An NYC Dermatologist Talks Acne-Fighting Ingredients for Skin of Color

Is salicylic acid safe for dark skin?

Close-up of black woman with smooth, clear skin
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Acne is a universal issue, but dark skin can be tricky when it comes to treating breakouts. Skin of color is more prone to experiencing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, which can be caused by potentially irritating ingredients like salicylic acid.

Board-certified dermatologist Sejal K. Shah, M.D. specializes in the unique skin concerns of African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Indians. She weighs in on the best acne prevention and treatment tips for skin of color.

Safe and Effective Acne-Fighting Ingredients for Dark Skin

There are plenty of acne-fighting ingredients for skin of color. The quickest and easiest way to address an impending breakout is an over-the-counter spot treatment with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or sulfur. Dr. Shah also recommends topical antibiotics and retinoids, as well as at-home blue light devices. If you can get to a dermatologist, a steroid injection is highly effective.

Dr. Shah says these ingredients and methods are all generally safe for skin of color. To minimize the risk of hyperpigmentation, she suggests testing any product on the inner arm first. If there's no irritation, you can then ease the product into your skincare routine; use it one to three times a week to start, then increase, if needed.

How to Fade Acne Scars and Dark Spots On Skin of Color

One of the best habits for preventing hyperpigmentation and acne scars is wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day. To treat existing scars and spots, you have options.

"Dark spots generally require a multimodal approach," Dr. Shah says. "The first step is to start a topical lightening agent. Currently, hydroquinone is considered the gold standard for lightening, but other ingredients such as retinoids, azelaic acid, kojic acid, glycolic acid, and vitamin C have lightening properties. The second step is a series of superficial chemical peels that can specifically target pigment."

Depressed or pitted acne scars usually require laser treatments. For skin of color, a non-ablative resurfacing laser, such as the Fraxel Restore, is best; Dr. Shah recommends a series of at least four sessions.

Tips for Avoiding Breakouts

"The most important thing that acne-prone people can do is to establish a skincare routine and stick with it," Dr. Shah says. "It is so important to gently cleanse the face, especially at night. People often either forget or get lazy to wash their faces at the end of the day and end up sleeping with their makeup on, which can trigger their acne."

Steer clear of harsh scrubs or cleansers, thick moisturizers, and heavy makeup, as well as oil- or petroleum-based hair care products that can transfer from your hair to your skin and clog your pores.

To keep skin clear long-term, you might want to look into developing a regimen with a dermatologist. "I find that a lot of acne-prone individuals do well on regular maintenance treatments rather than spot treatments," Dr. Shah says.

Natural Ingredients for Treating Acne

If natural skin care is more your thing, Dr. Shah says there are a few ingredients that work well. A drop of tea tree oil diluted with water is a powerful blemish fighter. Oatmeal masks and turmeric masks have been shown to reduce inflammation and redness.

Bottom line: Skin of color doesn't have too many restrictions for treating breakouts. However, if your acne is severe or you're interested in more potent solutions for diminishing scarring or hyperpigmentation, a dermatologist can help devise a safe and effective plan.