin. Factors such as overly cold weather and dry air can cause your skin to become overly dry — two reasons why dry skin is typically more common in winter.

Other environmental factors that can contribute to dry skin include low humidity, be it natural or caused by central heating or a wood-burning stove, spending long periods of time in hot water, and swimming in water that’s heavily chlorinated.

In other cases, dry skin is caused by a skin condition. Certain skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, can cause your skin to become dry and irritated. These symptoms can come and go in flare-ups that are precipitated by different triggers. 

Finally, certain medications and cosmetic products can contribute to dry skin. Soaps, shampoos and other products that are applied directly to your skin can strip away oil, causing your skin to become overly dry and irritated.

Although dry skin can affect people of all ages, the risk of developing dry skin is higher if you’re 40 years of age or older. This is because your skin gradually thins and produces less oil as you get older.

How to Treat Acne on Dry Skin

Treating acne on dry skin can be complicated. The reason for this is that many common acne treatments work by reducing sebum production — a factor that could make your skin drier and worsen some of your symptoms. 

Others, such as tretinoin, can cause an increase in scaling skin, redness and even more acne during the first few weeks of use.

You can learn more about these acne treatments, their effectiveness, potential side effects and more in our guide to science-backed treatments for acne.

Because of this, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider if you’re prone to dry skin and acne breakouts. Your healthcare provider will be able to provide more information, or refer you to a dermatology practitioner for a more precise diagnosis and treatment recommendation.

To treat dry skin, your healthcare provider may recommend using a moisturizer, making certain adjustments to your habits and lifestyle or by changing your use of certain medications and/or skincare products.

You may also be prescribed a lotion or topical medication to control inflammation and irritation while your skin recovers. 

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In Conclusion

Acne and dry skin are both common conditions. When they occur at the same time, it can often be challenging to treat one without worsening the other. 

Because of this, if you’re prone to dry skin, it’s best to talk with your primary care provider or an experienced dermatologist. They’ll be able to recommend an effective treatment based on your acne’s severity and your overall skin health.

Both acne and dry skin are treatable. While results aren’t immediate, sticking to your treatment plan and staying consistent can help you to clear up acne breakouts and keep your skin fresh, hydrated and healthy for the long term. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.