When we’re faced with a breakout, one of the first things we do is cover that honking zit with an effective acne treatment and concealer. Treating and concealing is good, but it’s also important to try to figure out what’s causing the pimples. This can sometimes take a bit of detective work because adult acne can be caused by a number of things, including hormone fluctuations, stress, certain foods and even pollution. The ingredients in some of our favorite skin care products could also be a contributing factor.
It’s ironic to think that the products we slather on to improve our complexions could actually be making skin look worse. The reality is that there are many ingredients out there and some are more suitable for certain skin types than others. If you’ve ruled out some of the other acne causes and are still dealing with spots, it’s time to scan your product labels for ingredients that are known to trigger breakouts.
Ingredients That Can Cause Acne
We asked the experts to tell us which ingredients are the biggest culprits when it comes to causing acne. Heather Wilson, licensed esthetician and director of brand development at InstaNatural, says oil-based or highly emollient products and ingredients should be avoided by people with acne-prone skin. Heavier oils can exacerbate acne because anything that provides a barrier on skin could trap bacteria in pores, creating an ideal place for P. acnes bacteria to thrive, she says.
Dr. Toral Patel, a leading board-certified dermatologist in Chicago, says that ingredients that clog pores or overdry skin can trick oil glands into producing more oil, thus contributing to acne. She warns against using products that contain silicone or oils that are higher in oleic acid, like olive oil or avocado oil. On the other hand, oils that are higher in linoleic acid, such as rosehip, grapeseed and pumpkin seed, may help soften sebum and unclog pores.
Besides rich oils, some of the most important ingredients to stay away from are artificial fragrances and dyes, lanolin and mineral oils, says Jen Ahartz, global curriculum developer at Dermalogica. They can all be pore-clogging and irritating. Not cleansing properly could also be a culprit, so she suggests doing a double cleanse.
According to Sarah Brown, founder of Pai, the number one thing to avoid is detergent. This is important to remember as she points out that most acne skin care product lines contain foaming face washes. The issue is that the cleansers typically have foaming agents, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS/SLES) and cocamidopropyl betaine (CAMS), which strip away skin’s natural protective oils. In turn, skin overcompensates by producing sebum that blocks pores and causes breakouts. What’s more, the products are very alkaline, which can disrupt skin’s ideal pH.
Wilson adds that physical exfoliators, i.e., products with grainy textures that slough skin, should be avoided as they can cause irritation and spread acne bacteria. Therefore, swap an exfoliating face wash for a creamy formula.
Ingredients That Help Treat Acne-Prone Skin
Wondering what’s actually OK to use on blemish-prone skin? Salicylic acid and retinol are two ingredients that almost all the experts we consulted cite as being fantastic for treating acne-prone skin. Wilson likes retinol because it supports healthy cell renewal and reduces the appearance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne scarring. She also suggests trying chemical exfoliants, such as glycolic acid and azelaic acid. These exfoliants dissolve excess sebum and penetrate deeper into the epidermis to clear excess debris and pore-clogging skin cells. The result? Improved clarity and fewer breakouts.
Ahartz says that niacinamide can be just as effective as salicylic acid and retinol for fighting acne. She suggests looking for these ingredients along with calming botanicals, like tea tree leaf and meadowsweet.
Brown recommends zinc, which she says is a great ingredient for regulating oil production and supporting skin’s natural healing process. What’s more, zinc inhibits the production of sebum while hydrating delicate skin and protecting collagen levels.
Certain oils and extracts, like willow bark extract, witch hazel, tea tree oil and licorice extract, can also be beneficial in treating acne, says Wilson. They can reduce breakouts, prevent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and minimize irritation.
Normally when we see “noncomedogenic” on a label, we assume it means the product won’t make skin break out. That’s not necessarily the case. Patel clarifies that noncomedogenic means a product will not clog pores. “It does not guarantee that it won’t make you break out, but since clogged pores are one of the risk factors for acne, noncomedogenic products are recommended for acne-prone skin.”
Wilson adds that there are plenty of ingredients that are noncomedogenic but they’re not ideal for acne-prone skin as they may still be too emollient. Furthermore, some ingredients can trigger breakouts due to reasons outside of their comedogenic rating. For example, physical exfoliators can spread bacteria while fragrance can trigger inflammatory reactions.
Trying Out New Products
When testing new skin care products, be sure to give them time to work but watch out for negative reactions. The average cell renewal cycle for healthy skin is 28 days and for acne-prone skin, it can be longer, says Wilson. Introducing a new product to your skin can occasionally cause minor breakouts for a few days to a couple of weeks. The breakouts generally appear as small pimples rather than deep acne lesions. Individual breakouts should reduce within a week of appearing, although it is possible they could appear in the full cycle. After four to five weeks, a person should see an overall improvement in skin and reduction in all breakouts. If that’s not the case, it could be time for a new product.
Because of skin’s cycle, someone could think a product isn’t right for them and quit using it before it has time to make any difference. “Skin care cannot resolve any condition overnight or even in a short period of time. It is important to understand that skin is living, it has to undergo its natural cycle and ingredients take time to work alongside this cycle,” says Wilson. Patience and consistency are as important to improving skin as choosing the right ingredients.
Try to use a product for four to five weeks before giving up. The exception is if skin has a reaction to a new formula. If you experience redness, irritation, discomfort or painful acne lesions, stop using the product immediately.
Brown suggests keeping a skin diary when trying new products to work out any correlation between breakouts and ingredients being used. Keeping notes can also be helpful in identifying the cell renewal cycle and if there are periods when skin is more likely to break out.