We know that breakouts on the jawline and chin are often linked to hormones, and that breakouts in the T-zone can be tied to stress—but what about our cheeks? Though all acne results from oil clogging our pores, depending on where we're breaking out, our faces can sometimes offer clues about why the pore clogging is happening. And when it comes to our cheeks, the good news is that there may be more shifts we can make in our everyday lives to help get our skin back on track. We spoke to top dermatologists about what leads to cheek breakouts and how to prevent and treat them.
Even though breakouts on the cheeks can simply be a manifestation of genetics, they are more likely to be connected to lifestyle factors and everyday habits than do breakouts on other parts of our faces. “Unlike acne breakouts on the rest of your face (T-zone, nose, chin, forehead), the underlying causes of spots on the cheeks are much harder to pinpoint. It may be caused by genetics or everyday habits (touching the face, makeup, makeup brushes, etc.). For some people, it just happens to be where their skin tends to develop acne. Everyone has different skin and oil gland tendencies. But in general, isolated breakouts on the cheeks are a byproduct of the environment and poor skincare,” explains Miami-based board-certified dermatologist Annie Gonzalez, MD.
Our cheeks, when you think about it, bear the brunt of our habits. From face touching, cradling, and leaning on hands to dirty phones and pillowcases, our cheeks put up with all of it. So it’s not so surprising, when you think about it, that they sometimes react. Our hands and phones alone are breeding grounds for germs. “The hands collect allergens and pollutants throughout the day, whether from our keyboards, doors, elevator buttons, or smartphones,” Gonzalez says. So “the more you touch your face, the more dirt, bacteria, oil, allergens, and dead skin cells contact the skin.” And even if our skin makes it through the day scot-free, our own beds (frustratingly) present more opportunities for germ exposure. “When it comes to breakouts on the cheek, consider the pillowcases or sheets. In just one to two weeks, your bedsheets are practically a breeding ground for bacteria, dust, dirt, fungi, pollen, and other allergens that permeate the sheets,” Gonzalez explains.
Makeup and makeup brushes can also be a culprit, so it’s important to pay attention to the ingredients in your products. “Any skincare products or makeup with ingredients like alcohol and synthetic fragrances might be irritating or comedogenic,” Gonzalez says.
A board-certified dermatologist will be able to help you pinpoint (and address) the cause. If it’s determined not to be genetics- or lifestyle-related, New York City–based board-certified dermatologist Jeremy Brauer, MD, explains, other skin conditions like rosacea, acne mechanica (aka maskne), folliculitis, or other rashes could be to blame. Finally, a lack of hydration or stripping the skin from overwashing can also lead to these breakouts.
As for how to tell the difference? While it’s best to consult a professional, your face provides some clues on its own, too. “When it's part of a chronic inflammatory condition, there usually won’t be sharp boundaries of where you’re impacted,” notes Cambridge, MA–based board-certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, MD. “When it’s not, it will be distributed more closely to whatever the trigger was—for example, the shape of your phone and connected to recent exposure,” she says.
The good news is that if everyday habits or lifestyle factors are contributing to breakouts on your cheeks, they’re not so hard to address—and definitely worth the extra loads of laundry and weekly makeup brush cleaning. The other key to prevention? Los Angeles–based board-certified dermatologist Onyeka Obioha, MD, says it's a well-rounded skincare routine.
She recommends a simple but powerful routine. “End your day with an exfoliating cleanser that contains AHAs/BHAs like glycolic and salicylic acid to remove the debris of the day, breakup dead skin cells and unclog clogged pores,” Obioha says. We like Skinceuticals LHA Cleanser and the Holifrog Shasta AHA Refining Wash. Even if your skin is breakout-prone, don’t skip hydration. “Look for a soothing oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer that won’t clog pores,” she says. We like La Roche Posay Toleriane Ultra Face Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin and Murad Clarifying Oil-Free Water Gel.
If your breakouts are not responding to over-the-counter treatments, Obioha recommends an evaluation in-office by a board-certified dermatologist who can help determine the best treatment plan. Common options include:
This common acne-fighting ingredient treats bacteria that contributes to acne, and can, to a lesser extent, help reduce sebum production, Hirsch explains. Find it in La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment.
This oil soluble beta hydroxy acid gets into the follicle where sebum is produced and exfoliates, Hirsch says. Try it in cult favorite Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.
This vitamin A derivative increases cellular, which in turn, helps keep pores clear. It can also regulate sebum production and act as an anti-inflammatory. A board-certified dermatologist can prescribe a retinoid (tretinoin) cream, but companies like Dermatica and Curology can also help you access this potent ingredient from home at an affordable price.
Antibiotics work to reduce bacteria count and inflammation. They can be prescribed by a board-certified dermatologist and taken orally or applied topically.