You’re Treating Breakouts All Wrong, According To This Dermatologist

Photographed by Sarah Harry Isaacs.
I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve suffered with acne-prone skin for pretty much all of my adult life. Over the years I’ve managed to get things generally under control but I know that my skin will never be perfect (proven by the fact that I am still a victim of semi-regular breakouts). It happens at least once a month and it’s usually hormone-related. (Absolutely no surprises there, then.) Sometimes my spots are worse than at other times but I’ve learned that the key is not to let them stress me out; I know they’ll clear up as quickly as they appear. But that’s not to say I don’t rally the skincare troops and target said spots with the arsenal of products I’ve come to rely on.
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Until recently, that arsenal of products was a collection of really-quite-drying lotions and potions, and I never questioned the flaky patches of skin that would appear as a result. This was the best and only way to treat zits, right? I grew up in the era of using toothpaste to dry out spots and I remember when Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion was everybody’s ride or die. (It still takes pride of place in countless influencer skincare #shelfies.) Of course, it’s less a trend and more a reflection of the ingredients that are proven to work. "The reason these targeted treatments are generally quite drying is simply down to the irritancy from the active ingredients used," explains Harley Street’s Dr Sam Bunting. "Benzoyl peroxide, for example, is highly effective but also very drying." It’s the same story for other common ingredients, including the salicylic acid I knew and loved.
Then a revelation happened. It was during a conversation with Dr Bunting in which she said that dry, irritated skin is more prone to clogging up and breaking out. It wasn’t something I’d heard a lot of experts talk about but that’s exactly why she’s started to view hydration as an essential part of the solution for acne-prone skin — especially with the new normal of wearing face coverings. Let me tell you, that one simple piece of advice has changed the game for me. In short: "The more gently you can control the inflammatory process from the blemish itself, the better," says Dr Bunting. It just makes so much sense. 
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Dr Zainab Laftah, consultant dermatologist at The Shard, concurs, adding that over-drying spots can lead to long-term inflammation — which may present as red or brown skin staining that takes a while to fade. "The drying effects that traditional spot treatments have are caused by the strength of the active ingredients used in them but that dryness not only prolongs the duration of blemishes, it also increases the risk of post-inflammatory pigmentation and redness," she says. But spot treatments are evolving, explains Dr Laftah. "They are now often combined with anti-inflammatory ingredients like niacinamide to help reduce redness."
That’s exactly what Dr Bunting created with her latest launch, Dr Sam's Flawless Neutralizing Gel, £28. It’s a spot treatment that’s as gentle and hydrating as it is effective, which is why it quickly became my go-to. Formulated with 2% salicylic acid to nix spots, its drying effects are counteracted with buzzy and super hydrating skincare ingredient squalane. Then there's azelaic acid to reduce both redness and pigmentation, and bakuchiol, a gentle, plant-based alternative to retinol that works to defuse blemish-prone skin. "By balancing the drying effect of the active [in this case, salicylic acid] with hydrating and soothing ingredients, it’s much easier to tolerate," explains Dr Bunting of the spot treatment. "From a practical point of view, it also allows a breakout to be concealed if needed, as it smooths the skin surface. A dry, flaky blemish is almost impossible to hide as makeup won’t cover it properly."
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Dr Bunting isn’t alone in her thinking as it seems 2022 will be the year of kind-to-skin blemish treatments, starting with Kate Somerville. Last week, the brand added two new products to its bestselling EradiKate line: Blemish Mark Fading Gel, £58, and Clarifying Blemish Gel Cleanser, £38. The former is a hardworking blend of exfoliating and redness-reducing salicylic acid coupled with soothing niacinamide and a prebiotic ingredient that protects the skin’s barrier for a healthy glow. The latter cleanses without stripping, working to clear blemishes without that telltale dryness. Impressively, I definitely noticed an improvement in my breakouts after just a couple of uses. 
Then there’s Scientia, an indie brand that I adore. Its Pure Clarity range is powered by polyhydroxy acids (or PHAs), which are very gentle exfoliating acids. The Targeted Blemish Paste, £16, contains two traditionally drying ingredients – bentonite clay and white willow bark (a natural alternative to salicylic acid) – but they are buffered with a handful of soothing ingredients, including calamine, zinc oxide and glycerin to ensure skin is rehydrated and the barrier is protected. The Inkey List’s Succinic Acid Blemish Treatment, £6.99, takes a similar approach, pairing sulphur, succinic acid and salicylic acid with moisturising glycerin and a rich cream base. You might also like Byoma, a brand that just launched on Cult Beauty. Its whole ethos is to maintain overall skin health, infusing each of its products with essential lipids (the building blocks of healthy skin) to protect the barrier. Its Clarifying Serum, £12.99, is bolstered with acne-fighting blue tansy, PHAs and zinc to unclog pores and target spots without irritating or disrupting skin. 
Armed with gentle spot treatments like these, there's a legitimate reason to stress less about breakouts. I for one couldn’t be happier about my new, simple approach to tackling acne. For overall improved skin health, it really does pay to treat blemishes with kindness — and that goes for picking, too.
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