The 12 Golden Rules Of Combatting Summer Breakouts

Summertime, when the living is pimply.

Originally Published: 
Dermatologists reveal their top summer acne tips and treatments that'll keep your skin clear.
andresr/E+/Getty Images

Summertime, when the living is easy… and breakouts seem worse than ever. If such is the case for you, you’re not alone: Heat and humidity really have been found to aggravate blemishes in oily and acne-prone skin. “Higher temperatures and heat activate sebaceous glands, which contributes to oil production,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D. tells Bustle. This increase in oil means there’s even more of a chance of your pores getting clogged — which ultimately worsens acne, he adds.

According to Dr. Peter Young, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Facet, there are three issues at play when it comes to the onslaught of breakouts this time of year: sun, sweat, and especially humidity. “When the humidity level is high during the summer months, the extra moisture can clog your pores and cause breakouts,” Young says. That’s because higher humidity means your sweat evaporates more slowly, he explains, so heat-induced sweat combined with humidity forms quite the hospitable environment for blemishes to form. “The sweat mixes with bacteria, dead skin cells, and oils on your skin, which leads to clogged pores and acne flare-ups,” he says.

Fortunately, there are countless expert-approved techniques to combat that summer acne. Read on for how to keep your skin clear this season, according to dermatologists.

We at Bustle only include products that have been independently selected by our editors. We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

The Experts

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. He serves as Mount Sinai Hospital’s director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology.

Dr. Peter Young, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. He is the medical director of the clinical skin health platform Facet.

Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist at New York City’s MDCS Dermatology. She is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell - New York Presbyterian Medical Center.

Dr. Viktoryia D. Kazlouskaya, M.D., Ph.D., is a double board-certified dermatologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where she serves as an assistant professor of dermatology.

Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., is a double board-certified dermatologist at Mudgil Dermatology in New York City.

Dr. Jaimie DeRosa, M.D., is a double board-certified facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery & Med Spa in Boston. She is an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.

Use An Acne-Controlling Cleanser

Board-certified dermatologists Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D. and Dr. Viktoryia D. Kazlouskaya, M.D., Ph.D. both suggest incorporating CeraVe’s Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser into your regimen when struggling with heat-induced acne. “CeraVe products are excellent for washing the face during the summer months,” Kazlouskaya tells Bustle, and Garshick concurs: “This cleanser contains 4% benzoyl peroxide making it a great option for acne-prone skin, treating both existing breakouts and also working to prevent new ones from forming.”

Pros: Treats and prevents pimples without irritating the skin

Cons: Can be drying in the winter months

Review: “The CeraVe Foaming Cream Cleaner is 100% the best acne cleaner on the market,” one reviewer writes. “My new dermatologist recommended this product and it has been revolutionary for my skin! Today will be the fourth time I buy this cleanser.”

Active Ingredients: Benzoyl Peroxide, Ceramides, Hyaluronic Acid, Niacinamide

Treat Skin With A Clarifying Toner

Zeichner also recommends adding salicylic acid to your routine, explaining that the chemical exfoliant is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps keep the pores clear and prevent breakouts while also drying out pimples you already have. Garshick specifically suggests utilizing a toner with salicylic acid, as they help to eliminate leftover and excess oil after washing your face.

Pros: Treats and prevents acne

Cons: Some reviews say it’s “slightly drying”

Review: “My skin has never been better! I’ve tried so many different products, from high-end to cheap — this has been the best product I have ever used on my skin,” writes one reviewer. “For the first time in years I have no breakouts!”

Active Ingredients: Salicylic Acid, Witch Hazel

Incorporate Vitamin C Into Your Routine

Once you’ve washed and toned your face, experts universally recommend using a vitamin C serum in the daytime, as the antioxidant helps protect the skin from environmental triggers and irritants. If you’re worried it will break you out, don’t fret: Research has actually found that a form of vitamin C — officially known as sodium ascorbyl phosphate — helps reduce acne-induced redness and inflammation when used topically.

Pros: Protects skin from triggers and irritants, targets dark spots and hyperpigmentation

Cons: Some reviewers don’t like the smell

Review: “This product will show results with the first application,” insists one reviewer. “It’s eerily amazing how your face will glow — I will never be without this product again!”

Active Ingredients: Vitamins C and E, Ferulic Acid, Green Tea

Apply Acne-Fighting Primer Before Makeup

Wearing a full face of makeup in the summer is no easy feat, especially if you struggle with acne. Fortunately, there are makeup primers that are specifically formulated to treat and prevent breakouts while curbing excess oil production, keeping your complexion clear and oil-free throughout the day — even when you’re rocking the perfect beat.

Pros: Treats and prevents acne, soothes and mattifies pores

Cons: Some reviewers experienced pilling

Review: “I’m in love with this primer,” says one reviewer. “I’ve added this to my daily routine and ordered it at least three times from various sources. A little goes a long way, so it’s a good value. It also makes your foundation go on better and smoother. Grab one if you have oily skin.”

Active Ingredients: Salicylic Acid, Vitamin E, Tea Tree Oil

Swap Heavy Creams For A Hydrating Serum

According to Dr. Jaimie DeRosa, M.D., double board-certified facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery & Med Spa, it’s best to stick to an especially lightweight and fragrance-free moisturizer in the summer months. Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., a double board-certified dermatologist at Mudgil Dermatology, echoes this and suggests a hyaluronic acid serum or gel for acne-prone and oily complexions.

Pros: Lightweight, hydrating, can be used morning and night

Cons: Might not provide enough moisture if your skin is naturally dry

Review: “Probably the best hyaluronic acid serum I’ve ever purchased,” says one reviewer. “I highly recommend this for anyone experiencing issues with their complexion! Wears great under makeup and doesn't leave your skin wet or oily.”

Active Ingredients: Hyaluronic Acid

Or Use A Gel-Based Moisturizer

For the same reasons listed above, you might want to opt for a gel-based moisturizer in place of a thicker cream. These provide slightly more hydration than a serum but do so without clogging your pores. “For most folks, cutting down on a vigorous moisturization regimen is usually enough [to combat summer acne,]” Mudgil tells Bustle.

Pros: Hydrates skin without clogging pores, suitable for sensitive skin

Cons: Might not provide enough hydration if skin is naturally very dry

Review: “I love this stuff! My face feels hydrated, soft, and smooth,” writes one reviewer. “It does not feel sticky, [it’s] very lightweight, and it absorbs quickly.”

Active Ingredients: Hyaluronic Acid

Swap Thick Foundation For Lightweight Coverage

As noted by various experts, a combination of sweat, bacteria, and unfortunately, makeup, provides the perfect breeding ground for summer acne to form. To combat this, Zeichner recommends sticking to lightweight, oil-free, and non-comedogenic (aka non-pore clogging) makeup products such as BB creams and tinted moisturizers, which are less likely to weigh your skin down in higher temperatures.

Pros: Provides coverage, hides blemishes, combats oil

Cons: Some reviewers wanted more coverage

Review: “Even compared with products marketed as ‘foundation,’ this little BB cream holds its own — I would even call it a good medium coverage,” according to one reviewer. “Over the course of a week, I kept reaching for this one because it does a great job as base coverage for my scarred combination skin.”

Don’t Skimp On Sunscreen

Having acne-prone skin does not exclude you from needing to protect yourself from the sun. “If you’re planning to be outdoors during the day, make sure to protect your skin with sunscreen of an SPF 30 or higher in order to prevent breakouts,” says Young, clarifying that if you’re prone to breakouts, you should opt for non-comedogenic sunscreens formulated for oily complexions.

Pros: Lightweight, matte, protects skin without clogging pores

Cons: Some reviewers wish it came in higher SPF

Review: “This sunscreen is light and gentle and mattifying,” says one reviewer. “When I go foundation-free, this makes my skin look polished and even. I have had no weird breakouts or irritation with this formula either.”

Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene (SPF actives)

Wash Your Face Regularly

If you’re out and about — and therefore, sweating — try to wash your face as soon as you can. “It is important to cleanse regularly, especially after exercise or sweating, because when sweat sits on the skin for an extended period of time it can lead to clogged pores,” DeRosa explains. That said, you don’t want to over-cleanse or harm your skin barrier by repeatedly using active ingredients throughout the day, either. For a happy medium, Young suggests washing your face with lukewarm (not hot!) water and a mild, oil-free cleanser when you’re not reaching for your salicylic acid-infused face wash.

Pros: Sensitive-skin friendly, cleanses skin without irritation

Cons: Some reviewers prefer the more sensitive formula

Review: “I've been using the daily facial cleanser consistently for about two years now and my skin has improved drastically,” writes one reviewer. “It gives me that deep-clean, refreshing wash that I need. My skin is sensitive and I can't use products with harsh or strong ingredients and perfumes, and this doesn't irritate my skin at all.”

Active Ingredients: Glycerin

Always Remove Makeup At Night

According to Mudgil, one especially common cause of summertime acne is leftover makeup. To combat this, be sure to cleanse your face with products that specifically remove makeup, sunscreen, and sweat, such as micellar water. Double cleansing helps, too.

Pros: Gentle formula, removes makeup and dirt

Cons: Some reviewers think it’s too pricey

Review: “This product blew me away with the formula. This is the first time I've ever been able to get a good clean on my eyelashes and eyelids and even did a little bit close to my waterline without any pain,” says one reviewer.

Active Ingredients: Glycerin, Baobab Fruit, Eucalyptus Leaf, Myrtle Leaf

Try Spot Treatments

If you have an active breakout, derms suggest treating it with spot treatment that contains either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. These can be particularly helpful to dab on overnight to dry out a whitehead or zit that’s forming beneath the skin’s surface.

Pros: Treats breakouts, sensitive-skin friendly

Cons: Can be drying

Review: “I have cystic acne and rosacea so I have to use clean ingredients for my sensitive skin. I put this on at night after I moisturize and when I wake up the inflammation has decreased by 60%,” says one reviewer.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Aloe Vera, Papaya Extract, Willow Bark Extract

Incorporate Retinoids Into Your Nightly Routine

Finally, both Young and Garshick suggest incorporating over-the-counter retinoids into your nighttime regimen, such as adapalene gel. “It helps to gently exfoliate the outer layer of your skin and unclog your pores,” Young tells Bustle. Start by using the product two times a week so that your complexion gets used to it.

Pros: Unclogs pores, treats and prevents breakouts

Cons: Not suitable for sensitive skin

Review: “Adapalene is the only thing that helps with my hormonal acne,” one reviewer writes. “This product works very well to control my outbreaks, but it takes consistency. I had to work up from initially applying this product three times per week to using it every night, and then it took several weeks for me to see a big difference. It’s worth it.”

Active Ingredients: Adapalene

Studies referenced:

Narang, I., Sardana, K., Bajpai, R., & Garg, V. K. (2019). Seasonal aggravation of acne in summers and the effect of temperature and humidity in a study in a tropical setting. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 18(4), 1098–1104.

Cunliffe, W. J., Burton, J. L., & Shuster, S. (1970). The effect of local temperature variations on the sebum excretion rate. The British journal of dermatology, 83(6), 650–654.

Ruamrak, C., Lourith, N., & Natakankitkul, S. (2009). Comparison of clinical efficacies of sodium ascorbyl phosphate, retinol and their combination in acne treatment. International journal of cosmetic science, 31(1), 41–46.

Sardana, K. (2002). Seasonal variation in acne vulgaris--myth or reality. J Dermatol. doi: 10.1111/j.1346-8138.2002.tb00313.x.

This article was originally published on