Skin experts explain what rosacea is, what triggers it, and what you can do to help keep rosacea in check.

By Melanie Rud
November 23, 2019
Guido Mieth/Getty Images

Temporary flushing during an embarrassing moment or after an outdoor run on a hot summer day is to be expected. But what if you have persistent redness on your face that may wax and wane, but never fully disappears? You could be dealing with rosacea, which is estimated to affect more than 16 million Americans, according to the National Rosacea Society.

Rosacea is a long-term condition, and the causes are still somewhat of a mystery—but while there's no cure, there are ways to manage and treat it. Below, skin experts explain what rosacea is, what triggers it, and what you can do (including products to rely on) to help keep rosacea in check. (Related: What's Causing All That Skin Redness?)

What is rosacea?

Rosacea is a skin condition that causes redness, skin bumps, and broken blood vessels, explains Gretchen Frieling, M.D., a Boston-based, board-certified dermatopathologist (a joint specialty of dermatology and pathology, the study of disease). It can occur anywhere on the body, but it's most commonly found on the face, particularly on the cheeks and around the nose. Rosacea symptoms can range from mild to severe and include a mix of redness and bumps though, at the end of the day, the chronic flush is the tell-tale sign. (Related: The Truth About Sensitive Skin)

What are the most common rosacea causes?

It affects all races, but is most common in those with fair skin, particularly those of Northern European descent. Unfortunately, the cause is still pretty unknown. "The exact cause of rosacea is still to be determined, though the medical community considers family history as a possible cause," notes Dr. Frieling.

Besides genetics, sun damage is another possible factor. Those with rosacea may have overactive blood vessels that swell, becoming more visible under the skin. Sun damage can exacerbate this, since it breaks down collagen and elastin, the proteins that help support the blood vessels. When collagen and elastin break down, blood vessels can do the same, which creates the redness and discoloration on the face. (Related: Lena Dunham Opens Up About Struggling with Rosacea and Acne)

Sensitivity to mites and bacteria can also play a role, points out Dr. Frieling, particularly when it comes to the type of rosacea where bumps are involved. If you have rosacea, you may be more sensitive to the microscopic mites that live in your bedding and even in your own oil glands (gross, but everyone has them), triggering an immune response that results in red bumps and rough skin texture.

What can trigger rosacea?

The root cause may be unknown, but we do at least know what exacerbates the skin condition. The number one culprit: Sun exposure, which affected 81 percent of rosacea patients in a survey conducted by the National Rosacea Society.

Next up, that dreaded 'S' word—stress. Emotional stress causes the release of cortisol (aptly dubbed the stress hormone), which wreaks all kinds of havoc on your skin. It triggers a spike in inflammation, which can increase and worsen redness for those with rosacea. (More here: 5 Skin Conditions That Get Worse With Stress.)

Other common rosacea triggers include intense exercise, alcohol, spicy foods, and extreme cold or hot temperatures, as well as certain medications (such as corticosteroids and drugs for treating high blood pressure), says Dr. Frieling.

What are the best rosacea treatments?

There may not be a cure for rosacea yet, but the good news is that there are helpful actions you can take and products you can use to help manage the symptoms.

First and foremost, it's important to determine what your specific triggers are. Do you notice extreme flushing after a steamy spin class or spicy margarita? Pinpoint what causes your skin flare-ups and try to avoid those irritants as much as possible. (Related: Does the 'Rosacea Diet' Actually Work?)

Adopt an overall ultra-gentle approach when it comes to skincare. The same types of rules apply here as they would for someone with generally sensitive skin. "Focus on calming, soothing cleansers and moisturizers, and oil-free makeup formulas," recommends Sheel Desai Solomon, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Keep reading for some of her faves.)

And, of course, apply sunscreen daily—the higher SPF the better. "Applying sunscreen regularly will both help manage the symptoms and protect you against sun exposure as a trigger," adds Dr. Solomon. Look for broad-spectrum formula with at least an SPF 30, and stick with mineral formulations, which are less likely to irritate skin like their chemical counterparts. Try this dermatologist-loved option: SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50 (Buy It, $34, skinceuticals.com).

Keep in mind that if OTC topicals aren't cutting it, there are professional treatments available as well. Dermatologists can prescribe oral antibiotics and prescription creams—which work to constrict blood vessels—while lasers help zap broken blood vessels. (Read more on light treatment: Sophia Bush Suggests a Blue Light Treatment for Rosacea and Redness)

In the meantime, check out four derm-approved product picks you can add to your arsenal to help calm skin and keep rosacea in check:

Garnier SkinActive Soothing Milk Face Wash with Rose Water (Buy It, $7, amazon.com): "This is an affordable milk cleanser that removes makeup and day-to-day pollutants while also soothing your skin, thanks to the rose water in the formula," explains Dr. Solomon. Plus, it's also free of parabens and dyes, both of which should be avoided by sensitive skin types.

Aveeno Ultra-Calming Foaming Cleanser (Buy It, $6 $11, amazon.com): The star ingredient in this gentle cleanser is a medicinal plant known as feverfew, which is helpful for calming rosacea and other inflammations of the skin, notes Dr. Solomon. The formula is hypoallergenic and soap-free, so it won't dry out your skin.

Cetaphil Redness Relieving Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 20 (Buy It, $11 $14, amazon.com): "Caffeine and allantoin in this extremely lightweight moisturizer alleviate redness caused by rosacea," says Dr. Solomon. Also great? It has a slight tint to minimize and even out redness. While it does contain SPF, Dr. Solomon advises using a separate sunscreen—with at least SPF 30—over this moisturizer to ensure adequate protection.

Eucerin Skin Calming Cream (Buy It, $9 $12, amazon.com): Dr. Solomon is a fan of this fragrance-free cream for both rosacea and eczema patients, since it boasts colloidal oats to help soothe irritation and red patches. "There's also glycerin in this calming cream, which attracts moisture from the air to keep skin hydrated," she points out.

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