Makeup basics from a makeup artist: 7 tips for acne prone skin

Guest post by Tania D. Russell

Please note, by “acne prone,” this article is focusing on what is referred to as “common acne”/acne vulgaris. More serious skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and even severe forms acne such as cystic acne should be treated under the guidance of a dermatologist.

"Let's pop pimples and be happy" crosstich by Etsy seller HoodStitch
“Let’s pop pimples and be happy” crosstich by Etsy seller HoodStitch

Confession time: I have breakout-prone skin. By breakouts, I mean acne. I have battled with it my entire life right up to this current moment. It is overall much better now, but my skin can still go from fabulously perfect and radiant to woefully broken out in seemingly a moment’s notice.

Whether you are suffering from teenage acne or if you are like me, and you are having “adult” acne, it sucks. That said, with proper care, product and makeup technique you really can lessen the impact of acne. Here then are some tips on skincare and makeup for breakout prone skin.

1. (Mostly) everything you’ve heard is true

All the basics you have heard over the years about NOT PICKING at acne breakouts, keeping your skin clean, keep your hands off of your face, changing pillow cases, etc, are true. Additionally — and you should do this whether you have acne-prone skin or not — keep your makeup tools clean. Also, eating well and adequate hydration is always the basis of good skin care, acne or no. (Science says that it is a myth that certain foods cause acne. I’m not a doctor so I will not go there, but suffice to say my skin begs to differ.)

2. Cleanse well but do not over do it

One thing people with acne prone skin often tend to do is go overboard trying to “dry” their skin out. As a makeup artist it is very common for me to see skin that is both oily and dehydrated. You need something that thoroughly cleanses, but does not strip the skin.

When not broken out: When I’m in maintenance mode, I like a non-medicated cleanser like Alba Botanica’s Good and Clean Daily Detox Foaming Cleanser. It clears away excess sebum (oil), lessens redness and irritation, but leaves the skin feeling refreshed and not overly tight. Good for sensitive skin as well (which my skin also can be).

During breakouts: I have to pull out the heavy guns and use a medicated cleanser. The long time winner for me has been Clean and Clear Continuous Control Acne Cleanser. The active ingredient is 10% Benzoyl Peroxide and it starts to clear me up pretty much immediately.

I, personally, cannot use a lot of Salicylic Acid-based products because my skin becomes sensitive. Most normal people, however, find salicylic acid less harsh on their skin than benzoyl peroxide. If BPO gives you a problem try a salicylic based product like Burt’s Bees Natural Acne Solutions Purifying Gel Cleanser.


This really cannot be overstated. Skin NEEDS hydration, and if you give your skin what it needs, it will actually kick up less oil. In fact, I have mentioned before that I actually use facial oils. This may seem counter intuitive for someone with oily skin but it works. If that is more of a leap than you want to deal with, do get in the habit of using a good, hydrating moisturizer on a daily basis. Your skin will love you for it!

Philosophy’s Hope In A Jar is probably their most celebrated product. I even know of one punk-rocker who — while he was a guest judge on a TV show — would not let the makeup artists use any other products on him. Amongst the variations available nowadays are Hope in a Jar Oil Free and Hope in a Jar Daily SPF. In addition to keeping the skin hydrated, both are oil absorbing and leave a matte finish on the skin.

4. Focus on foundation, but do not cake it on

Makeup-wise, when you are in the midst of a breakout, the priority is to make the skin appear as smooth and even as possible. The tendency is to do a heavier overall application, but that can result in undesirable skin texture wherein you may actually bring out the flaws you are trying to hide. Heavy foundation applications may also cause increased oiliness and makeup slip. What you really want to pay attention to is formulation. Oil-based foundations are obviously out, but water-based foundations break down quickly and often do not give the coverage needed. When dealing with breakouts either on myself or on clients I like silicone-based foundations like Face Atelier Ultra Foundation.

If you are like me and hate the feeling of full-on foundation, many BB Creams also have silicone as an ingredient. For us deeper complexion gals I am LOVING Iman Cosmetics Skin Tone Evener BB Cream. It has become my daily go-to.

Warning — Science Alert: Since silicone molecules are larger than skin pores they sit on top of the skin minimizing pores and oiliness and providing a perfecting, protective barrier. You do not need as much product to get a more flawless finish and silicone foundations tend not to break-down as quickly (most makeup primers are silicone based).

5. For heavier/active breakouts you may also need to utilize concealer

Different artists have different techniques, I am a conceal AFTER foundation kinda gal (I like to see what the foundation covers first). I am not a fan of most of the “treat and conceal” concealers I have tried. The formulations are either too light to give real coverage, or the color selection is poor. I suggest going for a professional grade concealer that can get the job done. A little will go a long way, you will not need much because you’ll just be doing spot coverage the way pro artists do, and pro-grade concealers will last a full day into the evening/night. Bobbi Brown and Laura Mercier both make excellent concealers and they make them in colors for every skintone, so when in doubt you can always turn to those classics.

6. Powder it up

When used correctly, a good powder smooths everything together for a flawless finish, and makes your makeup last at least twice as long as an un-powdered face. Once again Bobbi Brown (Sheer Loose Finish Powder) and Laura Mercier (Loose Setting Powder) are hard to beat in this category. Both offer the same types of powder that professional artists use made readily available in the mass market. And both leave the skin with a beautiful finish. I do give a slight edge to Bobbi Brown just because she has the colors that pro artists tend to use (pale yellow, golden orange, etc.). If, however, you find all of that too confusing just stick to colorless/translucent and call it a day.

7. Above all else, use clean practices!

All of the aforementioned products are for naught if you do not keep your products clean and you are not sanitary in your application practices. Think like a makeup artist…

  • Wash your hands before you apply your makeup or otherwise handle your face.
  • Sanitize your makeup after each use, using either alcohol or a sanitization product like Beauty So Clean (I personally just use 70% alcohol).
  • Stop using your fingers/hands to get product out the container. Every time you do you are introducing bacteria into your product. Use products in pump bottles, or use a spatula to get to product in jars/pots.
  • If you’re a sponge user, just use a new one every day (come on now, they are not that expensive) or if you find that wasteful (because it is) you can get a reusable sponge like a Beauty Blender, and just wash it thoroughly after each use.
  • CLEAN YOUR BRUSHES WEEKLY AT MINIMUM. Makeup artists clean during and after every job. Brushes become a Petri dish if they are not washed regularly. Baby shampoo or shampoo-conditioner-in-one products will get it done, but I am quite partial to Clean Brush Shampoo which both deeply cleans and sanitizes your brushes.

What are YOUR favorite tips and tricks for dealing with acne prone skin?

Comments on Makeup basics from a makeup artist: 7 tips for acne prone skin

  1. I cleared up my acne with the stuff from My friends and step-son had success with it too. Another thing to do is to make sure you aren’t lactose intolerant because that will make it worse.

    The best thing I ever did for me skin was to stop wearing makeup. The less I wear, the less I need it.

  2. I know everyone’s skin is different, but I just wanted to throw out there that what worked for my acne was going the water only route. This means I don’t use any soaps, cleansers, astringents, etc. I just use warm water and a soft wash cloth to give my face a quick wash in my morning shower and at night before I go to bed.

    The theory is that soap and other products dry out our skin and mess up our skin’s natural oil balance.

    And (don’t freak out!) I’ve even gone as far as not using soap on the rest of my body either. I just use a wash cloth in the shower. Now the skin on the rest of my body doesn’t feel so dried out and the strange dry patches I had in a few places are gone. I tried to go the ‘no poo’ (aka no shampoo) route too, but my hair wouldn’t have it.

    The only part of my body that touches soap are my hands and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

    • I am fascinated by this! Do you wear makeup? Does the water-and-washcloth thing work to get rid of makeup?

      I don’t wear foundation every day, but I occasionally mix a liquid foundation with my SPF moisturizer, and I maybe do full foundation on my face once a month.

      I’d love to hear more about this water only method!

      • I do occasionally wear makeup (probably about as often as you) but do not wear it on a daily basis. The water and washcloth works to take foundation, concealer, powder, lipstick, etc off but it does have a bit of a hard time removing my eyeliner and water proof mascara. I usually just do my best to remove it before I go to bed and my morning shower takes care of the rest. Hope that helps!

      • I don’t wear any makeup anymore. I wear a slightly green tinted moisturizer with spf in it because I am a ginger….and mascara and that’s it! When I stopped wearing the things to “make my skin look better” my skin actually looked a lot better!

    • This is definitely a YMMV thing but worth a try! I travel & camp frequently, so I’m forced to go w/out any special face cleaners (or makeup, for that matter) for weeks at a time. Unfortunately, I get just as many breakouts when I’m only using water to wash my face daily.

    • I concur that what gets you clean is mostly hot water. When I’m in a hurry, or if my skin feels dry, I will sometimes shower without any products. Showering is more of a preventative measure for acne, though. For active outbreaks, I combat with salicylic acid scrub and salicylic acid moisturizer and benzoyl peroxide cream, which I guess is the polar opposite of your method. I’m not sure how much these products shorten the duration of the outbreak, but they do seem to help.

  3. Thanks for the tips and reminders! I have such acne-prone skin – it’s been a problem since age 18 or 19 (in high school I was fine, but my skin looked awful in college). My worst habit is that I’m too lazy to wash my face regularly with anything other than water, plus I always rest my chin in my hands, ughh.

    I prefer salicylic acid to benzoyl peroxide because it doesn’t bleach my clothes, sheets, and towels. With all my years of treating acne-prone skin on and off, I have seen too many sheets, comforters, and towels with bleach spots from benzoyl peroxide to even deal with it any more.

    • When I first moved in with my now husband, he asked me one day why all the damn sheets and pillow cases have bleached spots on them!
      It annoys me but salicylic acid is the only thing that sorta works for my breakouts.

  4. I would appreciate a lesson on how to sanitize makeup! This is something my friends and I have discussed because we would like to try each other’s stuff sometimes, but we don’t how to make sure it’s clean enough after!

    • I was inspired by this post to actually buy brushes, sponges, and brush cleaner, but I seriously have never cleaned my makeup or brushes before, and I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.

    • These days I’m not using a lot of makeup with brushes (basically CC cream and mascara), but when I do, I like to use shampoo or baby soap/shampoo for washing brushes.

  5. Wow, great advice,thank you so much! My skin has always been UBER-oily and I had the problem you mentioned of oily+dehydrated, but since I started a soft routine of cleansing (Dove sensitive skin soap) + moisturizing (L’Oreal hydractive, or something like that) my skin looks awesome. I never wear makeup other than the casual eyeliner and lip gloss so that must help keeping the skin nice.

    I’m thinking about starting to use BB/CC creams but I’m not sure how nice would that be for my skin. Am I supposed to use moisturizer+BB cream, or just the BB cream would do the job?

    • Oh yeah. BB cream = love. It doesn’t seem to exacerbate my breakouts. I also find that it moisturizes adequately, but I’m not the one who’s the expert. 😉

  6. I found myself in the vicious circle of having my foundation clog up my pores resulting in me using more foundation to cover it up. Just a few weeks ago I started using Neutrogena Visibly Clear 2 in 1 Wash and Mask followed by Neutrogena Visibly Clear Oil-Free Moisturiser. It’s made a huge difference and now I’m only using foundation on my under eye circles and a few dabs on minor blemishes.

  7. Great tips! But I’m surprised to see silicone-based makeup recommended. Silicone is well known for being comedogenic. For me, it causes cystic acne.

    I highly recommend mineral (non-mica) powders. Aromaleigh makes great powder foundation, and Aveda also has a great line.

  8. I’ve had acne on and off my whole life. While I was pregnant my skin was amazing but as soon as I had my daughter I had a terrible hormonal breakout. I started reading up about older (about to be 35) sensitive skin and acne and began using Stridex pads in the red box. I’m too sensitive to use benzoyl peroxide and this really works for me when I use it every other day. I wash at night with Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser and moisturize with Curel fragrance free lotion. My skin is still a little dry and sensitive but my acne has cleared up. I also really like mineral powder makeup like Bare Minerals when I can afford it, and Physicians Formula loose powder foundation. But it’s the Stridex pads that have made all the difference.

  9. I really like Dermalmd acne treatment. I’m an older woman, but I still have issues with spots and bumps on my skin. I was worried that this would dry my skin out or cause redness, but it hasn’t at all. I’ve noticed a significant improvement in the overall look of my skin as well as it feeling much smoother. This works quickly too. I noticed improvements in some areas overnight. I would definitely recommend dermalmd blemish serum to anyone to try, regardless of age.

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