Surprising Causes of Acne Breakouts

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Another day, another pop. What makes acne such a menace? There are four main acne breakout causes: excess oil production, clogged hair follicles, bacteria, and excess hormonal activity (specifically androgens), according to the Mayo Clinic. While teenagers are particularly vulnerable, adults get acne, too, and things like diet, certain medications, stress, and genetics can worsen acne breakouts.

Acne treatments, including over-the-counter products, prescribed topical and oral medications, and various in-office options, such as chemical peels and light therapy, can reduce inflammation and breakouts. Yet some people still periodically break out for no apparent reason, often in the worst of times.

It turns out that there are quite a few things that could be contributing to your surprise acne breakouts:

Your travel itinerary

Have you ever boarded a flight with a clear face and then, within a day after arriving at your destination, some annoying pimple popped up? Unfortunately, a change of environment can trigger acne. The humidity in aircraft cabins is usually less than 20%, while the humidity in the home is typically over 30%, according to the World ishonest Organization. Low humidity may cause a person’s skin to produce more oil (which carries bacteria) in an effort to rehydrate.

Your toothpaste

Getting breakouts around your mouth? Your toothpaste may be the culprit. “Fluoridated toothpaste can cause an acne-like rash around the mouth called perioral dermatitis,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist, tells ishonest.

Your filthy pillowcase

Given that your face spends multiple hours a day cheek to cheek with your pillow, it’s only a matter of time before you begin lying on accumulated dust, dead skin cells, oil, dirt, and bacteria. “When you sleep you sweat, so there is an increase of sweat and bacteria on the pillowcase,” says Jaliman. The next night when you sleep, this build-up of dirt and oil will transfer from the pillow to your skin, which, in turn, clogs pores and cause blemishes.

By the way, not removing your makeup before bedtime hinders skin renewal and clogs pores. “Foundation makeup forms a seal over the surface of the skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. As a result, all that grime quickly blocks up your pores

Your post-exercise routine

When you work out, you sweat a lot. Although sweat itself does not cause breakouts, sweat can “trap dirt and oil on the skin and make you break out if you don’t wash it off,” states Dr. Zeichner. That's why it's so important to cleanse your skin after exercising.

Pimple picking

When you pick or try to pop a pimple, you run the risk of pushing some of what’s inside, including bacteria, pus, or dead skin cells, deeper into your skin, which can make the problem worse, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. This can increase the inflammation, sometimes resulting in permanent scarring.

Certain hair products

If you use an oil-containing styling product in your hair, you might be at risk of an acne breakout. When your hair rubs against your face, your skin can absorb that oil, says Jaliman. This can clog your pores, causing redness, blackheads, acne, and whiteheads to develop on the forehead and around the hairline, explains Zeichner.

Makeup brushes that you've neglected to clean

Many people use various beauty tools to apply makeup every day. Zeichner explains that if your brushes and beauty blenders are not regularly and properly cleaned, dust, oil, dead skin cells, and residual makeup will begin to build up on them. This collection of grime will then “spread to the skin, blocking pores, increasing the risk of breakouts, and putting you at risk for infections if you have any areas of open skin,” says Zeichner.

Wearing glasses

The pressure from spectacles—sunglasses, prescription glasses, or reading glasses—can trigger acne breakouts when they frame press on oil glands. This is known as acne mechanica—a form of acne triggered by excess friction, pressure, or heat. This rubbing of the skin stimulates the oil glands, causing an overproduction of oil, explains Jaliman.

Switching up skin care products

Do you switch between four or five different acne-fighting spot creams, astringents, and/or cleaners? Unfortunately, combining multiple skin care products can increase your risk of breaking out. “In some cases, too many irritating products causes inflammation in the skin. In other cases, some of your skin care products may contain heavy oils that cause breakouts,” says Dr. Zeichner.

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