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 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.
To lend a helping hand, and because both estheticians are fonts of knowledge with glowing rosters of A-list clientele to back them up, I had to ask: Which skincare ingredients should be avoided like the plague if someone is susceptible to breakouts? Keep reading for 11 inflammatory answers, other common mistakes, and what ingredients to look for instead. Oh, and you just might see a few of my favorite (esthetician-approved) products sprinkled throughout—which de Sousa and Rouleau have gotten me hooked on.
The Common Shopping Mistakes
According to Rouleau, this is a far more complicated question than I had originally anticipated. Because depending on your age, skin type, and form of acne, certain ingredients will be better or worse than others. And while one ingredient might be horrible for someone who's older with stubborn cystic breakouts along the jawline, the same ingredient might be okay for a teenager who's getting new angry breakouts on a daily basis.
"One of the most common mistakes I see is people not understanding their true skin type, which will almost certainly result in choosing the wrong skincare products," clarifies Rouleau. For example, all breakouts are not equal and certain products respond well to certain acne ingredients while other ingredients won’t work at all."
So what's the main issue here? Rouleau points out that both acne camps will shop for and choose "acne" products despite the fact their breakouts have different needs and acne products aren't simply one-size-fits-all. For instance, if you head to Rouleau's (very helpful) website, you'll notice that in skin types #1, #2, #3, and #4, all products so cater to breakout-prone skin, but to varying degrees.
Another mistake: If someone only gets acne in specific areas (like the jawline) but uses an acne-specific product (like a cleanser) over the entire face versus just the affected area. "This is compromising the skin’s health if you're targeting breakouts on areas that don't have them, such as the cheeks and forehead," says Rouleau. Whoops.
Last but not least, de Sousa brings up the issue of purchasing acne products simply due to a buzzy brand name or "all-natural" and "oil-free" marketing. She points out to me that we can't just assume popular products are acne-safe and that brand, ingredient-sourcing, or product texture has nothing to do with the actual comedogenicity (pore-clogging likelihood) of the product in question.
Now, keep scrolling for the 11 sneaky ingredients both de Sousa and Rouleau say are universally un-ideal for those with acne.
The Main Offenders
"It's important to understand that acne is an inflammatory disease of the skin (and sadly, one that doesn’t yet have a true cure). Therefore, further inflaming the skin is an absolute no-no," warns Rouleau. "Certain ingredients are known irritants and can be more harmful than helpful in skin types that get easily irritated."
Synthetic perfumes: Rouleau says to be wary of labels indicating "fragrance," "parfum," or " "perfume" anywhere on the ingredient list.
Essential Oils: "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.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: Commonly found in cleansers, Rouleau says it can damage the skin's protective barrier resulting in worsened irritation.
Isopropyl Myristate and Isopropyl Palmitate: Both estheticians explain these ingredients won't affect already inflamed acne but 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. 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. (Read how to get rid of a blemish fast.)
Sodium Chloride: Otherwise known as sea salt or salt maris, according to de Sousa.
Coconut Oil: It's highly comedogenic.
Cocoa Butter: Again, it's extremely comedogenic, and therefore likely to clog pores.
Algae Extract: "Algae extracts are especially sneaky because there are so many different species of them. For an example, they could be listed as Carrageenan, laminaria digitata, brown seaweed, plankton extract etc.," explains de Sousa.
Ingredients That Get the Green Light
Admittedly, we run into a lot of ingredients during a thorough label scan that sound sketchy but actually get the all-clear from both de Sousa and Rouleau. (Again, deciphering ingredients feels like code and if you happen to be good at it, may we suggest joining the CIA? Kidding. Kind of.) Below, the suspect ingredients which, according to Rouleau, are considered to be safer and gentler to the skin since they avoid sulfates—especially when it comes to ingredients found in foaming and gel cleansers which are especially notorious for drying out the skin.
Disodium Cocoyl Glutamate
Sodium Cocoyl Amino Acids
Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate
Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate
Sodium Lauroyl Oat Amino Acids
Want more skincare content? Read all about the miracle skincare routine that has magically cured my vicious breakout cycle.