10 Things You Didn’t Know Are Causing Acne Breakouts

BY Gracee Tolentino · February 23, 2017

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You’ve used every acne treatment that promises to clear your skin—even avoided food choices with questionable reputations like pizza and chocolate–and yet, your acne keeps showing up in the worst of times (the night before your first date or a big presentation!). It turns out that there are quite a few other things contributing to acne that you probably aren’t aware of.  Read on to discover 10 things that could be causing and aggravating your breakouts.

1. Your Pillowcase

This may seem irrelevant but consider the fact that your face spends eight hours a day (assuming you’re getting a good night’s sleep every night) pressed firmly on your pillow. And if you’re not changing your pillowcase often, you’re basically lying on accumulated bacteria, dust and dead skin cells.

“Items like towels and pillowcases are certainly some of the primary sources of bacteria,” explains Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology. “They come into repeated contact with your face and are often not washed between uses, making them ideal sources of bacterial contamination.”

TIP: Aside from washing your pillowcases more often, consider a silk pillowcase, like slip Pure Silk Pillowcase, which not only feels more luxurious against your skin but also reduces friction that can irritate acne-prone skin and cause wrinkles.

2. Smartphones, Earphones and Makeup Tools

Yes, anyone who uses a smartphone is at risk for flare-ups—but not for the reason that you think. “Cellphones are rubbed against skin, picking up makeup, dirt and bacteria and then used again throughout the day,” says Dr. Nazarian. “If you can’t keep the surface of your phone away from your skin, try to wipe it clean every few days to keep bacterial levels low. Do this as well to everything that comes in contact with your skin—like earphones, eye glasses and, of course, your skin care devices and makeup brushes.”

TIP: If you’re not sure which of your beauty tools need a little extra TLC, here’s a quick guide.

3. Face Cleansers Not Suited for Your Skin Type

Most experts agree: In the war against acne, finding the right cleanser for your acne-prone skin is already half the battle.

“Look for acne-fighting ingredients like alpha hydroxy acid in a cleanser, says board-certified dermatologist Dr. David Bank. “It dissolves clogs in pores without being irritating,” offers Dr. Bank. “Benzoyl peroxide is also a gold-standard ingredient that has been around for a long time. It helps to dry pimples and has antibacterial properties too. If your skin is oilier and not sensitive, try something with salicylic acid to help exfoliate blocked pores. If you’re looking for a natural solution, try tea tree oil, which has natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.”

4. Not Using Your Spot Treatments Correctly

Don’t get us wrong: acne spot treatments are a godsend, especially those with proven acne-fighting properties like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. But it’s not enough that you know what spot treatment is best for you. Knowing when to use it, how often to apply it and how long to wear it is absolutely just as crucial.

“Benzoyl peroxide, an ingredient commonly found in acne treatments, has a one- to three-hour working time, and any cream that comes in contact with it before it has completed its work will likely inhibit the active ingredient from working properly,” explains esthetician and holistic acne specialist Ashley Wiley. “It is best to wait at least an hour before applying moisturizer and/or sunscreen for best results.”

Try: PCA Skin Acne Cream

5. Pore-Clogging Skin Care Products

Certain ingredients in your skin care products—moisturizer, toner and sunscreen—are notorious for clogging your pores and causing you to break out. Mineral oil, lanolin and wax are the usual offenders, which dermatologists call “comedogenic” or “pore cloggers.”

“Because the list is long and difficult to keep track of, it’s easier to remember to avoid oil-based, thicker products and to look for the word non-comedogenic. Most products will proudly label themselves as not acne-causing,” advises Dr. Nazarian.

6. The Sun

Frequent sun tanning doesn’t just increase your risk of developing skin cancer, it also triggers breakouts on those with acne-prone skin. “Sun, heat and humidity can cause oil glands to become overactive, which can lead to acne breakouts,” says board-certified dermatologic surgeon and associate at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, Dr. Dendy Engelman.

TIP: Another skin sin that you’re probably guilty of? Not applying sunscreen! To make sure you don’t break out, choose an oil-free, non-comedogenic sunscreen.

7. Sleeping With Your Makeup On

That you can’t wear makeup when you have acne is a myth. Not removing your makeup before bedtime—now that’s a cardinal sin! According to Dr. Nazarian, makeup left overnight hinders skin renewal and clogs pores. And when your pores are clogged, bacteria build up and cause inflammation. “Pollution and grime also build up on makeup throughout the day,” adds Dr. Nazarian. “The layers of dirt and bacteria, which are mixed with the oil on your skin, can occlude pores and lead to acne.”

TIP: Always keep a stash of makeup-remover wipes by your bedside table. They’ll come in handy on nights you’re too tired or sleepy to wash your face. But don’t make them your nightly go-to!

8. Unhealthy Diet

If you still believe your skin has nothing to do with what you eat, Dr. Nazarian explains: “What you eat changes the consistency of the sebum (or oil) on your skin, making it more likely to clog up pores.”

But it’s not just that. Some food can also tip the natural balance of your skin in a way that flares acne. “Milk, because it contains natural growth hormones, has also been suggested as a trigger for acne by altering the delicate balance of hormones on the skin,” adds Dr. Nazarian. “My advice is to stick to a healthy, low-fat, low-sugar diet and to stay hydrated throughout the day. Although changing your diet may not completely cure your acne, it may lessen flare-ups and make it easier to control with additional medical treatment.”

Try: Murad Pure Skin Clarifying Dietary Supplement 

9. Your Fingers

Popping, squeezing or picking at your acne won’t make it go away, and neither will vigorous washing, scrubbing, rubbing and touching your face. If anything, these unnecessary activities will just irritate your skin even more and leave permanent scars.

“Because some acne lesions are inflammatory, they are already high risk for scarring,” explains Dr. Nazarian. “By picking or trying to pop pimples, you increase the pressure under the skin, and oftentimes increase the inflammation, pushing bacteria deeper and increasing the chance of scarring and staining.”

If it bothers you, Dr. Nazarian suggests you see a dermatologist. “Acne pimples can be opened safely under the supervision of your dermatologist, who will use a sterile (medically clean) method of opening the pimples, occasionally injecting them with a dilute steroid, which will decrease the inflammation and minimize the chance of scarring.”

TIP: Can’t keep your fingers to yourself? Try Peter Thomas Roth Acne Invisible Dots, which, not only keep your fingers from making contact with your zit, but also keep bacteria from spreading to the rest of your skin.

10. Stress

It’s no surprise that physical and mental burnout can lead to a host of other issues—from hair loss to weight gain to irritability. It also takes a toll on our skin. Dr. Rebecca Booth, board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and co-founder of VENeffect Anti-Aging Skin Care explains: “Stress has negative effects on our appearance, but elevated cortisol due to stress also causes insulin surges, throwing off hormone balance and resulting in uneven skin tone, adult acne and enlarged pores.”

While you can’t take the worrying out of your everyday life, you’ll be surprised at how taking a few minutes a day to relax and meditate—even in the comforts of home—can make such a big difference. “Meditation, yoga or simple deep breathing exercises will help you and your skin,” adds Dr. Booth.

Also try: Dermalogica Stress Relief Treatment Oil

READERS—What else triggers your breakouts? Share it with us in the comments section below.

Gracee Tolentino

Gracee Tolentino is the managing editor of the Dermstore Blog. After spending 10 years of her writing and editing career working in the travel and food industries, she finally found her true calling: beauty, health and wellness. In her spare time ... Read More >

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