For acne sufferers who haven’t seen results from over-the-counter or prescription topicals, the vitamin A derivative isotretinoin (commonly known by the brand name Accutane) is pretty much a miracle drug. According to Yunyoung Claire Chang, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, taking the medication — which is usually administered over the course of several months — “leads to reduction in oil production and shrinking of the oil glands.” Many patients find that their acne never returns.
But because it’s so powerful, it also comes with some unpleasant side effects. There’s the potential to cause severe birth defects and changes in cholesterol and liver enzymes (which is why it’s important to not get pregnant while on the medication and to have your doctor perform regular blood tests), and Accutane can also be extremely drying — which is often a new problem for acne patients. “Many products that patients may be using already to treat acne can further irritate the skin,” says Chang. “I recommend discontinuing products that include drying or irritating ingredients, including benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinoids.”
Since those ingredients probably make up most of the typical acne patient’s skin-care arsenal, going on Accutane requires a total routine revamp. We asked Chang, and Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, what products Accutane users should stock up on.
Best cleansers for Accutane users
Both dermatologists advise Accutane users to steer clear of harsh and drying cleansers that strip the skin of its natural oils. “[Look] for cleansers that are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic,” says Chang, to avoid irritating the skin further. Her picks include this mild cleansing lotion from Avène that’s free of soap and can be used without water.
Best facial moisturizers for Accutane users
“It is important to be religious with moisturizer use while on isotretinoin, reapplying multiple times per day,” according to Chang. “I recommend creams with ceramides, which are a key, natural lipid in the skin that helps keep moisture in the skin.” As you might infer by the brand’s name, CeraVe products all include ceramides to help replenish skin — which is why they’re a top choice among dermatologists for Accutane users. Chang likes that this moisturizer also has other hydrating ingredients, including hyaluronic acid and glycerin.
Even though it doesn’t feel thick and heavy, Zeichner likes this gel-based Neutrogena moisturizer, which he says “uses hyaluronic acid to deliver higher levels of hydration without weighing down facial skin.” Our beauty writer Rio Viera-Newton explains that “hyaluronic-acid serums hydrate by penetrating deep down into the skin and increasing the skin’s overall water content.” All good things for Accutane-parched skin.
Another lightweight option, Chang recommends this cream because it’s “extremely moisturizing while not being too heavy on the skin.” Along with ceramides, ingredients like fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamin E work to replenish the skin and prevent environmental damage.
Best bodywash for Accutane users
Since Accutane dries out skin all over, Zeichner suggests using Dove’s moisturizing bodywash, as “it contains ultrahydrating ingredients to moisturize the skin while you wash.” And as good as a long, hot shower may feel in the moment, Chang suggests “limiting showers to five to ten minutes and using lukewarm water,” as hot water can further dry out the skin.
Best body moisturizers for Accutane users
“The best time to apply moisturizers is within three minutes of showering, when your skin absorbs the moisture the best,” says Chang. So after your brief, not-too-steamy shower, reach for hydrating creams like this one, which she calls a “rich, fragrance-free and noncomedogenic cream to help repair dry skin while on Accutane.” The addition of shea butter makes it extra soothing.
This is also a good time to ditch light, liquid-y body lotions and go with thicker creams and balms to alleviate all-over dryness. “I recommend healing balms like Aveeno CICA balm, which combines skin-soothing colloidal oatmeal in a rich, creamy ointment,” says Zeichner. Oat helps repair the skin’s natural barrier.
Best lip treatments for Accutane users
According to Chang, more than 90 percent of Accutane users experience chapped lips, so it’s essential to give lips extra attention to avoid painful drying and cracking. Zeichner recommends CeraVe healing ointment because it contains, in addition to hyaluronic acid, “skin repairing ceramides in an ointment formula to form a protective seal over the lips.”
A cult favorite among Accutane users, Aquaphor — an occlusive that locks in moisture — is also one of Chang’s favorite lip treatments.
Best sunscreen for Accutane users
“Accutane makes you extremely sensitive to the sun, so a broad-spectrum, high SPF sunscreen is a must,” says Zeichner. We’ve heard dermatologists rave about EltaMD sunscreen in the past, so it wasn’t surprising to hear that Chang says this is her “favorite sunscreen for Accutane patients because it is a 100 percent physical sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum UV coverage and also contains hyaluronic acid to improve hydration in the skin.” Compared to chemical sunscreens, physical ones are more gentle on sensitive skin.
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