Ask Curology: is my acne face wash making me break out?

Some anti-acne products may make it worse, but don’t worry: it gets better.

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Curology Team
Aug 19, 2019 · 4 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Medically reviewed by: Nancy Satur, MD

Written by: Curology Editorial Team

Welcome to Ask Curology, a series on the Curology blog where one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare. Today we’re talking about face wash for acne and ingredients to avoid in skincare. Why do some face washes supposedly meant to help with acne seem to make matters worse? Turns out it’s all about the fine print: the ingredients list. There are many different acne causes, but below, our derm providers narrow it down if you think your acne face wash might be behind your worsening breakouts.

Got a burning skincare question of your own? Come hang out with us on Instagram and keep your eyes peeled for our provider takeover series on our stories. We answer your questions in real time!

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Dear Curology Derm,

I’ve been using this acne-fighting face wash to help clear up acne breakouts and get my oily skin under control, but I don’t think it’s working. Actually, I’ve been breaking out more ever since I started using it! The label says it’s supposed to clear acne and control oil, so what gives?!


Dismayed and Confused

Dear Dismayed,

Not to defend your potentially pore-clogging cleanser, but it’s possible your skin might be going through a normal and pretty common process called purging. Some people experience acne purging in the first few weeks to months of treating acne with active ingredients, including common over-the-counter anti-acne ingredients like salicylic acid. Awful as it is to go through this, it actually means your acne treatment is working! Basically, the underlying acne in your skin is working its way out as your skin adjusts to the new situation. Learn more about acne purging here.

We know it isn’t easy to endure, to say the least. But if you’re patient, treat your skin gently, and keep up with your treatment, these breakouts should clear up soon! If they still don’t clear up after a couple months, that’s a good time to try a different approach — like signing up for Curology, where you’ll get a customized acne-fighting cream and a one-on-one treatment plan from one of us dermatology providers.

Your skin might not be purging itself of acne, though — depending on the ingredients in your face wash, it could be breaking out in reaction to the product itself! Here are a few other explanations for why a face wash designated for acne-prone and/or oily skin could potentially make acne worse:

1. It has pore-clogging ingredients. Unfortunately, there’s no FDA regulation of terms like “non-comedogenic” on skincare or cosmetic products, so some products marketed toward those susceptible to acne sneak pore-clogging ingredients into the mix. In our research, we’ve found ingredients including laureth-4, isopropyl myristate, sodium laureth sulfate, and carrageenan in several so-called anti-acne and oil-control cleansers.

2. It contains alcohol. Alcohol can dry out the skin and strip it of its natural protective barrier. Irritation and inflammation of the skin can make it vulnerable to acne breakouts.

3. It has an active ingredient that is too strong for your skin (or you might be using it too frequently).

Many acne face washes you can buy at the drugstore contain salicylic acid, a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) that can help unclog pores, or benzoyl peroxide, an antiseptic. Some people experience dryness or irritation from using these, and irritated skin can be more prone to acne breakouts. If your skin is on the sensitive side, you may want to look for a lower strength or switch to a gentle cleanser — like the cleanser by Curology, which comes with the full set when you subscribe! — and use a topical cream or other acne treatment recommended by your dermatology provider.

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When in doubt, custom skincare is what it’s about

If you’re struggling with acne and your so-called “acne-fighting” face wash just doesn’t cut the mustard, it’s time to try something different: a customized treatment for your unique skin. Sign up for a free trial of Curology to get your very own custom acne-fighting cream, plus our must-have moisturizer and gentle cleanser when you sign up for the full set. As always, we’ve got your back!

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

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