Oily Skin vs. Acne-Prone Skin: What’s The Difference?

Contrary to popular belief, oily skin is not synonymous with acne-prone skin. Since understanding your skin type is crucial to treating blemishes, we asked top dermatologists break down what you need to know.
Written by Jeannine Morris Lombardi
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Oily Skin vs. Acne-Prone Skin: What’s The Difference?Megan Bagshaw/Unsplash

You’ve probably heard it before or even said it yourself: oily skin equals acne-prone skin. But that’s not always the case. People often confuse the two since the formation of acne is directly related to an excess amount of sebum (read: oil) being produced, but dermatologists confirm there’s a difference — and understanding it will help keep your skin healthy and clear. If you’re experiencing oiliness, acne, or some combination of the two, here’s what you need to know about differentiating oily and acne-prone skin types.

Oily Skin vs. Acne-Prone Skin

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), acne is the most common skin condition in the United States — affecting about 50 million people per year. “It’s often presumed that the presence of acne is indicative of oily skin,” says Michele Green, MD. “While it’s true that excess sebum production can contribute to the development of acne, you can be acne-prone without having oily skin.” In fact, all skin types — from dry to oily — can develop acne.

While you might be more prone to acne if you have oily skin, breakouts aren’t a given. “You may have a clear complexion with oily skin, if the skin’s pores are able to lubricate the surface of the skin without becoming clogged,” Dr. Green explains. It’s when the sebum becomes trapped within the pores, inflamed, and irritated, that acne forms.

Additionally, factors like an improper skincare routine, the environment, your hormones, diet, and stress levels can all contribute to acne. The why may be different, but the common thread is how it develops. Acne occurs when the sebaceous follicles of your skin become plugged with a buildup of sebum, oil, and debris. The natural bacteria that normally lives on the skin then multiplies rapidly and causes the inflammation and irritation associated with acne.

How to Determine Your Skin Type

To properly identify your skin type and appropriately treat acne, Dr. Green recommends washing your face with a gentle cleanser and skipping the rest of your skincare routine. After a few hours, take a close look at your natural skin texture and tone. If you’re shiny, you likely have oily skin. If you’re flaky, red, or irritated, you probably have dry skin or sensitive skin. If you have patches of both, odds are you have combination skin.

Using the right skincare products for your skin type will help keep your skin clear. “It’s important to treat acne according to your skin type,” says Samer Jaber, MD. If you are oily, your skin is typically more resilient and can tolerate stronger medications, like prescription retinoids, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), or benzoyl peroxide. If your skin is on the drier side, these products may be too irritating for you, and you’ll have to introduce them gradually.

The Takeaway

Healthy skin is hydrated and even in tone and texture. If you’re struggling to figure out your skin type or don’t understand how to treat the breakouts you're exerpiencing, visit a board certified dermatologist for guidance. They will be able to analyze your complexion and offer a treatment protocol based on your needs.

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JEANNINE MORRIS LOMBARDIis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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