Why Is My Skincare Breaking Me Out?

Unfortunately, it's true: skincare can break you out. Here's the most comprehensive list of ingredients to look out for to prevent skincare breakouts, and our top tips for maintaining clear skin.

Why Is My Skincare Breaking Me Out?

Unfortunately, it's true: skincare can break you out. Here's the most comprehensive list of ingredients to look out for to prevent skincare breakouts, and our top tips for maintaining clear skin.

For a skincare buff, there’s nothing more frustrating than testing out a new product you’re excited about, only to find yourself battling new breakouts a few days later. 

Can skin care products make you break out, or is it just a coincidence? The short answer, unfortunately, is yes, skincare can break you out. Here are some of the most common reasons why skincare can break you out: 

Harsh Actives

When you have breakout-prone skin, the temptation to layer on acne treatments (like retinoids or liquid exfoliants) on a daily basis is real. While these treatments may help you achieve clear skin, they are not right for everybody, and it is possible to have too much of a good thing! 

Overuse of more aggressive active ingredients can damage the skin barrier. The barrier is the skin’s first line of defense against environmental aggressors. It’s also responsible for keeping hydration locked in. 

When the skin barrier is weakened, its ability to defend against bacteria, irritants, and other aggressors is greatly reduced. For those with acne-prone skin, a damaged skin barrier can exacerbate breakouts. Other symptoms can include redness, irritation, rough patches, and tightness. 

Skincare Ingredients That May Cause Breakouts or Purging

  • Alpha-Hydroxy Acid
  • Beta-hydroxy Acid
  • Benzoyl Peroxide 
  • Retinoids
  • Vitamin C

Actives, especially retinoids, are notorious for causing purging or acne-flares.  Ditto for other treatments designed to help clear breakouts, such as chemical exfoliants (AHA or BHA), and benzoyl peroxide. These are the classic cases of acne treatments that cause the skin to “get worse before it gets better.” It can take 4-6 weeks for the skin to adjust to these treatments, before it starts getting better. 

If you’re like us, and would rather skip to the good part - clearer, healthier skin - without purging for 4-6 weeks, these tips will help: How to Get Glass Skin without Purging

Comedogenic Ingredients

Anyone that is prone to breakouts also needs to be aware of the ingredients in skin care products that may cause acne. Formulas that contain comedogenic ingredients – AKA ingredients that are known to clog pores – are a risk for anyone with acne. 

It’s important to note, though, that comedogenicity is a spectrum…Some ingredients are lightly comedogenic, and may only be problematic for some people, while others are more comedogenic, and will be a problem for most people. So, even if your bestie is raving about the new all natural tallow moisturizer she found, if you’re acne-prone, that may take you straight to Clogged-Pore City.  

The lists below are primarily from the study "Comedogenicity and irritancy of commonly used ingredients in skincare products." Published in 1989, it is the most comprehensive study on comedogenicity to date. That said, keep in mind this was done on a rabbit ear, not human skin, and that many more ingredients have been introduced into skincare that may be comedogenic, but not on this list. Additionally, an ingredient that is comedogenic on a rabbit ear, may not necessarily be comedogenic to human skin. That said, this list is widely accepted as on point.

The most accurate way to know if a product is comedogenic for you, is to see how your skin reacts to it (more on that below). 

Natural Skincare Ingredients That May Cause Acne

  • Almond oil
  • Apricot kernel oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Cocoa butter
  • Coconut alkanes (coconut oil)
  • Coconut butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Cocos nucifera (coconut oil)
  • Corn oil
  • Cotton seed oil
  • Evening primrose oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Linseed oil
  • Olive oil (Olea europaea fruit oil)
  • Oleic acid (in natural oils)
  • Soybean oil 
  • Tallow 

Common Skincare Ingredients That May Cause Acne 

  • A & D additive
  • Acetylated lanolin alcohol
  • Ascorbyl palmitate
  • Capric acid
  • Cetearyl alcohol + ceteareth 20
  • Ceteareth-20
  • Cetearyl alcohol
  • Cetyl acetate
  • Cetyl alcohol
  • D&C red (most pigments)
  • Decyl oleate
  • Di (2 ethylhexyl) succinate
  • Dioctyl malate
  • Dioctyl succinate
  • Eicosanoic acid
  • Ethylhexyl palmitate
  • Ethylhexyl pelargonate
  • Glyceryl stearate SE
  • Glyceryl-3-diisostearate
  • Glycine soya oil (soybean)
  • Hexylene glycol*
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oil
  • Isocetyl alcohol
  • Isodecyl oleate
  • Isopropyl isostearate
  • Isopropyl lanolate
  • Isopropyl linolate
  • Isopropyl myristate
  • Isopropyl neopentanoate
  • Isopropyl palmitate
  • Isostearic acid
  • Isostearyl alcohol
  • Isostearyl isostearate
  • Isostearyl neopentanoate
  • Laneth-10
  • Lanolic acid
  • Lanolin alcohol
  • Laureth-23
  • Laureth-4
  • Lauric acid
  • Linoleic acid
  • Linolenic acid
  • Mineral oil*
  • Mink oil
  • Mink oil, refined
  • Myreth-3 myristate
  • Myristic acid
  • Myristyl alcohol
  • Myristyl lactate
  • Myristyl myristate
  • Octyl palmitate
  • Octyl stearate
  • Octyldodecanol
  • Oleth-10
  • Oleth-3

Even if a new product you’re considering doesn’t contain any of these ingredients, you’ll still want to do a quick Google search to check if any of the ingredients in the formula are potential pore cloggers. Pay special attention to the ingredients at the beginning of the list, as the ingredients are listed based on their concentration. 

Overuse of Skincare

In the pursuit of squeaky clean skin, could we actually make our skin more breakout-prone? Perhaps surprisingly, yes! No matter what skincare you are using, if you overuse it - think excessive washing or reapplying topicals multiple times a day - that in and of itself can be problematic. 

Your skin knows how to skin - and too much skincare interference can throw it off track. 

Excessive washing strips too much oil from the skin, which, paradoxically, causes your skin to produce more oil, not less. A small amount of oil (sebum) is necessary for the skin to function optimally. It keeps our skin moisturized, and protects us from the elements or drying out too much. It lubricates the skin to protect against friction, and even has innate antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, it is sebum that transports antioxidants to the skin, which fight wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and pimples. 

When we remove too much oil, the skin tries to balance itself out by producing more oil. So you end up in a never ending vicious cycle of oiliness then dryness, perpetuated by excessive skincare. This ultimately stresses the skin, and may result in breakouts.  

Product Acne vs Regular Acne How to Know the Difference

So then how do you know if a product is breaking you out vs. you’re just breaking out?

Breakouts caused by harsh actives or overuse of skincare may cause the skin to look more red, raw, and angry-looking. You may get actual pimples, or the irritation may show up, at least initially, as tiny flesh-colored bumps, giving your skin an uneven, bumpy texture. You may also experience tightness or dryness and flaking. 

Breakouts caused by comedogenic products may start as sebaceous filaments - thin, threadlike strands of sebum that literally pop out of your pores like a groundhog on groundhog day. This is common on the nose and chin. They can also cause tiny white or flesh colored bumps on the skin, which are not painful. 

On the other hand, if your breakouts look deep, red, painful, or cystic, or if you have a lot of whiteheads in multiple sizes (not just the teeny tiny ones), chances are the breakouts have nothing (or little!) to do with skincare. 

Acne breakouts are tied to a host of other underlying issues, including diet, stress, hormonal imbalances, and gut dysbiosis…So if your skin is continuing to break out despite using a product, or generally, your pimples look deep, red, or painful, then it’s time to dig a little deeper, beyond skincare.

Our Tips for Preventing Breakouts from Skin Care & Maintaining Clear Skin

So what is a skincare junkie to do? 

Pare Down Your Skincare Routine

If your skin is currently freaking out, now would be a good time to put down the harsh skincare, whittle down your routine, and switch to more gentle skincare products. If you’re dealing solely with product acne, that should be enough. But, if you’re also dealing with actual acne, then it’s time to address any internal imbalances of diet, stress, hormones, and gut health. 

Nourish Your Gut 

It may seem strange that we are talking about gut health and skincare in the same sentence, but the truth is, your gut health is a direct reflection of your skin health. Yes, even hormonal acne and stress acne are heavily influenced by the state of your gut health.  

Research shows acne patients may have less microbial diversity, may lack certain beneficial strains including lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, and may have an impaired intestinal barrier

So load up on fiber rich veggies and fruit, drink plenty of water, eat fermented foods, take a high quality gut and skin probiotic, and move your body daily. 

Based on the latest science of the gut-skin connection, Glow Biome is a clinically-validated gut and skin probiotic supplement that supports better digestion & clearer, less oily, more hydrated skin, from the inside out.*

Upgrade Your Diet 

Although there is a greater awareness of the diet-acne connection, now more than ever, the reality is most people don’t realize just how influential our dietary choices are on our skin. Sure, cutting out sugar can help significantly, but you also want to focus on what you add into your diet: Nutrient-rich vegetables, fruit, beans, lentils, high quality animal protein, and healthy fats.
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