If you’re someone who’s prone to breakouts, you know better than anyone the struggle of finding makeup that doesn’t set off your skin's alarm bells. It can feel like walking a tightrope sometimes—you might find a product that looks really good on your skin, but once you take it off, your face erupts.
Of course, this can be avoided by staying mindful of the makeup you choose and various triggering ingredients. Great branding and aesthetic doesn’t mean much if it the product isn't right for your skin—and considering how expensive makeup can be, you don’t want to waste money on formulas that make your skin break out in blemishes, or even cystic acne. (Trust me, I’ve been there—loving the idea of a foundation but knowing it doesn’t work with your skin sucks.)
"When you have acne-prone skin, the key is avoiding ingredients that are potentially comedogenic (pore-clogging)," board-certified dermatologist Yoram Harth, MD, explains. If a product is referred to as “comedogenic,” that means it’s more likely to cause your pores to clog, which will lead to breakouts—so for anyone with acne-prone skin, all products should be "non-comedogenic."
Luckily, in this day and age, there's tons of research around ingredients, including those you should stay away from if you have acne-prone skin. Below, find a list of common culprits that may be causing your breakouts.
Meet the Expert
- Yoram Harth, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and medical director of MDacne.
- Rhonda Klein, MD, MPH, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Modern Dermatology in Westport, CT.
- Shari Sperling, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Sperling Dermatology in Florham Park, NJ.
- Deanne Robinson, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Modern Dermatology.
- Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Mudgil Dermatology in New York City.
This includes almond, avocado, and yes—even the famed coconut oil, which is in a lot of natural products on the market. "Just because they're natural doesn't mean they can't cause harm,” says board-certified dermatologist Rhonda Klein, MD, MPH, FAAD. "These oils are highly comedogenic and should be avoided if you have acne-prone skin." Shari Sperling, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, agrees, particularly when it comes to coconut oil. “Coconut oil clogs pores and is highly comedogenic,” she echoes.
According to Deanne Robinson, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, silicone is another ingredient to stay away from in makeup—particularly makeup primers, where it’s often added to give products a smoothing, water-resistant texture. "[Silicones] can be dehydrating and pore-clogging. A plumping and hydrating ingredient to look for instead would be hyaluronic acid,” Robinson shares. Board-certified dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, agrees, explaining that this common makeup ingredient is comedogenic and “[a] no-no for those who are acne-prone.”
This really goes for all artificial fragrances added to makeup, but Harth says the one to really watch out for is benzaldehyde. “Benzaldehyde is an artificial fragrance used by some makeup producers. As with other fragrances, it can clog your pores," he explains. Sperling agrees, commenting that all fragrances should be avoided if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin. “Fragrances are very irritating and can cause allergies and acne."
According to Harth, lanolin is a big ingredient to stay away from if you have acne-prone skin—and even worse, it can go by different names, so you have to be really careful when checking your product labels. "Lanolin is the sebum, or skin oil of sheep,” he explains. “Unfortunately, lanolin is highly comedogenic and can cause more skin breakouts." Other names for lanolin are, acetylated lanolin alcohol, ethoxylated lanolin, PEG 16 lanolin and solulan 16. Klein adds lanolin can also be a trigger of contact dermatitis.
According to Robinson, these won’t actually be called “petrochemicals” on the label—but they’ll still be harmful to your skin’s health. "[Petrochemicals] can pop up on a cosmetic label under the guise of paraffin wax, mineral oil, or petrolatum,” Robinson explains. "These are chemicals used to preserve the shelf life of a product, but they can clog pores."
This is another name for regular salt, which you wouldn’t think would be in your makeup—but turns out, it’s sometimes added to products as a thickening agent. If you're prone to breakouts, though, it’s something to stay away from, according to Harth. “Sodium Chloride, another name for regular salt, is used in certain types of foundation. Similar to salty food, it can clog pores and cause more breakouts, especially on the chin and around the mouth,” he shares.
D & C Red
This ingredient is more likely something that’s only going to be found in blush—primarily because it's a red dye—but Harth says it’s an ingredient those with sensitive and acne-prone skin should also stay away from. “D & C Red is a synthetic dye produced from petroleum or coal tar, [and is] frequently used in color cosmetics. Although some of these colors are not allowed for use anymore (D & C #19), you can still find others on labels (D & C Red 3, 30, 36,40, 27),” he continues.
"For those with acne-prone skin, the worst are numbers 27 and 40.”
Thankfully, it's not all bad: There are makeup products with ingredients that can help heal and prevent breakouts, and looking out for those can make a world of difference. "I'd suggest looking for a cosmetic with salicylic acid and/or sulfur, which can help treat active acne while soothing the skin,” Robinson recommends. That said, It is important to remove your makeup extremely well at the end of the day to prevent breakouts. Make up typically occludes the skin and can wreak havoc if it is not thoroughly removed. Similarly, Sperling adds, "Retinols are fantastic for acne-prone skin, as they increase cell turnover."
If you think your makeup is the cause of your breakouts, check out the label before consulting your dermatologist.