Acne vulgaris or acne is the most common skin disorder in the world. Estimates suggest that acne affects almost 650 million teens and adults worldwide.

It can persist into adulthood or crop up later in life, and it often comes with complications, like scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).

Research from 2016 also suggests that acne contributes to psychological and emotional distress.

If you have acne, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the skin care options available to you.

From textured scrubs to chemical peels, exfoliants are trendy skin care products. But you may be asking yourself, “How do they work, and will they make my skin worse?”

If you’re feeling confused, we don’t blame you. So, let’s break it down.

Below, we answer a few key questions about exfoliating acne-prone skin.

Short answer: Yes.

Certain exfoliants can help reduce the appearance of acne and fade acne scars. However, it’s crucial to choose a product that’s gentle yet effective for your acne-prone skin.

Physical exfoliants, like cleansing scrubs and textured cloths, require manual rubbing, which may irritate the skin.

Chemical exfoliants, like toners and peels, use chemicals and enzymes to renew your skin and improve its texture and appearance. Some chemical exfoliants are specifically formulated to be nonirritating and gentle enough for acne-prone skin.

Effective chemical exfoliants contain certain acids to help remove dead skin cells, unclog pores, and improve skin texture.

If you have mild to moderate acne that involves blackheads, whiteheads, or even pustules and papules, consider products that also contain retinoids.

“Retinoids” is a catch-all term for vitamin A-based skin products.

The American Academy of Dermatology explains that retinoids play an essential role in acne management, because they have been shown to reduce visible lesions and inhibit the development of new blemishes.

For severe acne, consider seeing a dermatologist for treatment and prescription products rather than immediately turning to over-the-counter products.

Chemical exfoliants may contain the following acids:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). These water-soluble acids exfoliate the surface of your skin. They’re known to improve the texture, elasticity, and density of your skin. However, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), AHAs increase skin’s sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) light, so it’s important to be mindful of sun exposure when you’re using AHA products.
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). These oil-soluble acids, such as salicylic acid, work on the surface of your skin and penetrate deeper to improve your skin’s texture, unclog pores, and remove sebum. While BHAs exfoliate much like AHAs, they tend to be less irritating.
  • Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). These work like AHAs, but they have less risk of side effects, like irritation and stinging, according to older studies. Because they’re larger molecules, PHAs don’t penetrate as deep, and they’re gentler on sensitive skin. They also have hydrating and antioxidant benefits.

The best acids for acne-prone skin are BHAs, because they can unclog acne-causing oil from your pores. BHAs are also anti-inflammatory and comedolytic, which means they reduce the formation of comedones or blemishes.

If you feel like your acne gets worse during the winter, you’re not alone.

A 2015 study found that people with acne tended to have clearer skin during the summer and fall. Additionally, the rates of moderate-to-severe acne increased during the winter.

Cold weather may contribute to increased acne breakouts because of:

  • Dry conditions. In dry conditions, your pores produce more sebum, which can clog pores and lead to breakouts.
  • Cooler temperatures. Cold weather can contribute to inflammation, which can exacerbate acne symptoms.
  • Less sunlight. Reduced exposure to UV light may impact your immune system and allow for bacterial growth, which can trigger acne.

So, what can you do about winter acne?

Continue with a consistent skin care routine while monitoring your skin for excessive dryness. During the winter, you may need to cut down on exfoliating.

Signs you may be over-exfoliating include:

  • increased redness
  • irritation
  • itchiness
  • a feeling of waxiness or tightness

If your acne-prone skin is very dry during the cold winter months, you’ll also want to evaluate the products you’re using to make sure they’re oil-free and free of ingredients that can be drying, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

Exfoliation is a non-prescription topical way to help manage acne symptoms.

When deciding whether to add exfoliation to your anti-acne routine, choosing the right ingredients for acne-prone skin is essential. And during the winter, you may need to exfoliate less.

If you have severe acne symptoms, it might be a good idea to make an appointment with a board certified dermatologist.