If the mere thought of scanning a skincare label's ingredient list makes you nauseated with a side of head spins, you're not alone. And sometimes, just like our favorite boxed mac and cheese, even if we know there are likely sketchy ingredients lurking within, we do our best to feign ignorance. Because A) the thought of giving up Kraft is overwhelming and B) the idea of finding a new skincare regimen feels like the ask of a lifetime. Especially for the acne-prone.
Over the years, we've picked up bits of wisdom here and there. No alcohols! No comedogenic oils! No harsh ingredients! But when the time comes to decipher an ingredient list as long as the product packaging itself, all previous standards are quickly chucked out the window, and we usually end up with something our friend likes, something that smells good, or something that simply looks like it will work (or has a buzzy brand name behind it). However, according to board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, along with celebrity estheticians Renée Rouleau and Biba de Sousa, those are a few of the absolute worst things you can do when choosing products to beat your breakouts.
Below, we're finding out the answer to our burning question, what are the skincare ingredients that cause acne? (Of course, these are guidelines—not hard and fast rules—and those with serious skin conditions should consult a dermatologist.) Read on to learn the ingredients you’ll want to avoid if you have acne-prone skin and what ingredients get the green light.
The truth about skincare products is that the words "fragrance," "perfume," or "parfum," on an ingredient list can often mean a mix of dozens of chemicals, any of which can be irritating to acne-prone skin. "Synthetic fragrances are a major source of skin allergies," notes Zeichner. "This can cause inflammation and irritation, which makes treating acne even more difficult than it already is." If you're acne-prone, be wary of things like essential oils (more on that later) and natural fragrance in addition to synthetic perfumes.
"Many of the 'natural' skincare lines will load up products with massive amounts of essential oils, and many of these can be irritating to already inflamed skin," Rouleau says. But what about applying essential oils to the skin while they're in their natural form? According to Zeichner, essential oils are extremely concentrated compounds that can be irritating if applied directly to the skin (which is why it's recommended to dilute them in a carrier oil before application). "You need to pick your carrier oil carefully as some can block the pores," he says, recommending that those with acne-prone skin avoid heavier oils that contain high levels of saturated fats. "Unsaturated fats like omega 3 and 6's are less likely to cause breakouts," he says.
Jojoba oil, hazelnut oil, hemp oil, or even your unscented body lotion work as effective carrier oils. Steer clear from coconut oil and cocoa butter.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
SLS, while being effective at creating that commercial-worthy lather from your cleanser, can be cause for irritation in those with sensitive skin. SLS is a surfactant (the chemical responsible for removing dirt and oil from the skin), and according to Zeichner, it's known to cause significant irritation and inflammation. Both he and Rouleau note that this can cause skin barrier disruption and make active breakouts worse. Thankfully, there are plenty of sulfate-free cleansers available that perform just as well as sulfate-ridden ones.
Isopropyl Myristate and Isopropyl Palmitate
"Isopropyl myristate is a penetration enhancer that allows for increased absorption of active ingredients into the skin," says Zeichner. "Isoprpopyl palmitate is a highly comedogenic emollient ingredient used in some moisturizers." While these ingredients shouldn't affect already inflamed acne, both Roulaeu and de Sousa maintain that they can lead to clogged pores and non-inflamed closed comedones, otherwise known as "clogged bumps."
SD Alcohol 40, Denatured Alcohol, Ethanol, and Isopropyl Alcohol
When used in toners and exfoliating products—which are used over the entire face—these specific forms of alcohol become drying and irritating to the overall health of the skin: "These are drying alcohols that remove excess oil from the skin," notes Zeichner. "They are potentially irritating, especially if you have skin that is on the dryer side."
Exception: "When used in an acne spot treatment on an infected blemish, the drying benefits they give can aid in the healing of a blemish to help it go away faster—assuming it’s used at the appropriate time," Rouleau tells us.
Otherwise known as sea salt or salt maris, sodium chloride is the technical term for salt. "It is commonly used in cleansers for its exfoliating benefits and its ability to thicken formulations to achieve a desired texture," says Zeichner. And while we can appreciate the decadence of a rich cream, we're not willing to use it at the expense of getting breakouts.
Be wary of foundations containing sodium chloride, as they can cause breakouts along the chin and mouth area.
Though it's lauded as a skin savior among those with ultra-parched skin, coconut oil is often considered to be highly comedogenic (meaning, it can clog pores) and can pose some serious risk for acneic skin. Zeichner explains that coconut oil has both unsaturated and saturated fats, including linoleic and lauric acid. "While high levels of linoleic acid may be useful if you have acne, lauric acid is known to cause breakouts," he says. "For this reason, coconut oil is not for all acne-prone patients."
Though it's a rich emollient ingredient that offers great hydration, cocoa butter—like coconut oil—is often considered to be a comedogenic ingredient that can clog pores and contribute to breakouts. Instead, Zeichner says it's better suited for those with dry skin.
Algae extract is a double-edged sword. While it's classified as an anti-inflammatory and can regulate oil production, it may also be comedogenic. "Algae extracts are especially sneaky because there are so many different species of them," says de Sousa. "For example, they could be listed as Carrageenan, laminaria digitata, brown seaweed, or plankton extract."
Shop Products for Acne
Acne products aren't simply one-size-fits-all, and different breakouts require different needs. This potent spot treatment reduces irritation caused by cystic acne and allows you to target the specific areas requiring treatment.
This sulfate-free mask is made with black mud and charcoal meant to help detoxify the skin by getting rid of dirt, oil, impurities, and toxins.
According to the brand, it's made with a blend of natural C. acne phages meant to fight acne and reset the skin microbiome. This serum promises to target and kill bad bacteria associated with acne all while enabling the good bacteria to flourish.
Jesumani V, Du H, Aslam M, Pei P, Huang N. Potential use of seaweed bioactive compounds in skincare-a review. Mar Drugs. 2019;17(12):688. doi:10.3390/md17120688