So you do all the right things (regularly wash your face, exfoliate, moisturize, and even wear sunscreen!), but your skin still breaks out. I hear you. The sad, sad truth is you can be diligent about your skincare routine, but if you’re not addressing all of the possible acne causes, you’ll still be Googling “why am I breaking out?!” every single night.
Though every skin type is different, breakouts are mainly triggered by hormones and the overproduction of oil. Basically, hormones ramp up your oil under the skin, which clogs your hair follicle, which leads to the growth of the zit-causing bacteria known as P. acnes. Although genetics play a big role in how your body reacts to acne-stimulating hormones, there are certain patterns you could be repeating on a daily basis that could be the culprit behind your breakouts—or, at the very least, make them worse.
To shed light on all the acne-causing things we had no idea we were doing, we turned to two top dermatologists and an aesthetician for their clear skin tips. If you’re a skincare overachiever and are still screaming at the mirror every time you wake up with a zit, keep scrolling to find out 15 common but surprising acne triggers. This one goes out to you.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #1: You’re Sleeping on a Dirty Pillowcase
During the day, dirt, oil, makeup, and grime build up on the skin. If you don’t wash your face before you go to sleep, all of that garbage then gets transferred to your pillowcase, which gets transferred back to your face again. Board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says long-term exposure of your skin to this type of soiling, along with the friction of the face rubbing against the pillowcase, may promote inflammation and acne breakouts. But that’s not all! An oily environment may be a breeding ground for bacteria that can infect the skin if there are any raw or open areas—one of the many acne causes.
Wash your pillowcases every few nights. Oh, and if you haven’t yet, switch to a silk pillowcase to reduce friction (your hair will thank you, too).
Why Am I Breaking Out? #2: You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Not to bore you to sleep, but our bodies undergo daily circadian rhythms, in which certain activities occur in the morning, and others occur while we’re snoozing. “Sleep is a time of rest and repair, and cortisol levels decrease,” Dr. Zeichner explains. “Not getting enough sleep means that our body is exposed to continuously high levels of cortisol, which can trigger breakouts.” Similar to what happens during stressful moments, cortisol-releasing hormones can actually bind to your oil glands, which sends them into overdrive and causes acne.
Sleep. It’s that simple (ish). Get off your phone (it causes blue light damage anyway) and get your eight hours.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #3: You’re Using Too Much Zit Cream
Raise your hand if at the first sight of a bump, you load up the area with spot treatments (hi, me). But Samantha Wright, a licensed aesthetician at the Dangene Institute, suggests not overreacting by over-treating. Topical salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or sulphur over-the-counter treatments can dry out your skin and trigger it to produce even more oil and, in turn, zits. Additionally, the active ingredients can slightly burn the top layer of your skin, making it look red and raw if you’re using all the things and far too often.
You don’t have to toss your usual spot treatment—just don’t overdo it. Two to three times a week or every other night on your zit should do the trick. And if you have a reaction, switch to over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, like Aveeno One Percent Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Cream, to calm the inflammation in the pimple and take down the redness.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #4: You’re Using an Abrasive Face Scrub
Not regularly exfoliating is one of the acne causes, yes, but if you’re of the mindset that the more you scrub your skin—whether with a washcloth, rough exfoliants (like a face scrub), loofahs, or cleansing brushes—the smoother it will be, I’m here to tell you that your breakouts are only gonna get worse. The idea here is to repair your skin’s protective barrier to keep bacteria out, not cause further trauma by scrubbing the sh*t out of it.
Wash and exfoliate your face with a mild yet effective formula that contains chemical exfoliators and don’t require scrubbing, like glycolic and lactic acids.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #5: You’re Using the Wrong Ingredients
If you’re frustrated because unlike your friends with perfect complexions you actually do take care of your skin, your acne trigger could be the sneaky ingredients in your products. According to cosmetic dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD, mineral oil, for example, is a super-heavy moisturizing agent found in some face moisturizers and creams that’s known to clog your pores and cause you to break out. Additionally, fragrance (especially irritating for sensitive skin) and sodium lauryl sulfate (an oil-stripping surfactant) can be found in many products and are common acne causes.
“Read your labels” is easier said than done if you don’t know what to look for, but a good place to start is by getting rid of any products that contain the aforementioned common irritants, and when in doubt, Dr. Downie says to shop for products marked as noncomedogenic. If you’ve tried all the above and your breakouts continue to worsen, make an appointment with your dermatologist to see if you could be allergic to another ingredient.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #6: You’re Trapping Sweat With Hats
Anything that can trap sweat and bacteria against your skin and clog your pores, like the lining of a tight hat or a headband, can cause zits to pop up.
Hats are cute, yes, but try not to wear them when you’re working out or sweating indoors or loosen the band so it doesn’t fit so snug against your skin. And always wash your face after a sweat sesh.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #7: You’re Clogging Your Pores With Hair Products
Those same pore-clogging moisturizing agents and sulfates that sneak their way into your skincare products can also be found in your shampoo, conditioner, and hairstyling formulas. And similar to how they can cause breakouts on your face, the ingredients can seep into the pores on your body and clog them, resulting in chest acne, back acne, and even pimples along your hairline or scalp acne, says Wright.
First and foremost, switch to a sulfate-free shampoo already. Once you’ve moved on to the conditioning step, clip your hair up and off your back while you let the formula sit. When you rinse, tilt your head over and to the side to keep the potentially pore-clogging and acne-causing residue off your face, chest, and back.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #8: You’re Sweating During Workouts
Skipping the shower right after working out or not washing your face allows the mixture of makeup, dirt, bacteria, oil, and sweat to find a nice little home in your skin and cause breakouts and clogged pores.
Before you start sweating, always wash your face to remove your makeup. After you’ve finished your workout, shower (whoa, revolutionary). If you don’t have time, use a facial wipe, like Simple Micellar Cleansing Wipes, to clear away any pore-clogging oil and bacteria.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #9: You’re Using the Wrong Detergent
Per Dr. Downie, some of the chemicals in certain laundry detergents can be too harsh for your skin. And once you slip on your clothes or use your towels, your complexion might react to the residue that’s left on the fabric, resulting in breakouts on your face, back, butt, chest, etc. If you recently switched to a new detergent because it was on sale (no judgement) and noticed a few breakouts ever since, that might be your problem.
Choose a detergent that’s fragrance-free, dye-free, and dermatologist-tested for sensitive skin, like Seventh Generation Concentrated Free & Clear Unscented Laundry Detergent.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #10: You’re Tanning in Beds or Outside
By now, you know that baking in the sun and in tanning beds causes skin cancer, but if that still hasn’t stopped you from hitting the beach without sunscreen, maybe this will: Contrary to popular belief, the sun isn’t healing your acne, it’s actually making it worse. On top of all the other damage, the sun dries out your skin and triggers excess oil production, which, hi, is one of the acne causes.
For starters, stop going to tanning beds. Period. And if you are in the sun, make sure to slather on a titanium dioxide- or zinc-based sunscreen—(these natural sun protectants are less likely to cause irritation than traditional chemicals), and wear a hat to shield your face from harsh rays.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #11: You’re Eating the Wrong Foods
According to Dr. Downie, tomatoes and peppers, two common ingredients in spicy foods, contain acidic lycopene—a somewhat common irritant that can throw off the skin’s pH levels and trigger breakouts around the mouth. But it isn’t just spicy foods that are acne causes. Some people have a reaction to dairy, gluten, or other types of foods. How diet affects the skin is totally dependent on the person.
Talk to your dermatologist or make an appointment with a gastroenterologist to see if the food you’re eating is the source of your problem or if something more serious is going on in your gastrointestinal tract. And while you’re at it, you could always try incorporating a few healthy foods for clear skin into your diet.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #12: You’re Making Out With Your Dude
One of the most surprising acne causes? Your dude’s beard. Sure, some guys look hot with a beard (I see you, Ryan Gosling), or even a five o’clock shadow, but your BF’s facial hair isn’t doing your pretty face any favors when it comes to breakouts. Long story short: As you two hook up, your smooth face creates friction against his prickly one, which stimulates your skin’s oil production. And an increase in oil = an increase in blemishes.
Kindly ask him to shave his beard in the name of flawless skin. Or you know, be more careful when you’re making out.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #13: You Smoke
Smoking is ruining you in more ways than one, my friend. Every time you light up a cigarette, you decrease the amount of oxygen that goes to the skin on your face, Dr. Downie explains. Smoking not only predisposes you to cancer, but it also causes the breakdown of collagen and elastin that leads to wrinkles and increased pore size. The carcinogens in the smoke also irritate your skin and dry it out, triggering it to produce more oil and, possibly, more breakouts.
Don’t smoke. It’s as simple as that. You’ll live longer and have clearer skin. Boom.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #14: You’re Stressed Out
Stress causes acne, and acne results in more stress—ah, the very vicious cycle. When you’re under pressure, your skin produces stress hormones, including cortisol, that can stimulate your oil glands to make testosterone, Dr. Downie explains. This then increases your oil production and clogs your pores.
Work out regularly, meditate, get that essential oil diffuser going, and take time out of your busy schedule to focus on yourself, whatever that means to you. All these things will help you release stress so your body doesn’t continue to release hormones that are trying to wreak havoc on your skin.
Why Am I Breaking Out? #15: You’re Touching Your Face Too Much
It’s tempting in the moment, but it’s never a good idea to play dermatologist, because it’s nearly impossible to pick your own pimple and not make a red mark that could turn into a scar. Even worse, when you try to press the blackhead or pus out of your pore, you run the risk of pushing the bacteria deeper and making the problem worse. Oh, yeah, and you know when you rest your chin in your palm while you’re sitting at your desk? That action of touching your skin also can transfer bacteria from your hand onto your face, Dr. Downie adds.
Challenge yourself not to pick or even touch your face for unnecessary reasons. If you need to physically put something over your pimple to keep your hands off of it (and to prevent more bacteria from getting to the zit), try a pimple patch, like the Mighty Patch Hydrocolloid Acne Absorbing Spot Dot, a flat, flexible, drug-free patch that protects your spot and allows it to heal faster.
And when all else fails—or ideally, before all else begins—head to your dermatologist to find out which of the acne causes is wreaking havoc on your skin. It’s almost like they went to school to fix this kind of thing. Weird.