Is Your Acne Itchy? Here's What It Means—and How to Deal

Read before you scratch.

Fact: Most of us have acne at some point in our lives, and while it most commonly affects adolescents, acne also affects adults. Another fact: Acne isn’t just a cosmetic eyesore—it can also be uncomfortable, especially when it throbs or itches. If you’ve experienced itchy acne before, you know that scratching risks further irritation. So, what is an itchy acne sufferer supposed to do—and why does acne even itch in the first place?

The good news is an itch here or there isn’t much to worry about. “It’s actually quite common for acne to itch,” says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “It is also common for people to pick at acne, which can further incite the sensation of itching.”

The key thing to remember is that acne itself is inflammation. “Acne can come with a lot of inflammation, particularly in cystic acne or acne that appears as red bumps or pustules, and this inflammatory acne can be tender and/or itch,” says Ryan Turner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York. 


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And while a big misconception is that acne comes from excessive oiliness, that’s not always the case. “Acne means that there’s some dysfunction in your skin’s moisture regulation,” says Dr. Turner. When there’s not enough moisture in your skin, your oil glands may produce additional sebum to try to balance things out, leading to breakouts. In other words, your acne may be due to dry skin—and dry skin itches.

This is further aggravated if you use a lot of acne products, most of which are drying in nature due to the nature of ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Although potentially beneficial, these ingredients tend to be quite harsh on your skin, resulting in a perpetual cycle of irritation. “While those same treatments may dry out a pimple, it will also do the same to the surrounding skin, causing itchiness to the area,” says Dr. Turner.

Instead, Dr. Turner recommends practicing “anti-inflammatory skincare” when experiencing itchy acne. This means moisturizers containing anti-inflammatory ingredients and good hydrators like ceramides and hyaluronic acid. (You find this in Cera Ve Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serurm or Kiehl’s Micro-Dose Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide.) “My favorite versatile ingredient is niacinamide, which has natural anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe itchiness and reduce redness,” adds Dr. Turner.

He also recommends products with active soothing ingredients like aloe vera, turmeric, green tea extract, and oat to quell the itch. Applying a cold, wet washcloth can also provide some temporary relief.

If your itchy acne is causing you significant discomfort or at-home topicals don't do the trick, Dr. Turner recommends consulting a board-certified dermatologist to come up with a plan that addresses your specific situation. “The gold standard for severe scarring or resistant acne has always been the strong medication Accutane,” says Dr. Frank. “There are also newer in-office advancements to treat stubborn acne while also reducing itchiness, particularly in lasers like AviClear. It’s really the first-ever laser where a limited number of treatments (three treatments done in monthly intervals) gives long-term, if not permanent, clearance of most acne—particularly inflammatory or cystic acne. Since it helps overall inflamed acne, it would ultimately help the itch.”

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