A woman looking at her aging skin with acne

How to Handle Acne & Aging at the Same Time

With adult acne on the rise, more and more of us are dealing with both pimples and premature aging. Acne products can make aging skin look older, while anti-aging products can lead to breakouts. So how do you handle acne and aging at the same time? We asked Sandra Lee, M.D. (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) for her advice. 


5 minute read

With adult acne on the rise, more and more of us are dealing with a double whammy: pimples and premature aging. Whether it’s hormonal acne, maskne, or even chronic breakouts long past the teen years, trying to treat acne while minimizing the signs of aging can be challenging.

Acne products are often drying and irritating, which can make things like fine lines, uneven skin tone, and dullness worse. Well-aging products tend to be rich and occlusive, which can clog pores and exacerbate breakouts.

So how do you handle acne and aging at the same time? We asked Sandra Lee, M.D. (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) for her advice. 



Oily skin ages differently

First, some good news: skin that’s oily (and often, acne-prone) typically doesn’t show signs of aging as soon as dry skin does. This bonus comes courtesy of all that oil, known as sebum.  You might remember that sebum contains a variety of valuable substances:

  • Antioxidants aid in prevention of oxidative stress.
  • Lipids lock in moisture and bolster the skin barrier.
  • Antimicrobials ward off damage from bacteria, viruses and fungi.

And you may also recall that what we recognize as skin aging is a combination of both inevitable (intrinsic) and environmental (extrinsic) factors:

  • Intrinsic aging is the result of genetics plus stress from normal cellular activity over time.
  • Extrinsic aging is the acceleration of stress, primarily due to UV radiation damage.

Looking at it this way, it makes sense that sebum — packed with protective substances — probably helps protect skin from both intrinsic and extrinsic aging.

Does acne slow skin aging?

For years, dermatologists have recognized a curious phenomena: acne patients tend to have younger-looking skin — even long after their acne has subsided. As mentioned above, this observation has historically been attributed to a preponderance of sebum in those patients — but could that be the sole reason?

A UK study using twins as test subjects examined this question, comparing gene expression and telomere length between those who had experienced acne and those who hadn’t. Telomeres are like protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes: they shorten every time a cell replicates, eventually triggering senescence — when the cell stops dividing. The results showed that acne patients had longer telomeres — that essentially, their cells were more youthful than those who never experienced acne.

Treating acne and aging skin together

Now that we’ve found the silver lining, let’s dive into the dilemma: how do we manage excess sebum (along with the other main causes of acne) while also minimizing the signs of aging?

According to Dr. Lee, managing acne and aging is all about combining ingredients creatively: choosing acne-fighters and potent skin protectors that help keep skin balanced and healthy. 

Before we delve into her ingredient picks, it’s important to note that if you’re dealing with chronic acne, it’s best to get it under control before experimenting with skincare targeted toward well-aging. Start with an all-in-one solution like SLMD Acne System and be patient — results may take a few months. If your acne is severe and/or causing scarring, talk to a dermatologist

Once your breakouts have calmed down, you can try alternating your acne treatments with skincare products that target signs of aging. Look for formulas that are lightweight and non comedogenic (meaning they won’t clog pores). As always, listen to your skin: if breakouts start to flare, amp up your acne regimen and temporarily tone down the well aging products.

Ingredients that target acne and aging skin

Fortunately, there are a handful of multitasking ingredients that can tackle both acne and signs of aging at the same time. Here are a few of Dr. Lee’s favorites.


We’ve covered the skincare superpowers of this vitamin A derivative at length, but here’s what you need to know: retinol (along with its retinoid cousins like tretinoin and adapalene) impacts skin cells in myriad ways that manage both acne and aging.

  • Promotes collagen and elastin production
  • Stimulates blood flow
  • Regulates cell shedding in sebaceous ducts
  • Speeds up cell turnover
  • Strengthens the skin barrier

For oily/acne prone skin, Dr. Lee suggests a lightweight retinol product like SLMD Retinol Resurfacing Serum. It also contains hyaluronic acid to hydrate and soothe skin.

Salicylic acid

This beta hydroxy acid is oil soluble, so it can penetrate into pores. It’s also a relatively gentle skincare acid, well tolerated by most skin types. Here are its main benefits:

  • Helps prevent acne by unclogging pores
  • Soothes skin with natural anti-inflammatory properties
  • Exfoliates to minimize dark spots and fine lines

Dr. Lee favors salicylic acid in cleansers and spot treatments. SLMD Salicylic Acid Cleanser is formulated for everyday use, gently exfoliating to help prevent breakouts while improving skin texture and tone. When pimples pop up, try a targeted solution like Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment, which also helps prevent post-acne hyperpigmentation (which tends to worsen with age).

Glycolic acid

This popular exfoliant is the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acids, which means it’s got the strongest penetrating power. It works by loosening the bonds that hold our outermost skin cells together, causing them to shed faster. This makes it ideal for:

  • Reducing dead cell buildup
  • Refining skin texture
  • Minimizing the appearance of fine lines

Combining glycolic acid (which is water soluble) with salicylic acid (which is oil soluble) is a skincare strategy Dr. Lee recommends — as long as the concentrations are appropriate. SLMD AHA/BHA Swipes are formulated with these two acids, plus lactic acid, to help keep pores clear and refine texture and tone.


Also known as vitamin B3, this potent antioxidant is gaining in popularity for its ability to target a multitude of skin concerns. Some of its many benefits include:

  • Strengthening the skin barrier
  • Relieving redness and inflammation
  • Regulating sebum production 
  • Minimizing hyperpigmentation

Find niacinamide in SLMD All Bright toner, which helps balance skin after cleansing to prepare for treatments that follow. It’s also a key ingredient in Dark Spot Fix, which helps minimize the look of both post-acne and age-related hyperpigmentation.


By far the most important skincare product in your cabinet, says Dr. Lee, is SPF. This is because the sun is responsible for as much as 90% of skin aging, and it also likely plays a role in exacerbating acne. But many sunscreen products are occlusive, meaning that they clog pores — so it’s important to find one that’s lightweight, non-comedogenic, and also protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Dr. Lee suggests SLMD Dual Defender SPF 30, which is a moisturizer and sunscreen in one. It’s formulated with acne-prone skin in mind, eliminating any need to have to choose between clearer skin and UV protection. Find it in SLMD After Acne, which also includes Salicylic Acid Cleanser and Retinol Resurfacing Serum


Contributing source:
Acne and Telomere Length: A New Spectrum between Senescence and Apoptosis Pathways

Dr Sandra Lee

Dr. Lee's Last Word

Trying to manage acne and aging skin can be challenging, but it is possible. My favorite ingredient for this is retinol, which is clinically-proven to help exfoliate, regulate the skin cycle, and support skin repair. I also recommend adding alpha and beta hydroxy acids, along with sun protection — which is an everyday necessity!


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