Affordable Acne Routine: Bumper Guide

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I talked about my terrible teenage skincare routine before (check it out here if you want all the gory details). I have oily acne-prone and dehydration-prone skin, and that skincare routine made everything so much worse.

It took me about 15 years to figure out a good skincare routine (we didn’t have as much skincare info on the internet back then), so today I’m going to be talking about the skincare routine that I wish I had if I was a teenager again.

I’ve included a few alternatives for different skin types and I’ve tried to keep everything below $20 AUD. I’ve included a few things that tend to go on sale a lot, and with overseas products the prices tend to fluctuate a bit.

Remember: these are my recommendations, which might not work for you. If you have other products that work really well for you, let me know in the comments.

(A disclaimer: this video isn’t sponsored, but I’ve been sponsored by some of the mentioned brands in the past, and I was sent samples of a lot of these products, but these are my genuine recommendations.)

The video is here, keep scrolling for the text version…

Mirrors and tweezers

I’m going to start with a thing not to have in your routine, and that is a mirror and tweezers where you do homework! I have a few dented scars in my nose and between my eyebrows if you look closely, from digging blackheads out of my face when I was 14. It is just too easy to procrastinate by picking at your skin if you have a mirror in the place where you tend to procrastinate the most.

And a magnifying mirror is even worse. Do not get a magnifying mirror! If someone gives you a magnifying mirror, it’s a curse. Re-gift it to a cousin you don’t like.

Cleansers

Onto cleansers! Cleansing is important, and gentle cleansers are the way to go.

Clogged pores are one of the things that you start having to deal with when you reach your teenage years (unless you’re one of those genetically blessed people with no skin issues ever). That’s because sebum (your skin oil) is actually one of the things that clogs your pores. Sometimes your body is just not a team player.

One of the big components of sebum is squalene (also found in skincare). This reacts with oxygen and in light, and it goes from runny to sticky and more solid. It starts sticking dead skin cells together to form little plugs in your skin that clog your pores, called microcomedones.

Cleansing reduces the amount of sebum on your face and gets rid of some of the stuff that’s already reacted, so that helps reduce clogged pores.

Another good reason to use a cleanser is really just the feel. Cleansers get dirt and oil off your skin, as well as any skincare or makeup products that you’re using.

I talk a lot more about choosing and using a good cleanser in my eBook The Lab Muffin Guide to Basic Skincare but in short, stripping your skin with cleansing is not a good approach. You can’t just bully your skin into behaving. It makes oily skin feel worse, and irritates your skin.

It’s even worse for acne-prone skin, since irritation is one of the factors that contributes to acne, along with oil and lots of dead skin cells. Cleansers with high pH can also disturb your skin, making it easier for acne bacteria to spread and get ingrained into your skin.

I think a lot of people, especially people new to skin care, tend to underestimate how important a good cleanser is. Since cleansers are washed off and only touch your skin for a short amount of time, it seems like they shouldn’t have that much of an impact. But a good cleanser can actually make a massive difference!

Here are my picks for budget-friendly cleansers that work well for acne-prone skin:

Frequency: You should probably cleanse once or twice a day. It really depends on your skin – I’ve personally found that cleansing once a day at night is a lot better than twice a day. Because my skin is so dehydration-prone, cleansing too much tends to dry it out. Try both and see what works best!

Makeup Removal

I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup to school so I didn’t really need this, but these days I love doing a double cleanse. This is a two-step process: first you use a cleansing oil or balm to melt away makeup really easily (also works really well for water-resistant sunscreen), then you go in with a second cleanser to get rid of any residue.

Related post: Fact-check Feature: How do cleansing oils work?

Cleansing oils: annoyingly, they can be a bit expensive and difficult to find.

  • Simple Kind to Skin Cleansing Oil: A good but seemingly discontinued option (placeholder here to try to manifest it back into existence)
  • QV Bath Oil: Not meant to be a cleansing oil, but works pretty well. Leaves behind a bit of residue so you’ll want to follow up with a regular cleanser.
  • Etude House Cleansing Oils sometimes go on sale.

Cleansing balms: solid versions that are easier and less messy to use, but also tend to be a bit expensive.

Micellar water: I’d recommend these if you’re looking for a simpler makeup/sunscreen removal routine. These work as a single product to remove makeup and cleanse your skin.

Both of these have been through a lot of clinical testing to make sure they’re really gentle, and most people can leave these two on skin without rinsing. So they’re great for after exercise or if you’re just too tired to get to a sink.

For Bioderma, I’d recommend the Sensibio one over Sebium since the Sebium can’t be used around the eyes.

I’d also grab some reusable cotton pads to use with these. Cheaper, disposable cotton pads tend to be a bit rough on skin (I actually used to use some that made me think that the micellar water was too harsh for my skin for a long time… I’m not really that smart, I just play a smart person on TV.) Most brands of reusable cotton pads last for ages; you can also make some DIY ones if you’re a bit crafty.

Acne Treatments

There are a few common over-the-counter options that are good for dealing with acne. But as Dr Anjali Mahto said in our collaboration on food and acne, if you’ve given these over-the-counter options a good bash and your acne doesn’t seem to be getting better (and it’s an option for you), it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor or dermatologist.

Sometimes what looks like acne is something else. Sometimes acne comes from internal causes that over-the-counter products just can’t really fix. If your acne is extending onto the rest of your body, starting to scar, or affecting your mental health, you may want to try moving on to professional help.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is the most famous acne ingredient, and it’s famous for good reason: it is really effective at killing acne bacteria. It does it in a way that doesn’t promote bacterial resistance (i.e. it won’t make the bacteria evolve and get even stronger).

Benzoyl peroxide also decreases clogged pores, so it deals with baby pimples that haven’t become full-blown pimples. But it is pretty harsh and drying, so you’ll want to use a gentle cleanser and a moisturiser. It also tends to work better when you use it all over your face preventatively, rather than as a spot treatment after the pimple has already left the station.

My favorite way of using benzoyl peroxide is in a cleanser. Benzoyl peroxide tends to bleach dyes in fabric, and it likes to wander off your face onto coloured towels, shirts and pillowcases you care about. Using benzoyl peroxide in a cleanser means that most of it will go down the drain before that happens, although it’s still best to be a bit careful.

I’d recommend having a gentle cleanser on hand as well, because the benzoyl peroxide might be too drying to use every day.

You’ll want to apply these to your face and wait about a minute before you rinse so the benzoyl peroxide has time to sink into your skin.

These benzoyl peroxide cleansers are also really handy if you have acne on your body, so you can avoid stains on your clothes. It can also act as a deodorant if you use it on your armpits – it kills the bacteria that causes the stank.

Related post: Chemical Exfoliants as Deodorant? The Science of Smelly Armpits

If you want to use a leave-on benzoyl peroxide product, there’s research showing that 2.5% works as well as 10% with less irritation. Remember to put it on all over so that it prevents future pimples – prevention is a lot easier than treatment!

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is the second ingredient I’d recommend for acne. It’s also known as beta hydroxy acid, and acts as an exfoliant that helps your dead skin cells shed more evenly. This means it helps prevent clogged pores and blackheads, and keeps your pores clearer so they look less obvious.

Related guide: Free Essential Exfoliation Guide

Unfortunately most well-formulated salicylic acid products tend to be a bit more expensive. 0.5 to 2% is a good concentration for most people.

  • Revolution Skincare 2% Salicylic Acid Toner was the cheapest option I could find, at $20 for 200 mL.
  • Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid is the best formula I’ve tried and isn’t too bad price-wise – it’s $15 for a mini 30 mL bottle, which is, surprisingly, cheaper than the 30 mL Inkey List and Revolution options (for Australians at least). The larger 118 mL bottle is $42, and works out to be about 1/3 cheaper per mL.

To use these, I pour a little into my hand then spread it over my face with my fingers. You can also rub your hands together then press it into your skin. To me, pouring it on a cotton pad feels like a waste of product.

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid isn’t my favorite ingredient. It seems to work for a lot of conditions, according to studies, but it doesn’t really seem to be super effective at any one thing. The texture is also often sticky and glue-like. But azelaic acid is generally less irritating than a lot of other active ingredients, so I thought I’d mention it for people who want to try a gentler option.

  • There are over-the-counter drug options available in Australia.
  • Paula’s Choice Azelaic Acid which has a nicer texture (and a lower percentage) is available overseas.
  • Always read the label and follow the directions for use.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

I also wanted to mention AHAs – even though salicylic acid exfoliates, I’ve personally found that AHAs tend to work better for texture and whiteheads. My budget-friendly picks:

  • The Ordinary 7% Glycolic Acid Toner is a bit strong on a lot of people’s skin, so be careful with this: don’t use it every day, or mix it in with something else
  • The Ordinary 5% Lactic Acid + HA is a bit gentler – lactic acid in general is a bit gentler than glycolic acid because the molecules are larger so they don’t get into skin as deeply.

Hydrocolloid Pimple Patches

Hydrocolloid pimple patches stick onto pimples and soak up liquid and pus. I really wish I knew about these when I was in high school!

You can use them over intact pimples, but I personally feel like they work better after I’ve stabbed the pimple with a sterile lance (I’m not sure if that’s just me being superstitious).

Related post: How to Squeeze a Pimple Safely (video)

The main benefit is that these stop you from picking at your pimples. Sealing in the moisture also helps them heal a bit faster.

  • Duoderm bandages (or similar) are the most budget-friendly option. You can cut them up into pimple-sized pieces, but they can be a bit chunky, and can leap off your face at awkward moments if you move around too much (like in the middle of a sentence). So you’ll probably only want to use these at night or around the house.
  • Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patch and Hero Cosmetics Mighty Patch are flatter versions specifically made for pimples. These aren’t super obvious on your face so they’re great to wear during the day, and can help camouflage pimples that you can’t cover up easily with concealer. The Invisible+ patches are especially subtle with their tapered edges.
  • Starface Hydro-Stars are great if you want to go completely the other way and highlight your spots.
  • Most countries also have local versions of pimple patches – in Australia there’s the very originally named Pimple Patch (we are a simple people here).

Sunscreen

If you’ve been on the internet you’ll probably know that every skincare person says sunscreen is super important. And it is!

Sunscreen protects your skin from UV, which is linked to skin cancer and premature aging. UV can break down collagen, which is what keeps your skin bouncy. So it’s a good idea to get into the habit of wearing sunscreen every day if you’re going out into the sun.

For acne-prone skin, sunscreen is especially good for preventing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). This is where your skin starts to just pump out extra brown pigment after your skin’s been traumatised, such as after a pimple. The brown patch can take months to go away. It’s more common with melanated skin that’s good at producing pigment.

Related post: Video: My Routine for Fading Acne Marks (Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation)

Unfortunately it can be hard to get into the habit of wearing sunscreen daily. A lot of sunscreens feel heavy and greasy, so if you haven’t used a lot of skincare before, this can take some adjusting.

The best sunscreen for you is the one that you’ll wear consistently and at the right amount, and studies have found that sunscreens with nicer textures tend to fare better.

What you’re looking for in a sunscreen:

  • Suitable SPF rating: Higher SPFs give greater protection, and generally over SPF 30 is recommended. If you’re getting low UV exposure, SPF 15 might be enough.
  • Good UVA protection: UVA is a type of UV that’s more strongly linked to hyperpigmentation. UVA protection is a bit more confusing since there are different labels used around the world. You’re looking for broad spectrum, the UVA circle logo, PA with more + signs, a high PPD number or a higher Boots star rating.

Related post: Why you should protect your skin from UVA (and how) (with video)

I have a lot of other videos about sunscreens if you want more details on how to choose and use them (it’s also covered in The Lab Muffin Guide to Basic Skincare), but here are some popular budget-friendly, lightweight sunscreens that might help you start on your sunscreen journey (note: always read the label and follow directions for use.)

  • Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence is a Japanese sunscreen that ships to a lot of different countries. It’s super popular thanks to its lightweight, refreshing “watery” feel, and sits well under makeup.
  • Bondi Sands Fragrance-Free Lotion is a cheaper option that’s not quite as lightweight, but it’s available in lots of countries, including the US, UK and Australia. There’s a body and a face version, and most people seem to agree that they feel pretty much the same. It also has 4 hours water resistance, so you can use it for beach days as well.
  • Woolworths, Coles and Aldi sunscreens are meant to be body sunscreens but they’re actually quite nice in texture, super budget-friendly (~$2) and 4 hours water resistant.
  • Natio Daily Defence and Cancer Council Face Matte Invisible are also really popular Australian sunscreens. They work well under makeup but some people do complain about their eyes stinging a bit with these.

Application: You want to apply about 1/4 teaspoon for your face, or two generous-ish finger lengths of sunscreen. The more you use the better the protection you have, so don’t skimp! Don’t mix it with anything, and don’t forget to reapply it if you’re getting more sun exposure (check the label for more specific instructions).

Also don’t forget there are other ways you can also protect yourself from the sun: don’t stay in the sun for too long, and wear some protective clothing, like hats and sunglasses.

Related post: Do Hats and Umbrellas Protect Well From the Sun? (with video)

Moisturisers

I’ve personally never really had a good time with the standard, super budget-friendly, bulk moisturisers that are often recommended, like Cerave, Cetaphil, and QV. They do work for a lot of people so I’d recommend giving them a try, especially if you have drier skin, or if you live in a cool, dry climate.

For me they feel like they sit on the surface of my skin instead of sinking in, plus they clog my pores. So if you also don’t like these but you still need a moisturiser, here are some lighter options:

  • Bondi Sands Daydream and Sweet Dreams are really lovely and lightweight in texture while still being hydrating, which is rare for Western drugstore moisturisers. They’re also fragrance-free.
  • Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Cream is another good option.
  • Iunik Centella Calming Cream is one of the few Asian moisturisers that’s consistently below $20 AUD and seems to work for a lot of people. It has centella extract which is great for soothing irritated skin.
  • Vaseline is a good product for slugging, which is where you apply a thick layer of product over your face while you sleep. You may want to be a little cautious with acne-prone skin – while petroleum jelly alone doesn’t clog pores much, it can potentially cause your other products to irritate more. So proceed with caution, but it’s very cheap and can work really well for dry weather!
  • La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 is fantastic if you’re a bit of a skin picker like I was (and I still am sometimes). This is a really nice hydrating, almost ointment-like, thick cream. It’s great for protecting and calming down your skin when it’s raw and peeling, like after you’ve picked a flake of skin off with tweezers. A cheap alternative is Vaseline, but I don’t find that it works quite as well without those extra actives.

Let me know if there are any products I’ve missed in the comments!

This post is not sponsored, but many of the products mentioned were provided as PR samples for editorial consideration; however, these are still my honest opinions of the products. This post also contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and purchase any product, you’ll be supporting Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

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3 thoughts on “Affordable Acne Routine: Bumper Guide”

  1. Thanks so much for these recommendations,. How do you combine the treatment recommendations but keep the daily routine quick and simple? (I.e an effective bare minimum routine)

    Reply
  2. I wish I had had pimple patches back in the days – I am a horrible skin picker and kept my zits “active” for much longer than needed by constantly picking on them.

    Reply
  3. Priceline still have the Simple cleansing oil! It’s the only place I’ve been able to find it here in Victoria.

    Do you think gently blotting excess oil off sunscreen reduces its effectiveness? I can’t get anything to last more than an hour before it’s slopping off my face again, but I worry that I’m ruining the UV barrier by soaking up the grease.

    Reply

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