Can Makeup Actually Cause Acne? We Get to the Bottom of It

closeup of person wearing full face makeup

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The link between acne and makeup is a mysterious one. Beauty experts and influencers say things like, "don't wear makeup too often or your skin won't be able to breathe." As such, I've often wondered if there's any truth to that old adage. Would blending my go-to foundation across my T-zone cause my skin to look dull and clogged after I take it off? Would applying concealer over the top of a blemish impede its healing process? On one hand, I want to cover the blemish so it's less apparent. On the other hand, I want it to heal as quickly as possible, and I definitely don't want any new ones to crop up. So what gives?

According to skin experts, the answer to the "does makeup cause acne?" question isn't as straightforward as a simple yes or no. There are a couple of different factors you must first take into account—like the type of makeup you're using and how you go about cleansing your face. Keep scrolling to read everything that they had to say about makeup and acne.

Your Makeup's Ingredients Matter

Woman with clear bright skin applying foundation
Caroline Tompkins / Refinery 29 for Getty Images 

"One of the most critical things to think about here is to make sure that your makeup products aren't acne-causing culprits," says David Lortscher, MD, board-certified dermatologist, CEO, and founder of Curology. "If your makeup is not pore-clogging, wearing it for a longer period should not be a problem, in theory." But how can you be sure that your makeup won't clog up all your pores? According to Lortscher, It's quite simple. All you have to do is read the foundation's label.

"Although it's not a guarantee, it's best to use products labeled with terms like 'noncomedogenic,' 'non-acnegenic,' 'does not clog pores,' or 'won't cause breakouts,'" he says. If you don't see such a label on one of your favorite products, or you just want to be sure that it won't cause breakouts, Lortscher recommends checking in on cosDNA, which is a website that assigns numerical scores to popular products based on their ingredients. "I recommend stopping the use of products with acne scores of 3s, 4s, or 5s."

You can even try using a foundation that includes acne-fighting ingredients in its formulation. "Those who have acne breakouts might look for a foundation containing salicylic acid, which can provide mild exfoliation, helping prevent and treat blocked pores," Lortscher explains. He likes Bare Mineral's Blemish Remedy Foundation, which has salicylic acid and tea tree to clear skin. Just be warned, as Lortscher says foundations that contain salicylic acid could prove to be too drying to some skin types. So if you're experiencing new and unwanted dryness with a salicylic acid formulation, it might be worthwhile to return to a traditional foundation without this ingredient.

Just as important as the ingredients found inside your makeup are the ingredients that are absent. Lortscher recommends staying away from isopropyl myristate, sodium lauryl sulfate, myristyl myristate, and laureth-4, all of which he calls "common irritants" and/or "pore-clogging ingredients." So, as always, be sure to read your makeup's ingredients list.

Another ingredient to watch out for is silicone. This tip comes courtesy of Joshua Ross, a celebrity esthetician and owner of SkinLab in West Hollywood (SkinLab is an amazing place to go for facials. I went in for one last month and left with glowing skin. As such, I highly recommend it. But I digress). "If you have active acne, I recommend avoiding any products that contain silicone, as silicone does not allow the skin to breathe," Ross says. "Double-check the ingredients in your products and keep in mind that silicone can also be listed as dimethicone (or anything ending in 'cone') in the ingredients. Silicones are usually found in primers, so steer clear of a primer if you aren't sure of the ingredients."

According to NYC Cosmetic Dermatologist Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology, you should also avoid foundations with alcohol, which is extremely drying to the skin. Also consider avoiding acrylics and oils, since both ingredients can clog pores and lead to even more breakouts… that is, after all, exactly what we don't want.

CC Screen 100% Mineral CC Cream SPF 50
Supergoop! CC Screen 100% Mineral CC Cream SPF 50 $39.00

While it depends on specific ingredients and whether or not the makeup is noncomedogenic, Ross, Shah, and Lortscher agree that there is one general rule: Choose mineral makeup. "If you are experiencing any kind of acne, to be on the safe side, you should use a mineral-based sunscreen and mineral-based makeup," Ross says.

"I like mineral-based products because the zinc particles are too large to penetrate the pore, so it doesn't clog the pores. Instead, it just sits on top of the skin and reflects away the light, while collecting dirt and pollution throughout the day that you wash off in the evening."

He recommends using Supergoop's CC Cream, thanks to its high quantity of zinc. "Zinc is also a skin-soothing ingredient, so if you are experiencing hormonal or stress acne, it can really help. I absolutely love Supergoop's CC Cream because it's a two-in-one offering 20 percent zinc, which is the gold standard in sun protection, and it has really great dewy coverage. It doesn't look too chalky like some other products and leaves a very natural finish."

Mineral Fusion Sheer Tint Foundation
Mineral Fusion Sheer Tint Foundation $33.00

Other brands and products he loves include Bare Minerals, which he calls "the cleanest mineral line" and his "top recommendation for makeup." Mineral Fusion is another one. It's an organic makeup line available at Whole Foods. Finally, he likes Tarte Cosmetics, since it "has great products that offer skincare-enhanced benefits with algae, peptides, and hyaluronic acid added to the formulas." Oh, how we love expert recommendations.

Cleaning Your Tools Is Crucial

After you've sourced the best anti-acne makeup, make sure you're not sabotaging it by using dirty tools. "Applying makeup with your fingers or with brushes that have not been cleaned recently can spread germs and irritate the skin, potentially leading to breakouts for those with acne-prone skin," Lortscher explains. "Any makeup brushes that are used to apply foundation or any liquid makeup are best cleaned at least once a week to avoid bacteria buildup. For all other brushes, I suggest cleaning them every one to two weeks. Use a product designed for cleaning brushes, or a gentle shampoo, diluted with warm water."

Sigma Beauty Sigmagic Brushampoo
Sigma Beauty Sigmagic Brushampoo $19.00

On that note, we like using Sigma's Brush Shampoo, which is fragrance-free and effectively removes buildup from makeup brush fibers. It's also easy to rinse out, leaving our brush bristles gleaming with zero residues. All of Sigma's brush cleaning products are Byrdie team favorites, including the brand's new(ish) Sigma Spa Express Brush Cleaning Mat ($29). If you gently rub the bristles of a dirty brush against its grooved surface, it results in an extra-deep clean. It gives a little extra peace of mind that your tools are actually clean.

Master Your Face-Washing Technique

We all know that washing our faces every night before bed is paramount to a healthy and clean complexion. If you go without cleansing, the dirt, sweat, oil, and toxins that your face has accumulated throughout the day sit on your skin all night, causing breakouts (or something worse—like premature signs of aging). So the moral of the story is to wash your face daily. With that being said, there is a way to cleanse your skin most effectively.

We're talking about double-cleansing. "Double-cleansing is a method of cleansing your face twice: once with an oil-based cleanser and again with a water-based cleanser," Lortscher explains. "This tactic is supposed to help remove impurities caked onto your skin, especially due to excess makeup, sunscreen, environmental pollutants, sweat, or dirt. Double-cleansing may be beneficial for stubborn pore-clogging and acne-causing impurities that can remain on the skin even after washing your face once."

DHC Deep Cleansing OIl
DHC Deep Cleansing Oil $21.00

As for the first step in double-cleansing, otherwise known as the oil-cleanser step, Lortscher recommends DHC's Deep Cleansing Oil, which is a cult classic. It all but melts makeup, even the waterproof kind, off of your skin and eyelashes. (Plus, we think it's the perfect product to use for facial massage; it reduces friction between your fingers and your face, so you're not pulling on your skin). After the makeup has dissolved off your skin, follow up with a water-based cleanser like CeraVe's Foaming Facial Cleanser ($4), which Lortscher calls "great for oily skin" and for removing any final traces of makeup that might be left behind.

The only time you should never apply makeup to a breakout is if you picked or popped it. At that point, it's basically an open wound, and Lortscher says you could delay the healing process if you apply makeup. "If you are faced with an angry blemish—resist the temptation—do not squeeze or pick! Use a hydrocolloid bandage instead. If you can't resist and pop a pimple, then makeup on top of that is not a good idea. At best it can look like oatmeal, and at worst, it may interfere with healing."

There you have it. Wearing makeup won't cause acne if you're using the right types of makeup. Avoid acne-causing ingredients and choose mineral-based formulations, and you (and your skin) will be in the clear. On that note, make sure you check out the $17 acne treatment every celeb uses.

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