It’s reasonable to assume that a cardinal rule of makeup and skincare products should be “don’t make acne worse.” Unfortunately, some cosmetics companies just don’t seem to agree.
It’s sad but true: Some of your favorite products may contribute to breakouts. Treating these breakouts can be challenging, especially when you’re trying to narrow down the culprit. But knowing the most common acne-causing ingredients in skincare products can help you to make informed decisions about what you put on your face.
It may go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: You shouldn’t apply just anything to your face! Stay mindful about what you put on your skin, especially regarding skincare, makeup, and hair products. Some common ingredients in makeup, cleansers, serums, creams, and other products may significantly impact the health and appearance of your skin, and not always for the better.
Depending on your unique skin type and sensitivities, certain ingredients may contribute to acne, irritation, dryness, and other skin issues (especially if they’re comedogenic, aka pore-clogging). Our experts recommend reading the label carefully and researching the ingredients in a product before making a purchase. The best way to create a skincare routine that produces clear skin is by staying mindful and informed.
A variety of ingredients may contribute to breakouts. Everyone’s skin reacts differently, but some ingredients are more likely to cause irritation and, potentially, pimples. Here’s a list of ingredients you may want to look out for:
Cocoa butter: Cocoa butter is commonly used as an emollient—a substance that helps soften and smooth the skin—but it’s comedogenic, so it may also clog your pores.¹
Lauric acid: This acid is a saturated fat found in coconut and other natural oils. It’s used in cosmetics for cleansing and emulsifying and as a surfactant. It can be comedogenic.²
Laureth-4: This potentially pore-clogging emulsifying agent is commonly used for cleansing and to help mix oil and water-based ingredients together.³
Isopropyl palmitate: Isopropyl palmitate is used in beauty products and cosmetics for binding, emulsifying, and skin conditioning. It may be comedogenic.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): This foaming agent is commonly used in cleansers. It may be harsh and drying on the skin, a potential recipe for breakouts.
Coconut oil: This natural oil is used as a moisturizer. Like many other ingredients we’ve listed, it may clog pores.⁴
Elements of your diet may contribute to breakouts, too. Some studies link certain foods to acne, but this may not apply to everyone. Here are some foods that have shown some link to increased acne:⁵
Foods high on the glycemic index (GI): Simple carbs, such as white bread, pasta, and sugary foods, may spike insulin levels and increase sebum production. This may, in turn, contribute to acne.⁶
Milk: Research shows that milk may be linked to skin congestion and acne breakouts.⁷
If you’re looking for an acne treatment that avoids pore-clogging ingredients, we’ve got your back. Our experts recommend the following products, and they’re (mostly) available over the counter. Each contains non-comedogenic pimple-busting ingredients, such as salicylic acid. Take a look:
The Curology Acne Body Wash: This gentle yet effective body wash contains 2% salicylic acid to help unclog pores and help prevent new breakouts.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant:This cult-favorite liquid exfoliantcontains beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) to gently exfoliate the skin and remove dead skin cells.
Glossier Solution: This exfoliator helps smooth and brighten the skin with a 10% blend of skincare acids (chemical exfoliants).
Curology Acne Cleanser: This cleanser is powered by 2.5% benzoyl peroxide to treat breakouts, while also containing hydrating glycerin and soothing allantoin to be gentle enough for daily use.
The Curology Emergency Spot Patch: This is an excellent option for concealing and healing blemishes. It doesn’t contain acne-fighting ingredients, but it helps absorb fluid and excess oil and can be worn underneath makeup.
Noble Formula 2% Pyrithione Zinc (ZnP) Argan Oil Bar:This bar soap contains pyrithione zinc, olive oil, and argan oil to help relieve itching, flaking, redness, and irritation. It also combats both bacteria and fungus that can worsen acne.
Your personalized Curology formula:This is an excellent option if you’re looking for a prescription product. Tailored to your specific needs by one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers, it may contain active ingredients such as tretinoin, azelaic acid, or niacinamide.
Everyone’s skin is different, so when it comes to skincare, it’s important to seek professional advice that’s tailored to you. That’s where we come in. Curology is a full-service skincare solution founded by board-certified dermatologists, offering products made with proven effective ingredients. Curology helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine. Our licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and create a custom treatment plan for you, complete with a personalized prescription formula to address your concerns. Our formulas contain powerful active ingredients, including tretinoin—a blemish-fighting ingredient that’s clinically researched to ensure efficacy.
Signing up is easy. Just answer a few questions and snap some selfies to help us get to know your skin better. If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our in-house medical providers. They’ll guide you on your skincare journey and answer any questions.
Many of the comedogenic ingredients in skincare products are also in cosmetic products. Check the formulations of your makeup products for ingredients such as cocoa butter, coconut oil, and isopropyl palmitate. You may find these ingredients in various items, from lipstick and foundation to concealer, bronzer, and blush.
Acne cosmetica can take up to six months to appear, making it hard to draw a connection between acne and makeup in some cases.⁸ If you’re worried one (or more) of your makeup products is causing you to break out, our experts recommend face mapping. By connecting the dots between where you’re breaking out and what products you’re using on that area of skin, you may be able to identify the culprit. If you use lipstick and breakouts are happening around your lips, your lipstick may be to blame.
Baek, JH, et al. Early detection of microcomedones induced by cocoa butter using reflectance confocal microscopy. J Cosmet Dermatol. (July 2022).
Narayanan, V, et al. Holistic Skin Care and Selection of Skin Care Products in Acne. Family Medicine and Holistic Health, Dr. Varsha’s Health Solutions. (2020 June 26).
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).
Francis, A, et al. Comedogenicity of Oils. International Journal of Contemporary Medical Research. (August 2019).
Bowe, WP, et al. Diet and acne. J Am Acad Dermatol. (July 2010).
Baldwin H, Tan J. Effects of Diet on Acne and Its Response to Treatment. Am J Clin Dermatol. (2021).
Can the right diet get rid of acne? American Academy of Dermatology Association. (n.d.).
I have acne! Is it okay to wear makeup? American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.).
Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.
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Meredith Hartle, DO