Why Am I Breaking Out: 15 Acne Causes You Need to Know About

By Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Take it from someone who's dealt with acne for more than half her life (wow, what a sad realization): treating breakouts is mad tricky. Because there are as many factors that play into your breakouts as there are pimples on my face right now (i.e. a lot), achieving clear skin once and for all is easier said than done. Just when you think you've found a skincare routine that works for you, a new kind of breakout pops up. Or maybe you've got recurring acne that keeps showing up in the same place. Whatever the current sitch you're dealing with, if you're on the quest for clear skin and you can't help but come across a few bumps (literally) along the way, there's a good chance something in your daily routine is contributing to your breakouts. So if you've recently found yourself screaming why am I breaking out?! at the mirror, we might have some answers for ya.

How do I stop my face from breaking out?

But firstwhy is your face breaking out? Here's the thing: Breakouts are mainly triggered by hormones and the overproduction of oil. Essentially, hormones increase your oil production, which clogs your hair follicle and leads to the growth of the zit-causing bacteria known as P. acnes. Everyone's skin is different, and genetics play a big role in how your body reacts to acne- stimulating hormones. Because of that, no single ingredient or routine will work across the board for everyone, so a good place to start is with a consultation with your dermatologist. Not only can they help you determine the possible factors that contribute to your specific case, but they can also set you up with all the products and advice you need to manage your acne.

But in the meantime, you might want to reconsider a few patterns you're probs repeating on a daily basis that could be triggering new breakouts or exacerbating your current cluster of em. Because sometimes even the best skin regimen can't do its job effectively if you're constantly repeating bad skincare habits that are working against it. So with the help from two top dermatologists and an aesthetician, we've rounded up 15 common (and maybe surprising) acne triggers and little fixes you can make to remedy each one.

1. Your cloth face mask is causing maskne.

If you've noticed more breakouts on your chin, jawline, and cheeks as a result of wearing your cloth face mask, you're not just seeing things. Turns out, all that sweat, oil, bacteria, and humidity trapped under your face covering can create the perfect breeding ground for breakouts.

The zit fix:

The CDC recommends wearing face masks, so consider switching yours to one that's made with a breathable fabric and stock up on a few so you always have a clean one ready to go. Oh, and if you're not washing your face twice a day and your mask after each use, you're doing it wrong. Remember all that oil and bacteria trapped between your face and your mask? Yeah, you don't want to reintroduce that if you're trying to avoid breakouts. And lastly, skip makeup. Since you're covering your face, you won't need to wear a heavy foundation underneath it that could cause clogged pores anyway.

2. You're not actually dealing with acne.

To make matters even more complicated, sometimes the 'acne' you're trying to treat isn't *technically* acne, which would explain why your usual acne treatments flat out aren't working or are maybe even making them worse. If your breakouts are popping up around your hairline, forehead, chest, or back and look like small, itchy red bumps that are roughly the same size, you might actually have fungal acne (aka Malassezia folliculitis). Although it might look like acne to you, this is actually an infection of the hair follicles and needs a different treatment approach.

The zit fix:

Your derm could help you determine if you have fungal acne and set you up with a prescription, but if you're experiencing a mild case of fungal acne, a regular OTC dandruff shampoo that contains zinc pyrithione or selenium sulfide might do the trick. Apply the formula to the area of skin, wait 10 minutes, then rinse it off. And because fungal acne thrives on sweat, friction, and excess sebum, be diligent about washing your sweaty clothes and your sweaty body.

3. You're not washing your face and pillowcase enough.

During the day, dirt, oil, makeup, and grime build up on the skin. If you don't wash your face before you go to sleep, all of that garbage then gets transferred to your pillowcase, which gets transferred back to your face again. Board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says long-term exposure of your skin to this type of soiling, along with the friction of the face rubbing against the pillowcase, may promote inflammation and acne breakouts. But that's not all! An oily environment may be a breeding ground for bacteria that can infect the skin if there are any raw or open areasone of the many acne causes.

The zit fix:

Wash your pillowcases every few nights. Oh, and if you haven't yet, switch to a satin or silk pillowcase to reduce friction (your hair will thank you, too).

4. Your lack of sleep is triggering breakouts.

Not to bore you to sleep, but our bodies undergo daily circadian rhythms, in which certain activities occur in the morning, and others occur while we're snoozing. 'Sleep is a time of rest and repair, and cortisol levels decrease', Dr. Zeichner explains. 'Not getting enough sleep means that our body is exposed to continuously high levels of cortisol, which can trigger breakouts.' Similar to what happens during stressful moments, cortisol-releasing hormones can actually bind to your oil glands, which sends them into overdrive and causes acne.

The zit fix:

Sleep. It's that simple (ish). Get off your phone to help you fall asleep faster (it causes blue light damage anyway) and get your eight hours.

5. You're drying out your face with too much zit cream.

Raise your hand if at the first sight of a bump, you load up the area with spot treatments (hi, me). But Samantha Wright, a licensed aesthetician at the Dangene Institute, suggests not overreacting by over-treating. Topical salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or sulfur over-the-counter treatments can dry out your skin and trigger it to produce even more oil and, in turn, zits. Additionally, the active ingredients can slightly burn the top layer of your skin, making it look red and raw if you're using all the things and far too often.

The zit fix:

You don't have to toss your usual spot treatmentjust don't overdo it. Two to three times a week or every other night on your zit should do the trick. And if you have a reaction, switch to over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, like Aveeno One Percent Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Cream, to calm the inflammation in the pimple and take down the redness.

6. Your face scrub is making your breakouts worse.

Not regularly exfoliating is one of the acne causes, yes, but if you're of the mindset that the more you scrub your skinwhether with a washcloth, rough acne face washes and face scrubs, loofahs, or cleansing brushesthe smoother it will be, I'm here to tell you that your breakouts are only gonna get worse. The idea here is to repair your skin's protective barrier to keep bacteria out, not cause further trauma by scrubbing the sh*t out of it.

The zit fix:

Wash and exfoliate your face with a mild yet effective formula that contains chemical exfoliators and don't require scrubbing, like lactic and glycolic acids.

7. The ingredients in your products are causing acne.

If you're frustrated because unlike your friends with perfect complexions you actually do take care of your skin, your acne trigger could be the sneaky ingredients in your products. According to cosmetic dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD, mineral oil, for example, is a super-heavy moisturizing agent found in some face moisturizers and creams that could clog your pores if you're prone to blackheads and whiteheads. Coconut oil is also notorious for clogging pores, too. Additionally, fragrance (especially irritating for sensitive skin) and sodium lauryl sulfate (an oil-stripping surfactant) can be found in many products and are common acne causes.

The zit fix:

Read your labels is easier said than done if you don't know what to look for, but a good place to start is by getting rid of any products that contain the aforementioned common irritants, switching to fragrance-free skincare and sulfate-free products. And when in doubt, Dr. Downie says to shop for products marked as noncomedogenic. If you've tried all the above and your breakouts continue to worsen, make an appointment with your dermatologist to see if you could be allergic to another ingredient.

8. Your hair products are clogging your pores.

Those same pore-clogging moisturizing agents and sulfates that sneak their way into your skincare products can also be found in your shampoo, conditioner, and hairstyling formulas. And similar to how they can cause breakouts on your face, the ingredients can seep into the pores on your body and clog them, resulting in chest acne, back acne, and even pimples along your hairline or scalp acne, says Wright.

The zit fix:

First and foremost, switch to a sulfate-free shampoo already. Once you've moved on to the conditioning step, clip your hair up and off your back while you let the formula sit. When you rinse, tilt your head over and to the side to keep the potentially pore-clogging and acne-causing residue off your face, chest, and back.

9. Your sweaty workouts are causing body acne.

Skipping the shower right after working out or not washing your face allows the mixture of makeup, dirt, bacteria, oil, and sweat to find a nice little home in your skin and cause breakouts and clogged pores.

The zit fix:

Before you start sweating, always wash your face to remove your makeup. After you've finished your workout, shower (whoa, revolutionary). If you don't have time, use a facial wipe, like Simple Micellar Cleansing Wipes, to clear away any pore-clogging oil and bacteria.

10. Your laundry detergent is irritating your skin.

Per Dr. Downie, some of the chemicals in certain laundry detergents can be too harsh for your skin. And once you slip on your clothes or use your bath towels, your complexion might react to the residue that's left on the fabric, resulting in breakouts on your face, back, butt, chest, etc. If you recently switched to a new detergent because it was on sale (no judgment) and noticed a few breakouts ever since, that might be your problem.

The zit fix:

Choose a detergent that's fragrance-free, dye-free, and dermatologist-tested for sensitive skin, like Seventh Generation Concentrated Free & Clear Unscented Laundry Detergent.

11. You're drying out your skin while sunbathing.

By now, you know that baking in the sun and in tanning beds causes skin cancer, but if that still hasn't stopped you from hitting the beach without sunscreen, maybe this will: Contrary to popular belief, the sun isn't healing your acne, it's actually making it worse. On top of all the other damage, the sun dries out your skin and triggers excess oil production, which, hi, is one of the acne causes.

The zit fix:

For starters, stop going to tanning beds. Period. And if you are in the sun, make sure to slather on a titanium dioxide- or zinc-based sunscreen(these natural sun protectants are less likely to cause irritation than traditional chemicals), and wear a hat to shield your face from harsh rays.

12. Your diet could be causing acne breakouts.

According to Dr. Downie, tomatoes and peppers, two common ingredients in spicy foods, contain acidic lycopenea somewhat common irritant that can throw off the skin's pH levels and trigger breakouts around the mouth. But it isn't just spicy foods that are acne causes. Some people have a reaction to dairy, gluten, or other types of foods. How diet affects the skin is totally dependent on the person.

The zit fix:

Talk to your dermatologist or make an appointment with a gastroenterologist to see if the food you're eating is the source of your problem or if something more serious is going on in your gastrointestinal tract. And while you're at it, you could always try incorporating a few healthy foods for clear skin into your diet.

13. Your smoking habit is damaging your complexion.

Smoking is ruining you in more ways than one, my friend. Every time you light up a cigarette, you decrease the amount of oxygen that goes to the skin on your face, Dr. Downie explains. Smoking not only predisposes you to cancer, but it also causes the breakdown of collagen and elastin that leads to wrinkles and increased pore size. The carcinogens in the smoke also irritate your skin and dry it out, triggering it to produce more oil and, possibly, more breakouts.

The zit fix:

Don't smoke. It's as simple as that. You'll live longer and have clearer skin. Boom.

14. Your stressful life is causing clogged pores.

Stress causes acne, and acne results in more stressah, the very vicious cycle. When you're under pressure, your skin produces stress hormones, including cortisol, that can stimulate your oil glands to make testosterone, Dr. Downie explains. This then increases your oil production, clogs your pores, and could lead to blind pimples.

The zit fix:

Work out regularly, meditate, get that essential oil diffuser going, and take time out of your busy schedule to focus on yourself, whatever that means to you. All these things will help you release stress so your body doesn't continue to release hormones that are trying to wreak havoc on your skin.

15. You're making your pimple worse by picking your face.

It's tempting in the moment, but it's never a good idea to play dermatologist because it's nearly impossible to pick your own pimple and not make a red mark that could turn into a scar. Even worse, when you try to press the blackhead or pus out of your pore, you run the risk of pushing the bacteria deeper and making the problem worse. Oh, yeah, and you know when you rest your chin in your palm while you're sitting at your desk? That action of touching your skin also can transfer bacteria from your hand onto your face, Dr. Downie adds.

The zit fix:

Challenge yourself not to pick or even touch your face for unnecessary reasons. If you need to physically put something over your pimple to keep your hands off of it (and to prevent more bacteria from getting to the zit), try a pimple patch, which is a flat, flexible, drug-free patch that protects your spot and allows it to heal faster.

And when all else failsor ideally, before all else beginshead to your dermatologist to find out which of the acne causes is wreaking havoc on your skin. It's almost like they went to school to fix this kind of thing. Weird.

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