How to (Correctly) Apply Topical Acne Medication

Megan Segura
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

While I usually have a good handle on my skin, I woke up a couple months ago to face full of blemishes that even my favorite acne products couldn’t fix. My next step was to make a beeline to my favorite dermatologist, Dr. Josh (Joshua Zeichner, MD if you’re nasty), the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai. Dr. Josh set me up with a nice prescription for Atralin, a topical retinoid, along with a long list of instructions. Yep, it seems there is a right way (and a very wrong way) to apply your topical acne medication.

1. Use a gentle face wash.
When you’re suffering from acne, you just want it gone as quickly as possible. This urgency leads people to think they need a harsh acne wash to go along with their acne medicine. While this instinct is understandable, it is also wrong. Pairing a harsh cleanser with an already harsh topical will lead to burning, peeling and redness. I experienced all three back in high school when I made this rookie mistake. Instead, Dr. Josh recommended I use Cetaphil DermaControl Oil Control Foam Wash ($9.59,

2. Apply moisturizer before your topical medication.
While it might seem weird, dermatologists have done studies that show moisturizer before topicals doesn’t change the efficacy of the medicine, but it does help prevent the irritating side effects, like redness and peeling.

3. Choose the right nighttime moisturizer. 
Fact: Your morning moisturizer doesn’t have to be the same as your nighttime moisturizer. Look for an evening moisturizer that contains niacinamide, which helps reduce redness. A good option is CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM ($11.39,

4. Use no more than a pea-size amount of your topical prescription.
This rule has always been the hardest for me to follow, because it doesn’t feel like I’m getting enough product all over my face. A great technique Dr. Josh taught me was to take the pea-size amount on an index finger and dot it on my forehead, cheeks and chin. Once you’ve dotted it in these places, then you can rub it around, so you get your whole face.

5. Ease into the routine.
Again, don’t be in such a rush to clear up your acne that you ruin your skin in the process. If you start off applying your topical each and every night, you will anger your skin, and it won’t be pretty. Instead, apply it every other night for a couple of weeks. If irritation begins any way, then reduce your usage to once every couple of days. Eventually your skin will build up a tolerance, so you can use it every night without a problem.

The most important thing to remember when starting a new acne medication is to have patience. You won’t clear up over night, but within six weeks (feels like forever, I know) you should see a difference. If you don’t, then visit your dermatologist again to find a solution. Don’t give up on figuring out your skin issues.

Read more: The 5 Rules of Clear Skin