All acne, including acne on cheeks, is caused by the same factors of inflammation, bacteria, and oil production, but not all acne is caused by the same combination of these factors. For instance, acne on the forehead and nose (also known as the “T-zone”) is typically caused by oil production, due to the large number of oil production glands located in that region. On the other end of the spectrum is the “U-zone,” which occupies the temples, cheeks, and chin. Acne in this area is typically caused by the opposite problem: dry skin.
What Causes Acne on Cheeks?
Acne on cheeks could have multiple causes, but the most common is dry skin. The skin in the U-zone has far fewer oil production glands compared to the rest of the face, so the skin in that area is typically much drier.
Dry skin can lead to acne because it is more easily irritated. When the skin is irritated, the oil glands are stimulated and produce more oil, which can lead to clogged pores and more acne. The biggest problem with irritation though is the inflammation that follows. The immune system sees irritation as a threat, so it sets off the inflammation response in order to protect the skin. This causes the irritated area to swell slightly, isolating the irritant to prevent it from spreading. This closes off the pores, trapping oil, dead skin cells, and acne-causing bacteria beneath the surface.
Some of the main culprits for dry, irritated skin are actually acne products themselves because they use ingredients that are too harsh. Scrubbing is another source of irritated skin. Contrary to popular myth, acne is not caused by dirt or poor hygiene, and scrubbing almost always makes acne worse. It irritates the skin which causes it to produce more oil, it can force oil or dead skin cells into the pores, causing clogs, and it can strip away the skin’s protective layer of oil, leaving it vulnerable to irritants.
Finally, one other potential cause of acne on cheeks is hormones. Hormone fluctuations caused by pregnancy, menstruation, testosterone therapy, stress, or other sources can trigger increased oil production or set off the inflammation response, causing acne to appear even in the U-zone or other areas that typically aren’t as oily.
The Problem with Most Acne Products
Many acne products are designed to dry out the excess oil that often causes acne in the T-zone, and this only makes acne on cheeks worse, because the skin there typically doesn’t have an excess of oil. If you have successfully cleared your T-zone acne, only for acne in the U-zone to get worse, your acne products may be drying out your cheeks. This is a common occurrence because many acne treatment products are designed to clear up acne as fast as possible, without considering the long-term effects. Some of the top acne brands, such as Proactiv, use formulas that include a few good ingredients, but at concentrations that often do the skin more harm than good.
The best acne treatment ingredients are ones that are tough on acne and gentle with your skin. Used in the right concentrations and combined with other, soothing ingredients, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and tea tree oil (link to other article) can get rid of acne without harming the skin.
- Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most popular acne treatment ingredients right now, because it kills acne-causing bacteria. However, bacteria only play a significant role in pimples and cysts, which means that benzoyl peroxide is not overly effective in treating blackheads or whiteheads.
- In the United States, benzoyl peroxide is available in concentrations from 2.5% to 10%. If you have severe acne, it might be tempting to jump straight to the 10% products, but the truth is that those products may actually cause more acne. At that high of a concentration, benzoyl peroxide majorly irritates the skin, drying it out and causing more acne. It simply replaces oil-based acne with irritation-based acne, so it doesn’t really solve the problem.
- It’s much more effective to start with a 2.5% product and see how it works. If it doesn’t clear acne in the oily region of the T-zone, then you may need a higher concentration, but if it clears the T-zone and new acne appears in the U-zone, then benzoyl peroxide may not be the best product for your skin type.
- Salicylic acid is often combined with benzoyl peroxide because while it takes care of the bacteria and pimples, salicylic acid gets rid of blackheads and whiteheads by breaking up the oil and dead skin cells clogging the pores. The word “acid” sometimes makes people nervous about trying salicylic acid because it sounds too harsh, but mild acids can actually be beneficial to your skin. Skin is naturally slightly acidic, so acidic products can work with the skin to prevent acne.
- Salicylic acid is typically offered in concentrations ranging from 0.5% to 2%, and just like with benzoyl peroxide, it is best to start with the lowest concentration. If you’ve had acne forever and you’re just ready for it to be gone, it can be hard to patiently endure the weeks of testing, but it is the best way to get rid of acne for good. Many products that promise immediate results use high concentrations of acne-fighting ingredients. They will clear acne quickly—but then it’ll come right back as the skin dries out and gets irritated.
Tea Tree Oil
- Sometimes listed under ingredient lists as Melaleuca alternifolia oil, tea tree oil is an essential oil that has been proven to help treat and prevent acne. It kills bacteria, reduces inflammation, and breaks up clogged pores—everything you could want from an acne treatment! Research shows that it is less likely to irritate skin than benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, but if you have especially dry skin, it could cause issues in higher concentrations.
- Many tea tree oil products contain anywhere from 5% to 20% tea tree oil, but studies show that concentrations as low as 0.5% are high enough to kill acne-causing bacteria. Tea tree oil is sometimes used on its own, as a diluted essential oil, but it is also used in many acne products that combine several skin care ingredients.
Exposed Skin Care combines low concentrations of these and other scientific and natural ingredients to create formulas that take care of acne without drying out skin.
The Role of Hormones in Acne on Cheeks
Acne on cheeks typically occurs due to dryness or irritation, but there is one other common cause: hormone fluctuations. When hormones are out of balance, it can cause the skin to produce more oil. Pregnancy, menstruation, testosterone therapy, and stress all cause hormonal disturbances that could lead to cheek acne.
Pregnancy, menstruation, and testosterone therapy often lead to hormonal acne because of the shifting relationship between estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels. A relative increase in testosterone or other androgens often leads to increased oil production. The key word here is “relative.” Estrogen and progesterone are present in larger amounts in most women, while testosterone levels are higher for most men, but despite higher levels of testosterone, men do not have more acne than the general population. This is because the literal amounts of testosterone aren’t what cause increased oil production. It is the relative increase in testosterone.
Pregnancy, menstruation, and testosterone therapy all change the ratio between testosterone and hormones that balance it, like estrogen or progesterone. These shifts trigger the oil production glands and result in increased acne.
Testosterone isn’t the only hormone responsible for acne though. Stress is another source of hormonal acne. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline send your body in to fight, flight, or freeze mode, preparing your body to defend against a physical threat. One way the body defends itself is through the inflammation response, which we already know leads to acne. When the skin is inflamed, it traps oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria under the surface, clogging pores and creating acne.
The best hormonal acne treatments are combined oral contraceptives or spironolactone to balance out hormones, or red light therapy to shrink oil glands.
How to Clear Acne on Cheeks
If you have acne on cheeks caused by dry or irritated skin, the trick for how to clear acne on cheeks is surprisingly simple: moisturizer. Many people with acne skip the moisturizing step for fear of clogging pores, but the right moisturizer can help prevent acne caused by irritation.
When shopping for a moisturizer to help clear acne on cheeks, make sure you look for these labels: “non-comedogenic” or “non-pore-clogging,” and “water-based.” “Comedones” is another word for blackheads, so if a product says it is non-comedogenic, it means that it doesn’t cause clogged pores which lead to blackheads. “Water-based” is the other key label to look out for. Many moisturizers are water-based, but others are oil- or alcohol-based, and these can cause issues for acne.
Oil-based moisturizers can make the skin feel soft, but they deposit extra oil to the pores, making them more likely to clog and form acne. Alcohol-based moisturizers might not clog pores, but they usually don’t actually moisturize the skin either. Alcohol is harsh and drying, and alcohol-based moisturizers usually cause more problems than they solve.
At Exposed Skin Care, we make our own Moisture Complex, a product designed to keep skin hydrated and healthy while fighting acne. Created with pumpkin seed, green tea extract, and other ingredients proven to help soothe the skin, our moisturizer is designed specifically to help skin retain moisture without clogging pores.
Three Steps to Clear Skin: Cleanse, Treat, and Moisturize
Although a good moisturizer can do wonders for cheek acne, it can’t do all the work. The best way to treat acne on cheeks is to gently cleanse, treat, and moisturize. Cleansing the skin alone will only strip it of protective oils, leaving it open to bacteria and irritants in the air. Using only the treatment step may help get rid of acne that already exists, but it can’t prevent future acne, and it could dry out the skin and cause more problems. Similarly, moisturizing alone might make skin soft and supple, but it won’t clear the cheeks of acne.
Cleansing, treating, and moisturizing the skin can clear up cheek acne, but only if done so gently. Many different acne products include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, tea tree oil, or other ingredients, but at very high concentrations. This gets rid of acne quickly, then it dries out the skin and brings the acne right back. At Exposed Skin Care, we avoid this cycle by using responsible concentrations of all our active ingredients and including naturally soothing ingredients, like aloe vera or green tea extract, in our products.
The best way to cleanse, treat, and moisturize the skin is with an Exposed Skin Care kit. The Expanded Kit is our top recommendation for acne on cheeks because it includes our Moisture Complex.
The Best DIY Recipe for Acne on Cheeks
One last option for clearing acne on cheeks is through a do-it-yourself remedy. Many DIY face mask recipes contain ingredients like lemon juice or essential oils, but those are too harsh to treat the dry skin on the cheeks. Instead, we recommend a very simple DIY remedy: honey and cinnamon. Honey is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and it can help lock in moisture without clogging pores. Cinnamon is also antibacterial, and provides an extra boost to help prevent pimples without drying out the skin.
- 1 tablespoon of pure honey
- ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
Before combining the honey and cinnamon, check to make sure the honey is pure by looking at the list of ingredients. The only one listed should be honey. If other ingredients like fructose or water are listed, then the honey is not pure, and it will likely not be very effective. Once you have the right honey, combine 1 tablespoon with a ½ teaspoon of cinnamon, mixing thoroughly until the cinnamon is spread throughout. Apply the mixture to the skin using a cotton ball or your fingertips, then allow the mask to set. We recommend leaving the mask on for at least 20-30 minutes, but you can leave it on as long as you like. When you’re ready to remove the mask, rinse your face with cool water until the skin is clear. It might be tempting to scrub the honey off, since it’s so sticky, but that will irritate the skin and undo all the great work the face mask has done. Instead, do your best to patiently remove the honey by gently rubbing it off with your fingertips. Once the skin is clear, pat dry with a soft towel.