Is your makeup causing breakouts? Here’s how to get a better idea

Learn about what pore clogging ingredients to look for the next time you're shopping for cosmetics.

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Curology Team
Jan 05, 2022 · 9 min read

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If you’ve ever grappled with acne, this vicious cycle might sound familiar: you want to hide pimples with makeup, but the makeup makes you break out even more. 

The truth is, that many different things cause breakouts, and unfortunately, your makeup may be one of them.¹

Buying cosmetics is easy—and a little dangerous for our wallets, honestly—but making sure that the ingredients in them are good for skin? Not so easy! You’d need a translator in a lab coat to make sense of most labels. And even then, who knows how your skin might react to each ingredient? 

But what if reviewing your product’s ingredients was easy? While there’s no way to know for sure if a product will lead to breakouts, understanding comedogenicity (an ingredient’s tendency to clog pores) can help.

What is acne cosmetica?

Before we dive into comedogenicity, we should talk about acne cosmetica is. It’s acne that’s caused by the use of cosmetics. It’s usually mild and typically involves many comedones (clogged pores), with the occasional inflamed pimple.² Acne cosmetica usually happens when makeup or hair products build up in your hair follicles. Combine with your skin’s natural oil, sweat, dead skin, and voila! A pimple is born.

What does comedogenic mean?

In short, comedogenic translates to “pore-clogging.” That said, there’s a spectrum to comedogenicity. A comedogenic scale ranks how likely an ingredient is to cause breakouts, but it’s not an exact science.³ Some ingredients may be pore-clogging for some people but not for others, and even products labeled “non-comedogenic” can still block pores.

To keep it simple, we put together a list of common pore-clogging ingredients⁴,⁵,⁶,⁷,⁸,⁹ (remember, everyone’s skin is different, so what clogs one person’s pores might not clog another’s!):

  • Acetylated lanolin    

  • Acetylated lanolin alcohol    

  • Butyl stearate

  • Cetearyl alcohol + ceteareth 20 (only when in the same formulation, not on their own)

  • Cetyl acetate

  • Coal tar

  • Cocoa butter

  • Coconut butter

  • Cocos nucifera (Coconut) Oil

  • D&C red no. 27

  • D&C red no. 9

  • Ethylhexyl palmitate

  • Glyceryl-3-diisostearate

  • Isocetyl alcohol

  • Isopropyl isostearate

  • Isopropyl lanolate

  • Isopropyl myristate

  • Isopropyl palmitate

  • Isostearic acid

  • Isostearyl isostearate

  • Laureth-4

  • Lauric acid

  • Lauric acid in sunflower oil

  • Myristyl lactate

  • Myristyl myristate

  • Oleic acid

  • Oleth-3

  • Oleyl alcohol

  • Peg 16 lanolin (solulan 16)

  • Polyglyceryl-3-diisostearate

  • Ppg-2 myristyl propionate

  • Ppg 5 ceteth 10 phosphate

  • Propylene glycol monostearate

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate

  • Stearyl heptanoate

  • Theobroma cacao (cocoa) seed butter

  • Xylene

See? Told you a translator in a lab coat would come in handy. But you needn’t be a chemist to understand the basics: all these ingredients are considered comedogenic, so they’re best avoided whenever possible. Clogged pores mean a higher chance of acne, so before you buy, try to do a deep dive into any product’s ingredient list to see if it’s hiding these ingredients.

Remember, this isn’t an all-inclusive list, but it’s a great place to start! 

Cream against a peach background with a magnifying glass over it

How to check products for pore-clogging ingredients

Reviewing the ingredients list of your favorite skincare product may sound daunting, but it’s totally doable! Try this simple two-step process to get to know your skincare products and their ingredients:  

Step 1: Search for the product’s full ingredients list. The best source is usually the brand’s website. If you’re examining a physical product, you can usually find everything you need to know on the back of the bottle or the outer box. Step 2: Compare the product’s ingredients list with the list of comedogenic ingredients above. The closer an ingredient is to the top of the product’s ingredient list, the more there is in the product. 

You can cross-check your analysis with an ingredient checker like SkinCarisma and INCIDecoder, but take what you find with a grain of salt. Each ingredient checker rates comedogenicity differently, and again, comedogenicity isn’t an exact science.

Our favorite non-comedogenic makeup products

Looking for non-comedogenic makeup? We’ve done the guesswork for you with our makeup reviews:

Removing your makeup every day will also help reduce your chances of breaking out. If you’re acne-prone, micellar water (like Curology’s micellar makeup remover) is a gentle option.

Common comedogenic ingredients explained

Understanding the science behind comedogenicity is easier than you might think. Here we’ve broken down the more common comedogenic ingredients that are often found in cosmetics. (Because, after all, knowledge is power!)

Cocoa butter

Often found in: Bath products, fragrances, cleansing products, eye and facial makeup, hair conditioners, skincare products, suntan products, and soaps This tasty-sounding ingredient is sourced from cacao beans and is often used for moisturizing purposes. Fun fact: it’s actually the same fat used to make chocolate!¹⁰ While it’s a super popular natural moisturizing ingredient, cocoa butter can also cause some people to break out.¹¹ 

Coconut oil and butter

Often found in: Bath products, eye makeup, hair care products, shaving creams, suntan products, skincare products, and lipstick Coconut oil and coconut butter sound similar but come from different parts of the coconut. Coconut oil is made from meat, while coconut butter comes from the entire fruit. Both are nourishing and moisturizing, but they’re also potentially comedogenic.¹²,¹³

Ethylhexyl and isopropyl palmitate

Often found in: A wide variety of makeup and skincare products Ethylhexyl palmitate¹⁴ and isopropyl palmitate¹⁵ are produced using a naturally occurring fatty acid found in plants and animals. They’re used to improve the texture, feel, and the scent of cosmetic products and act as emollients on the skin, which gives it a soft and smooth appearance. Isopropyl palmitate is also used as a solvent to help dissolve certain ingredients. Unfortunately, both ethylhexyl and isopropyl palmitate¹⁶ can also potentially clog pores.

Isopropyl myristate

Often found in: Moisturizers and topical medical ointments This pore-clogging ingredient is made from isopropyl alcohol, an agent found in some hand sanitizers and baby wipes, and myristic acid, a fatty acid that’s often naturally found in coconut oil and butter. When combined, these components form an excellent emollient: isopropyl myristate. Besides helping skin feel softer and more supple,¹⁷ isopropyl myristate can be comedogenic for some people.¹⁸

Laureth-4

Often found in: Bath, eye, facial, hair, cleansing, and sunscreen products, as well as cuticle softeners, deodorants, and moisturizing products

Often used in cosmetics as a cleansing agent or product texture enhancer, laureth-4 also functions as a surfactant, which means it attracts oils and lets them be washed away.¹⁹ It can also potentially clog some people’s pores.²⁰

Myristyl myristate

Often found in: Eye makeup, moisturizers, soaps and detergents, haircare, nailcare, shaving products, and skincare products This ingredient is used in cosmetics to help keep the skin feeling soft and supple.²¹ Unfortunately, it can cause some people to break out.²² 

Oleth-3

Often found in: Skincare, haircare, and makeup Oleth-3 cleans skin and hair by allowing water to mix with oil and dirt so that they can all be rinsed away. Oleth-3 is highly pore-clogging, so you might want to be careful when using any products that contain it.²³

Oleyl alcohol

Often found in: Hair conditioners, foundations, eye makeup, and skincare

Oleyl alcohol helps mix ingredients that normally won’t stay mixed (like oil and water) and helps prevent them from separating again. It also acts as a lubricant to help make skin feel softer. Unfortunately, it’s pore-clogging for some skin types.²⁴ 

Sodium lauryl sulfate

Often found in: Shampoos, bath products, hair dye, makeup, deodorants, perfumes, and shaving products Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is an emulsifier and surfactant that helps oil and water mix with dirt, which can then be rinsed away. SLS is one of the most common comedogenic ingredients that can trigger breakouts.²⁵

Common makeup tips to help prevent breakouts

If you think you may have acne cosmetica or your makeup is making your breakouts worse, that doesn’t mean you have to throw out all your favorite products! While wearing makeup itself doesn't cause breakouts, the way you apply makeup might be contributing to acne. When approaching makeup with dermatology in mind, here are some easy ways to help keep your skin clear.

1. Unwashed brushes

Just like anything else you touch on your face, your makeup brushes, beauty blenders, and other beauty tools can collect bacteria, oil, dead skin cells, and excess product to create one pore-clogging potion. If you’re a regular makeup-wearer, washing your brushes regularly (once a week or so) may help prevent new breakouts from occurring.²⁶

2. Not washing your face before bed

Sometimes you’re so tired that taking your makeup off and doing your PM skincare routine practically seems like climbing a mountain. But sweat, oil, and dead skin cells can collect on your skin throughout the day and combine with product residue, leaving you with plenty of potential pore-cloggers.²⁷ Thankfully, you can rest easier (and cleaner!) by always washing your face before heading to bed.

3. Not washing your hands

There’s no harm in applying makeup with your fingers, as long as they’re clean. But if you do so without washing your hands first, you could transfer oil, dirt, and other pore-clogging materials from your fingers onto your face. Instead, apply makeup with a clean makeup applicator, such as a brush or sponge. Or just wash your hands.

4. Ingredients are pore-clogging

Believe it or not, makeup can contain some of the many pore-clogging ingredients we mentioned above. So never underestimate the fine print on the back of your products’ packaging!

Why does safety matter in cosmetics?

It’s important to always know exactly what’s in the products you apply to your skin. This is so you can check to ensure they’re safe to use and won’t cause a harmful reaction. 

Unfortunately, packaging can’t always be counted on. Some companies “greenwash” their products with words like “eco-friendly” and “organic,” which may not actually reflect the quality of the product. It’ll save you time, money, and discomfort if you can identify what ingredients do and don’t agree with your skin.

Extra tips to avoid acne

At Curology, we are all about educating you so you can have your healthiest, happiest skin. So, here are some extra tips that may help your breakouts.

Use an acne treatment regularly to help fight acne-causing bacteria. You can find a cleanser specific to your skin type, whether you have sensitive skin or want powerful acne-fighting ingredients such as salicylic acid, which targets whiteheads and blackheads.²⁷ ²⁸

If you have acne-prone skin, oil-free products are another good option. 

Exfoliating will help remove dead skin cells that can build up on your face.

Curology Custom Formula Cleanser Moisturizer and Lip Balm

Curology—simple, non-clogging skincare products

With great knowledge comes great responsibility. This isn’t to scare you into purging all your cosmetics! We encourage you to do your own research and come to a decision that sits well with you. 

And hey, if your current routine does include these ingredients and you’ve never had a problem, good for you! As long as your skin is happy and you’re happy, we’re happy for you.

If you’re struggling with common skin concerns like breakouts, Curology can make it easier (and convenient!). Curology was founded in 2014 by Dr. David Lorschter, MD, a board-certified dermatologist,  with products designed by dermatology providers.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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We offer custom skincare, so you can get a formula made to work for you. The same goes for our other super-gentle skincare essentials, made with only ingredients your skin will like—and nothing extra. All of our products are made to work with your skin’s unique quirks, not against them! Want to give Curology a try? Your first month is free.

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FAQs

What is acne cosmetica?

It’s acne that’s caused by the use of cosmetics. It’s usually mild and typically involves many comedones (clogged pores), with the occasional inflamed pimple. Acne cosmetica usually happens when makeup or hair products build up in your hair follicles. Combine with your skin’s natural oil, sweat, and dead skin, and voila! A pimple is born.

What does comedogenic mean?

In short, comedogenic translates to “pore-clogging.” That said, there’s a spectrum to comedogenicity. A comedogenic scale ranks how likely an ingredient is to cause breakouts, but it’s not an exact science. Some ingredients may be pore-clogging for some people but not for others, and even products labeled “non-comedogenic” can still block pores.

Why does safety matter in cosmetics?

It’s important to always know exactly what’s in the products you apply to your skin. This is so you can check to ensure they’re safe to use and won’t cause a harmful reaction. 

Unfortunately, packaging can’t always be counted on. Some companies “greenwash” their products with words like “eco-friendly” and “organic,” which may not actually reflect the quality of the product. It’ll save you time, money, and discomfort if you can identify what ingredients do and don’t agree with your skin.

• • •

P.S. We did the research so you don’t have to:

  1. Maarouf, M., et al. Myths, Truths, and Clinical Relevance of Comedogenicity Product Labeling. JAMA dermatology, (2018).

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Heart healthy benefits of chocolate.

  3. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (1984).

  4. Abel Francis, Anitta Shojan. Comedogenicity of Oils. International Journal of Contemporary Medical Research. (2019, August). 

  5. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  6. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 10474217, Ethylhexyl palmitate. (2021).

  7. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 8907, Isopropyl palmitate. (2021).

  8. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  9. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  10. Environmental Working Group. Isopropyl Myristate. EWG’s Skin Deep.

  11. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  12. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 78933, Tetraethylene glycol monododecyl ether. (2021). 

  13. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  14. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 18605, Myristyl myristate. (2021.

  15. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  16. Environmental Working Group. Oleth-3. EWG Skin Deep. 

  17. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  18. Environmental Working Group. Oleyl alcohol. EWG Skin Deep.

  19. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  20. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 3423265, Sodium dodecyl sulfate. (2021).

  21. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  22. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  23. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  24. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  25. Fulton, J. E., et al. Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear. Ibid.

  26. American Academy of Dermatology. I Have Acne! Is it Okay to Wear Makeup? (n.d.).

  27. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 Skin Care Habits That Can Worsen Acne. (n.d.).

  28. Jacqueline Woodruff. A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of a 2% salicylic acid cleanser for improvement of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2013, April 1).

This article was originally published on January 5, 2022, and updated on April 26, 2022.

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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