Keeping your skin under control is a delicate balance of maintaining it when it’s on its best behavior and treating it when it’s acting up. But, sometimes there are those rare instances when your complexion throws a temper tantrum so massive, it’s like you’ve done something to personally offend it. We’re talking extreme breakouts that linger for weeks, red and stinging skin, or dry scales. In those cases, there’s not a clay mask in the world that’s going to heal that damage. What you need is a total skin reset.
Taking your skin from meltdown back to peaceful co-existence takes some patience, know-how, and the right product combo (and maybe some professional intervention). We’d be lying if we said it’s a quick fix —you’re looking at at least two weeks of diligent care to fix whatever has befallen your face.
We asked a few of our fave skin experts—Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Julie Russak; Dr. Karan Sra, dermatologist at Bayou City Dermatology in Webster, Texas; aesthetician and Renée Rouleau Skin Care founder Renée Rouleau; and NYC aesthetician Taylor Worden—to give us their best advice and product picks on how to handle your complexion when it’s at its worst. Here’s everything you need to get your skin to start over.
Skin Meltdown #1: Epic Breakout
These are not your average period pimples—this is a full-on eruption of painful, cystic pimples that show up without rhyme or reason. As Worden explains, while these might share some of the same characteristics of period-adjacent breakouts (deep, throbbing cysts), they aren’t following the same pattern. Period pimples are usually in the same place, along your jawline and chin and appear at roughly the same time each month. This kind of breakout can show up out of the blue and be anywhere on your face—Dr. Russak notes that it might even spread to your chest and back.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason as to what causes these without talking to a dermatologist—Dr. Russak notes it could be anything from hormone fluctuations to diet to stress, while Rouleau adds it can also be things like using the wrong products for your skin type, a change in climate, and damaging your skin barrier with too much exfoliation.
While your immediate reaction might be to grab every treatment you can find and beat that breakout into submission, that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. “Treat your skin like you would treat a cold,” says Dr. Russak. “Instead of doing more and more to it, try and let the body repair itself by being gentle with your skin.” Says Rouleau. “There is a life cycle to a blemish and when you interfere with this process—by picking or using a super-drying spot treatment—you’re actually making it last so much longer. It’s imperative that you work in sync with the various stages of the blemish so that you’re an ally and not an enemy.”
Your Reset Routine:
In times like these, your at-home regimen should feature a mix of soothing and (gentle!) exfoliating products that will deal with the excess oil and dead skin build-up that can be contributing to clogged pores. And, since acne is an inflammatory condition, Russak suggests using products that contain niacinamide, a natural anti-inflammatory, to help bring down swelling and redness.
Cleanse: Alternate between CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser and a light exfoliating cleanser like Estée Lauder Perfectly Clean Multi-Action Gelée/Refiner or Revision Papaya Enzyme Cleanser to exfoliate.
Tone: Renée Rouleau Rapid Response Detox Toner with AHA and BHA, to reduce existing spots and prevent new ones from popping up.
Serum: The Organic Pharmacy Stabilised Vitamin C Serum, to help prevent breakouts and protect skin from free radical damage caused by the sun, allowing skin to focus on repairing itself.
Moisturizer: Skinceuticals Metacell Renewal B3 is glycerin based, meaning it won’t clog pores, and it contains anti-inflammatory niacinamide.
Treat: A retinol treatment like Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% to exfoliate and decrease oil production.
Skin Meltdown #2: Red & Painful Stinging
This meltdown is hard to miss, mostly because it looks (and feels) like your face is legit on fire. According to Worden, this could be something as simple as a reaction to a product or could be a more complicated medical condition like rosacea. For many people, a rosacea flare-up may occur spontaneously due to something in their diet or something they’ve put on their skin.
If a product reaction is your issue, odds are it’s either due to an allergen or irritant—or you went overboard on a potent product that burned a few of the top layers off of your skin. The biggest offenders? Fragrance, essential oils, solvent alcohols, and aggressive acids. As Rouleau notes, “Most redness and irritation can occur when the skin’s protective barrier is damaged. Your barrier is the outermost layer of the skin that provides protection to help retain water and moisture, and defend against external irritants like bacteria and environmental debris from penetrating through and causing sensitive reactions.”
To fix this issue, says Russak, you need to put yourself on a “skin diet.” That is, remove everything from your routine that you were using prior to the flare-up and replace them with ultra-gentle products that will help calm down your skin. Then, once you’ve gotten it back to its normal, not-on-fire self, you slowly add back in your regulars—one at a time—to see how your skin reacts. If anything causes a flare-up, it’s gone from your regimen.
Your Reset Routine:
Inoffensive is the name of the game for this routine—you want to eliminate any kind of active ingredient (things like acids, retinol, etc. that are meant to “do” something like anti-aging or brightening) and instead focus on the basics of gentle cleansing and moisturizing, preferably those with barrier-repairing lipids like ceramides.
Cleanse: Doctor Rogers Restore Face Wash, a glycerin-based, fragrance-free cleanser that’s ultra mild and cleanses without stinging, stripping, or otherwise abusing already irritated skin.
Tone: Spritzing on a layer of Avène Thermal Spring Water not only feels amazingly refreshing on your poor flambéd face, the water actually has a history of soothing atopic dermatitis (aka eczema).
Moisturize: Renée Rouleau Phytolipid Comfort Creme is packed with those barrier-replenishing ingredients, plus calming plant extracts and oils.
Treat: This Skinceuticals Biocellulose Restorative Mask was formulated for post-laser treatment skin as a way to soothe, cool, and create an artificial protective barrier on extremely fragile skin.
Skin Meltdown #3: Dry & Scaly
When the texture of your skin feels like a lizard’s scales with an itchy and tight sensation, you’re in the throes of this meltdown. As Dr. Sra notes, the catch-22 of the ultra-dry skin condition is that your skin needs epic amounts of moisture, but it doesn’t seem to be responding to any of your usual hydrators. In fact, it might not feel like they are even penetrating your skin at all. That’s because it’s probably not. According to Dr. Russak, what’s most likely happened in this scenario is that the top layer of your skin has been destroyed and lifted away from the surface. “It’s created a barrier to anything penetrating,” she says.
The trick here is that you want to oh-so-gently dislodge that dead layer of flaky dry skin as you add in some much-needed moisture and reinforce your already compromised skin barrier to help it better hold in hydration.
You’ll also want to make some lifestyle adjustments to maximize your moisture levels, says Rouleau. These are usually pretty simple things like having a humidifier in your bedroom to add moisture to the air during drier months. Worden suggests drinking plenty of H2O throughout the day and washing your face with tepid or cold water instead of hot, which can dry out skin.
Your Reset Routine:
While you might want to try and slough off those scales with an exfoliator, Dr. Russak says to avoid acids and scrubs because they might actually damage that layer of healthy skin trapped below the dead one. Instead, you need to go slow and be patient to work on bringing down the existing inflammation and hydrating with ingredients like ceramides and colloidal oatmeal. The objective is to soften the dead skin, not rip it off. Because, ow.
Cleanse: A gentle cleanser infused with skin-conditioning oils, Symbiome’s The Renewal Daily Cleanser is a gel-to-milk wash that also helps build up a compromised skin barrier.
Toner: A lightweight moisturizing toner, Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid Toner doesn’t skimp on the moisturizing ingredients, with a formula that’s bursting with ceramides, panthenol, and a calming complex of plant extracts to smooth out flakes and cracks.
Serum: Estée Lauder's New Advanced Night Repair Serum is made with a slew of antioxidants, peptides, and hyaluronic acid to lock in moisture for up to 8 hours; think of it as a cold, tall glass of water for your thirsty skin. Another ceramide-rich powerhouse, Seiso Pure Ceramide Concentrate features 100% bio-identical ceramides for immediate relief to dry skin as it gets to work helping to rebuild your skin’s barrier.
Moisturize: With naturally calming and nourishing oatmeal, Aveeno Calm + Restore Oat Gel Moisturizer is the rare moisturizer for ultra-dry skin that doesn’t feel heavy or goopy on your face—this sinks right in, rather than sitting on the surface.
Treat: Flora + Bast Moisture System is a unique two-step moisturizing system that separates the oil and water steps of your moisturizer, allowing it to ditch the potentially skin-irritating chemicals required to make conventional moisturizers shelf stable. You apply the Barrier Building Hydrosol after cleansing and then layer on the Omega Oil (infused with full-spectrum, cannabis derived CBD, a natural anti-inflammatory) as the last step in your routine. The result is a double whammy of skin-barrier boosting power.
One Last Takeaway
Just remember that it can take 27 days for your skin to fully reset, so don’t expect to see these changes overnight. That said, all of our skin experts noted that if you don’t see some improvement within two weeks time, or your symptoms get progressively worse, head to your dermatologist’s office for a full evaluation, as they could be the sign of a more serious medical issue.