I’m SO on top of My Routine. Why Won’t My Acne Go Away?

Why Your Adult Acne Won't Go Away

We’re taught that fighting breakouts is the way to clear them. But that doesn’t work for all of us. Your routine could be why your adult acne won’t go away.

Could you be like me? My whole life I fought my breakouts. I attacked them, dried them out, scrubbed them with exfoliants, + skipped moisturizer since I was advised it won’t help my acne-prone skin. (That’s what I was treated for.)

But sensitive skin can’t handle this. Instead of helping, it weakens your skin’s defenses (that are already low key weak) + opens up the door for more breakouts.

It’s a vicious cycle. Breakout > attack > more breakouts because it was attacked.

If you don’t know you have sensitive skin, like I didn’t know, it all just continues.

Sensitive skin thrives + is able to defend against breakouts by being supported. You have its back + it has yours. It can clear dumbly fast when supported.

This Means a Switch To:

  • Prioritizing not drying out your skin
  • Minimizing exfoliation as much as possible (your top layer of skin is already weaker than others). And choosing the gentlest forms possible.
  • Retiring mud masks (I know ? )
  • Moisturizers are still annoying, but more likely because they’re too heavy + clog. There are workarounds.
  • Conditioners, like moisturizers, can clog your skin. Lighter hydration forms help.
  • You can use spot treatments, but not the traditional ones. It needs to gently treat + moisturize to KO.
  • Low % actives tend to be your friend. Usually the lower the better.

How to Deal with Maskne (aka Mask Acne)

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through & make a purchase.

All opinions are honest + my own. All products are put through a 2 week test period conducted on myself.

In today’s new normal, maskne is a breakout type that came out of nowhere. I collected a bunch of maskne advice given by derms + estheticians in articles and tested it out over the last month. This updated post reflects what’s helped me make makne no big deal.

Sensitive skin can’t handle what tougher (more resilient) skin can. Advice out there often forgets that, which is why I’ve written this post. But I’m sure non-sensitive skin could benefit too!

If you found some other ways, let me know!

Acne caused by face masks

How Would Maskne Show Itself?

  • Little white bumps – found on chinstrap line, bridge of the nose, along cheeks. (Rub zones)
  • Acne somewhere along mask zone.
Acne from wearing face mask

How to Prevent + Deal with Maskne

1. Wash Your Mask Frequently. If You Can’t, Spray It with Alcohol Before Reusing.

This one change reduced my maskne by a lot. Your mask can leave oils, makeup residue, or bacteria on the material. Rewearing will rub that across your skin. A lot of articles are saying to wash your mask daily. I’ve gotten away with every other use, but after each day’s use does help more!

2. Gently Exfoliate 1ce a Week

I’ve found a very gentle exfoliator has helped a lot to calm maskne. To be honest, I only do it when I start seeing the maskne form + it has calmed them right back down. I haven’t done it, but a weekly exfoliation would probably be a good preventative. (I just don’t like exfoliating more than I have to. haha)

My go-to is the Naturopathica Pumpkin Purifying Enzyme Peel ($58). It has a super gentle exfoliation through lactic acid + Lactobacillus/Pumpkin Fruit Ferment. Pumpkin is said to be a very mild retinoic acid sub while also providing antioxidants. My skin loves it! It sounds expensive, but a jar lasts me 4-6mos with targeted use across breakout zones; meaning it costs me $10-15 a month.

3. Wash Your Face After Wearing a Mask

Naturally, after washing your hands.

I’ve tested washing after mask use + it does feel nice, to be honest. Especially if I was out in the heat. But on days I put on + off the mask a couple of times, I’ll make a judgment call for the sake of not washing my face too often.

Face breaking out from mask

The mask rubbing against your skin can remove oils + cause your skin to produce more to replace the loss. With warm weather, it may trap sweat. Washing off sweat + excess oil is a plus.

The gentler the cleanser better since this is increasing washing frequency. My favorite is the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser for its ceramides that help repair our skin barrier from mask rub + washing.

If your cleanser has actives, be mindful of that. You could demote it to alternating day use or less, if you really want to keep using it. Let your skin tell you what it can handle. Definitely demote it if it has any exfoliating qualities. Keep that exfoliating frequency low.

4. Moisturize Before + After Using a Mask

Are COVID masks causing pimples? Maskne exists, but it's not a big deal.

The friction of the mask against our skin can cause irritation. Moisturizing can help add a little protection.

Ones with anti-inflammatory or calming ingredients are a good pick. Additionally, moisturizers that strengthen or repair our skin barrier are a plus. Skin barrier strengthening is already something great for sensitive skin. You should have that anyway!

Some ingredients you’ll want to lean to are: ceramides + squalane. I would suggest meadowfoam seed oil, safflower seed oil, sunflower seed oil may also help. I like using One Love Organics Gardenia + Tea Antioxidant Body Serum ($39) for its skin barrier assisting oils + very calming scent. I’ve had it calm my skin, too.

5. Switch to a Softer Reusable Mask

I switched to all reusable masks with a slip in filter + found the softer material does help! They’re so easy to clean + are so much greener than the throwaways. Plus, I kinda like the excuse of matching my mask with my outfit.

This was the most useful mask fabric advice I found:

“The best cloth option for your skin is a mask made from silk or silk-lined materials…[But, this] fabric is porous, so smaller droplets may be able to get through. [Dr.] Mamelak suggests looking for silk masks that include multiple layers with filters in between.

…If you can’t snag a silk mask, try to find one with layers of breathable material such as cotton, which would be less irritating than heavier, more airtight fabrics that can increase facial sweating”

Wearing a mask can irritate your face or make it break out. Here’s what to do about ‘maskne.’ with contributions from dermatologist Dr. Dana Marshall and physicians assistant LeighAnne McGill from Dermatology & Laser Center of Chapel Hill, The Washington Post.
Skin breakouts from wearing masks

6. Use Pimple Patches Under Your Mask to Protect a Breakout

Bumped into this advice! It doesn’t hurt to protect a pimple from mask rub while treating it during the day.

Maskne treatment is the same as typical acne, while emphasizing moisturizing (which is true for sensitive skin anyway).

7. FYI – Consider Pausing Retinol Where Your Mask Sits

If you’re using retinol, the sensitizing aspect of it might amplify mask rub irritation. Consider pausing retinol, if that’s true for you.

8. FYI – Makeup + Mask May Clog Pores

The advice out there is to either skip make-up under your mask, since no one will see, or be sure to cleanse after.

What Does Sensitive Skin Acne Look Like?

Now, this I’m writing from personal experience and about 5 years of tinkering with my skin, after discovering the source of my acne.

What Should You Look For?

In my experience, it can look just like regular pimples. It can be cystic (under the skin), little red dots, regular medium-sized pimples, and whiteheads.

What is sensitive skin acne like?  Explaining what I've seen from my acne experience.

Some indicators can be:

  • Pimples along the hairline.
  • Breakout in front of your ear.
  • Acne along the back part of your jawline (towards the ear, especially on the underside of your jaw).
  • Bacne along the center of your shoulders + down the spine.
  • Breakouts around the mouth – especially if above your lip or a vague line from lip edge to chin. 

All of these are drip lines – shampoo, conditioner, + toothpaste. These localized markers can help provide a clue. Most other things you use are applied equally across the face (like a face wash or moisturizer), making it hard to tell sensitive skin acne apart from other types of acne.

These aren’t the only places sensitive skin acne can show up, it’s just a good hint.

What Shows It’s Not Just Regular Acne?

I believe there’s two ways. And it depends if it’s product caused or acne acne.

If it’s product caused:

A big telltale sign is how rapidly your skin clears + remains clear when you remove a product with a troublesome ingredient.

With that, I find the timeline is often 3-4 days.  That is, from an angry breakout to clearly subsiding towards clear skin by just removing the suspect product.

If it’s acne:

This can be subtle. If a traditional acne product treats a breakout, but the area becomes dried out and a pimple reoccurs in the area, that can be a clue.

That endless cycle of treating + quickly reoccurring can be a sign that the treatment was too harsh for your skin + you need to turn to gentler approaches to see lasting results.

What I’ve seen is less aggressive treatments are able to treat without aggravating sensitive skin. So instead of a return breakout, it simply goes away and that’s that.

Acne care for sensitive skin definitely needs a different, gentler approach.

Skincare Routine Pro Tip: Don’t Switch It Up Often

Little Reminder: You don’t need to switch up your skincare routine each day.

All the routine suggestions out there can make it feel like daily changes are good + everyone’s doing it.

Making custom skincare routine can take a minute, but be sure not to become a product junkie.

It’s better to see the many routines as alternative suggestions. It’s perfectly fine to repeat a skincare routine day after day!

In fact, constantly changing the products in your regime can cause more problems than it’s worth. Frequent changes can cause your skin to become overwhelmed + thrown off balance. And that can invite irritation + acne.

So long as the repeated routine is gentle, it can be a great benefit to repeat and give your skin a chance to soak it in again.

Many ingredients need time to see results set in. Your skin needs a chance to receive the nutrients, go to work, + then debut the results.

Another downfall of frequently switching is gravitating towards products that only provide surface-level, temporary results, but never truly lasting results.

I want you feeling like a snack. Not indulging in quick-fix “snack” products that don’t get to the root of the problem.

Repeat Zit? Try a Drawing Salve.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through & make a purchase.

All opinions are honest + my own. All products are put through a 2 week test period conducted on myself.

About 2 years ago, I had a bunch of repeat zit sites that were really frustrating me. I would treat them, they would become a white head + go away, but also eventually return again! In the exact same spot.

To me, that hinted at bacteria that managed to get deep within my skin. It seemed like I was treating the surface stuff, but something was lingering. Why else would it repeat like this?

Then I stumbled across this article about drawing salves that blew my mind.

That Sweet Eureka Moment

Repeat zits in the same place suck, but you can get rid of them!

Drawing salves were popular in the 1800’s. They provided a way of getting your skin to regurgitate bacteria or even a splinter out of the depths of our skin. And, as the article noted, great for cystic acne.

If they’re useful for cystic acne, defined as bacteria deep within skin, then couldn’t they be used for acne reappearing in the same spot? What if a past pimple burst and left bacteria trapped deep under the skin and I was only treating the stuff on the surface? Thus, repeat pimple? Because I’m definitely bad about not popping a pimple. (I’m still working on that…!)

And, With A Heap of Patience, They Stopped

This took patience, but it actually did end the repeat cycle.

Smile’s PRID Drawing Salve* was the one that did it for me. At under $10, it’s a really cheap fix. But it requires time. (That will pay back in spades later!)

I applied PRID nightly to the repeat spots for about a month to a month and a half. It caused the repeat acne sites to create a pimple multiple times, but then, eventually, it subsided into smaller repeat pimples + then nothing. And then they didn’t return.

I used this both on active repeat zits and also locations that were inactive, but I knew for a fact were repeat zit sites.

As PRID brought the pimples to a head, sometimes I would also apply a pimple patch like Missha’s Speedy Solution Anti Trouble Patch to double team. I didn’t double team all the pimples as they appeared, just the ones that looked like they needed extra help and were sticking around too long. But you could probably use the Missha Trouble Patch more aggressively than I did. (Meaning: have PRID get the pimple to appear, then smack a patch on it, rinse, repeat.)

PRID is sticky, medicinal resin smelling, and not an appealing skincare product. But it works! For that, I’m deeply grateful. It’s saved me a lot of effort from there out.

With the cyclical, repeat zits squashed, I gained more clear skin stability + saved a lot of time and money I would have spent on acne treatments. Win all around, in my book!

* (Paid Link)

With Sensitive Skin Acne, Gentle Gets You Places

As the name almost hints at, “sensitive” skin types tend to do better with less aggressive approaches. It isn’t as resilient as normal skin and can’t handle the same onslaught someone with normal skin is able to get away with.

Growing up as a middle schooler + teen in the ’90s, “deep clean” was foundational acne knowledge. A classic regimen included beautifully foaming cleanser for that nice, deep pore clean followed by an astringent toner or astringent exfoliating pad to really chase the gunk out. You could apply a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment for overnight problem-solving. A physical exfoliant, like a big grit apricot scrub or (later) a super fine grit scrubbing cleanser, were other regular use helpful tools. And there were a bunch of people who swore by them.

What I didn’t know until recently, is this was more than my skin is able to tolerate. And that this set me in the sensitive skin category.

Drop-kicking Your Skin Isn’t Necessary

Fifteen - A Sensitive Skin Acne Blog: the best acne care for sensitive skin isn't harsh
Photo by DIAO DARIUS on Unsplash

The gentle-looking bubbles of a high-foaming cleanser are actually a sign of a strong detergent. When a detergent is too strong for a skin type, it will take off more oil than necessary, leaving skin defenseless. For sensitive skin, it can cause pimples, create dryness, or create oily skin as overcompensation for what was lost.

Astringent toners + pads, as well as high-drying spot treatments, I’ve now come to find, are generally overkill for sensitive skin. It’s just not necessary to go that far with high % benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. That dried-out or stretched tight feeling after using them are identifiers of “too much”.

Exfoliation really needs to be kept to a minimum – not an everyday usage thing. Maybe once a week at most. And done with the least aggressive version possible, like an enzyme exfoliation, for example. Too much exfoliation tends to aggravate sensitive skin + cause more issues than help.

Happy Skin is Supported Skin

Whenever you’re picking a product, try going for gentler options. Sweet talk gets you farther with our skin.

It needs support, not aggression. Gentle cleansing. Gentle, infrequent exfoliation. Supporting moisture. Lipid barrier healing.

You don’t want oil-less skin. You want happy, balanced skin. Your skin needs some oil to help keep you looking cute + moisturized, and your skin better defended. What that “balanced” oil level feels like will become clear with a little experience.

What to Do If You Breakout 2-2.5 Weeks Into Trying a New Product

I’m in the middle of testing cleansers for you. And a poorly-going test made me write a quick Instagram Story about exactly this. On thinking about it, it’s actually a rule I have to regularly remind myself as I often internalize pimples as my skin just doing its thing.

It’s a bad habit, but one I believed for a long, long time.

What I’ve come to find with sensitive skin is that’s often not true. It’s not you.

What it is instead, is a product – and more than likely an ingredient – that simply doesn’t work with our sensitive skin type.

As a General Rule

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

Don’t run around trying lots of products all at once. That’s mayhem for your skin. And you’ll also have no idea which product was the culprit.

Keep your routine relatively simple, especially when you’re first trying to figure out what ingredients do and do not work for you. Minimalism takes the guesswork out.

Also, consider finding products with relatively smaller ingredient lists. It’s not always easy to find, but these shorter lists help a lot when trying to deduce which ingredient your skin didn’t like. In the beginning, a 4-inch long list is a giant question mark when trying to figure out which ingredient your skin wasn’t liking.

Take a Minute

When you begin using a new product, keep a mild mental note of when you started trying it + generally how your skin looked at the start.

This doesn’t have to be scientific, just approximate. Such as: “I started it last Wednesday, the 5th-ish” or “I had some breakouts on my chin and forehead when I began”, whatever it is. A light mental note you’ll end up tossing in a couple of weeks.

Fast Forward After a Period of Just Fine

Your skin can try hard to be resilient for a while and then suddenly not be able to cope. The 2-2.5 week mark can be that line.

Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash

If you started seeing a low-grade breakout or just an increased breakout, try pausing the product you suspect caused it.

Crap. Which? That new product you started using 2 Wednesdays ago? Maybe that.

Yeah, it worked well the last week and a half or so. But that might have been a coping period.

Hit pause on that one + see what happens over the next week. You might find your skin clears in as little as 4 days and stays clear.

In my experience, what you’re looking for is signs of skin quality stability + also a relatively rapid return to normal when you pause a product.

You’ll start to notice when your skin is largely improving on its own and staying clear. That’s been my marker for “whoops found an ingredient”.

If You See a Relatively Rapid Improvement

Save the ingredient list of that product you paused.

It will help you figure out which ingredient tripped you up. You can do this several ways.

You can compare this ingredient list to the ingredient list of another product you suspect broke you out. See any overlaps? Within the overlaps, there might be your hidden ingredient. It will take some deducing.

If you haven’t already filtered them out, try using the Beginners Ingredient Removal List as a starting guide. If any of them were in the product, you can think of them as your tentative suspect ingredients.

A brief search of a suspect ingredient name and “breakout” or “causing acne” can help show if the ingredient is at all known for causing acne. Even if it “rarely” causes it. We’re the “rarely”, and that might (not definitely) be your suspect ingredient.

As you filter out the ingredients you suspect may have broken you out, you should be seeing an improvement and fewer stumbles.

It’s a process of elimination. Keep them on your suspect ingredient list until you think you’ve built a case for it being a definite trouble point for your skin. Trust me, those will make themselves clear.

Is It Possible to Use an Ingredient in Smaller Doses?

Photo by Shifaaz shamoon on Unsplash

Sometimes, yes!

But half the struggle with sensitive skin is knowing which ingredients can be your trouble points.

From there, it’s coming to learn to what degree are they a trouble point.

It will take time to figure out which you can handle at a smaller dose and which you simply can’t handle full stop. But it will be clear. It’s an “each time you use that ingredient there’s chaos vs sometimes when you use that ingredient there’s chaos” kind of thing.

It might seem confusing right now, but it really does become easier. You’re learning to listen to your skin right now. As you learn the signs, they will guide you.


It’s 100% OK to avoid an ingredient with a cult following, if you find breakouts for you.

Just because there’s a volume of people swearing how great something was for them, does not mean it will work well for sensitive skin or you individually. And that’s completely alright.

Listen to your skin and trust what it’s telling you.

I know you bought the product and it’s a financial pain not to use it. Don’t let yourself feel guilty.

You can often repurpose it, assuming it’s not an allergy issue. Ever had a luxe leg treatment with a former face cream? Or serum? Ohh baby that’s some spa treatment right there!

Even if you truly can’t use it. Keep that ingredient list. It’s helped you get one step closer to finding what doesn’t work. That’s a huge part of conquering sensitive skin.

Remember: You’re awesome. Don’t feel guilty. It’s OK.