Preparing to head back to school can leave anyone frazzled, as COVID-19 variant uncertainty continues to shroud a safe, stable return to campus life in the new semester. And that’s on top of the other things on your to-do list: shopping for textbooks and school supplies, mentally planning how many hours you’ll have to spend in the library to balance your schoolwork with your social life, and, of course, making time for a skin care routine in between it all. Unfortunately, all that stress can do a number on your skin, and because of that, dermatologists all over Instagram and TikTok are asking you to carve out a modicum of time to take care of your skin as you head back to school.
I know, I know: There should be a skin care syllabus or study guide to help you jump through the stress, sleeping with your makeup on, and out-of-nowhere acne breakouts, right? Lucky for you, there is. We asked three skin care experts lighting up social media with sage skin care advice to answer all your burning skin care questions for back-to-school. Dr. Caroline Robinson is a board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist who specializes in preventative skin care and ethnic skin dermatology. Dr. Joshua Zeichner is a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology and the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. And Dr. Sheila Farhang is a board-certified dermatologist, skin cancer surgeon, and the founder of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics. Trust, their guidance on your biggest skin care questions will have you rethinking your self-care priorities.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What's the bare minimum skin care routine I should be doing every day?
Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD: Properly cleansing the skin is essential to prevent oil and dead skin cells from clogging the pores, so I suggest cleansing your face daily. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, I suggest washing your face twice a day. Everyday use of sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) is also essential for skin health to prevent early skin aging, sun damage, and skin cancers.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: At a bare minimum, I recommend washing your face with a cleanser before bed to remove sweat, oil, and dirt that builds up during the day. The most important part of your skin care routine should also be applying sunscreen every morning. UV light exposure is the number one cause of both premature aging and the development of skin cancers later in life.
How bad is it really to sleep in my makeup?
Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD: Sleeping in your makeup is one of the biggest mistakes you can make on your quest for healthy skin. Allowing makeup to sit on the skin overnight can make it very challenging to keep pores unclogged. It also puts the skin at risk of blemishes.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: Just because makeup is labeled as “long-wear,” doesn’t mean you should wear it for a long time. Sleeping in makeup causes two major problems for the skin. First, it increases the likelihood of acne breakouts by blocking the pores. Second, it can lead to skin irritation and rashes by disrupting the skin’s barrier.
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: It’s not the end of the world if you are too tired to wash your face before bed — it happens to all of us every once in a while. However, it is important to remember that makeup and pollutants from the day can cause inflammation and increased free radicals. This can result in dull skin, discoloration, and collagen breakdown. Also, sleeping in mascara and eye makeup can lead to infections around the eye, such as a stye. My suggestion is to put a pack of makeup wipes (preferably biodegradable) on your nightstand to encourage yourself to at least wipe off the makeup and impurities before zonking out.
How might school stress affect my skin?
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: Multiple studies have shown that students tend to break out more during testing periods at school. If you tend to break out when you experience emotional stress, then you likely are more genetically susceptible to stress acne. To prevent breakouts, I recommend stepping up your skin care routine in preparation for the stressful time. This may mean switching your cleanser to one that contains salicylic acid. You also can use a benzoyl peroxide leave-on acne treatment to protect your face.
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: Everyday stress can increase hormones, such as cortisol, to signal more oil production. This leads to clogged pores. In addition, chronic stress can disrupt your skin barrier, causing your skin to become more inflamed and irritated.
How can I tell if my acne is from stress as opposed to something else?
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: Think of your face as having thousands of pipes connecting your oil glands to the surface of the skin. With acne, all of those pipes are somewhat clogged. During stressful periods, these pipes become even more blocked with oil. This creates an environment that allows acne-causing-bacteria to grow at higher than normal levels, leading to inflammation.
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: It can be stressful to take tests and meet deadlines. Breakouts are usually associated with redness and oiliness that causes cystic acne and white heads — but it's only just a few! When acne appears on the jawline or multiple areas of the face, it may be more than stress, and I recommend seeing a board-certified dermatologist for treatment.
What should I do if I feel a pimple coming on?
Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD: The most important thing to do if you feel a pimple coming is to not pop it! Using a spot treatment that contains benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or topical sulfur can be helpful in decreasing the inflammation, pain, or redness associated with pimples. If this happens frequently, it's important to get connected with a board-certified dermatologist, who can prescribe preventative topical retinoids.
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: Pimple patches that contain active ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid help to dry out clogged oil glands. As a bonus, it also stops you from making things worse by touching and picking at your pimple. I also highly advise you to steer away from internet hacks like applying toothpaste or lemon on your blemish. These methods don’t really help and can actually cause chemical burns.
In general, what's the best skin care routine to prevent acne?
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: There are three main ingredients to treat acne: benzoyl peroxide to lower levels of acne-causing bacteria; salicylic acid to dry out pimples and remove excess oil and dead cells from the surface of the skin; and a topical retinoid called adapalene that prevents cells from sticking together and blocking the opening of the pore.
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: A gentle cleanser is a must to help restore a healthy skin barrier and prevent acne. If oiliness is an issue, I suggest using a salicylic acid wash or cream in the morning. If you are experience a lot of white heads and or “maskne,” I suggest trying a benzoyl peroxide wash or cream. For the night, I recommend finding a cleanser that contains retinol or adapalene to help unclog the pores.
What foods are most likely to break me out?
Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD: We definitely need more data on the link between diet and acne. However, some foods seem to be more closely linked to acne flares, such as dairy and foods containing simple sugars.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: Cow’s milk — particularly skim milk — as well as foods that are high in sugar are known to cause acne breakouts. Whey protein supplements are also a potential culprit.
How can not drinking enough water affect my skin?
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: It is a myth that you need to drink eight glasses of water to keep your skin hydrated. It is also a myth that drinking less than a glass of water will cause skin dryness.
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: Drinking water helps all of the cells in the body, including the skin cells, work better. However, it's a common myth that drinking more water can “moisturize” the skin.
Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD: Most people drink enough water to hydrate their skin, but one of the more effective ways to hydrate the skin is through a moisturizer.
Cystic acne started appearing on my skin out of nowhere. Why might that be happening?
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: Cystic acne could be a result of stress. Some inflammatory foods can also trigger acne or acne rosacea. I recommend keeping a log/diary.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: Cystic acne is usually the result of hormonal fluctuations. If you’re developing any painful and underground cysts, it’s important to visit a dermatologist for professional help.
Is it really bad to pop your pimples? (And what should I do if I already popped one?)
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: Popping pimples can cause more inflammation, scarring, bacteria, and can even create more acne. The only time I would recommend popping one is when there is a very loose whitehead. I recommend doing this after the shower when the skin is clean and the white head is soft. First, I suggest using a warm compress, then using two little Q-tips to gently apply pressure. If the top of the white head doesn’t come off after two tries, it's not ready. You also shouldn’t see blood, because that means too much pressure has been applied and has broken through the deeper skin layer — this causes scarring!
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: If you pick a pimple and the skin is inflamed, apply an antibiotic ointment, like an over-the-counter bacitracin. If you have a tender pimple or a pus bump, you can apply a hydrocolloid dressing to help dry it out and allow it to heal.
Is there any popular skin care advice on TikTok or Instagram that I shouldn't follow?
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD: Remedies like honey, toothpaste, lemon juice, and baking soda may seem attractive, but they are not as effective as traditional acne treatments.
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD: I would be cautious of following radical “quick fixes” before doing careful research to validate that the advice is from an expert, such as a dermatologist.
Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD, board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and the associate professor of dermatology and the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City
Dr. Sheila Farhang, MD, board-certified dermatologist, skin cancer surgeon, and founder of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics