When I bought my first concealer in sixth grade (a pen-style twist-up from CoverGirl), I didn’t anticipate that it would take a pandemic for me to quit my newfound routine. But nearly 20 years later, I’ve gone four months without so much as mascara coating my eyelashes.
My accidental experiment revealed something unexpected. When a month and then another went by and my skin was looking clearer than ever, I realized that my makeup habit might have been exacerbating my breakouts. After dealing with acne for what feels like a lifetime, has it really been the thing I put on to cover it up that’s been causing it in the first place?
I asked Laura Marinelli, a microbiologist and scientific adviser for Ellis Day Skin Science, if skin really needs to breathe. The answer is yes.
“While it’s true that the top layer of skin does take in oxygen from the air, there is another important reason to give our skin a break from tons of heavy products,” Marinelli said. “Most makeup and many skin care products create a temporary blockage, which can interfere with the skin’s natural turnover process.”
Makeup can create what Marinelli calls “an artificial wall on our skin,” which can lead to a buildup of acne-causing material, such as dead skin cells, sweat, oil and environmental debris. “Giving your skin an occasional break from your normal makeup regimen and, of course, removing all your makeup every night, can support your skin’s natural healing and rejuvenation properties,” Marinelli explained.
Michelle Henry, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist, agrees that makeup can have an effect on breakouts. “If you’re wearing makeup that’s very oily, heavy and occlusive, the more potential there is for oil, dirt and debris to accumulate in your pores and cause acne,” she warns, suggesting that a break from heavy makeup can be good for skin. However, she said those wearing lighter, oil-free or powder-based makeup and experiencing breakouts can continue wearing that makeup if they adhere to a good skin care routine.
While for now I’m going without makeup, eventually the world will open up again and I’ll retrieve my foundation from its new home in the closet. Can clear skin and makeup coexist peacefully?
The most obvious way to prevent makeup-induced acne is a rigorous cleansing routine. “I recommend a gentle non-drying cleanser that doesn’t contain denatured alcohols, sodium lauryl sulfates (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfates (SLES), which can strip your skin of its natural oils and, paradoxically, cause excessive oil production and irritation,” Marinelli said. She said double cleansing can help, but warns against oil-based cleansers that may cause breakouts. Instead, Marinelli suggests using a cotton pad with micellar water after washing, followed by a non-alcohol-based toner.
Makeup-induced breakouts may also be caused by dirty makeup brushes or sponges, or not washing hands before applying your makeup. “Dirty fingers and brushes can harbor harmful bacteria that disrupt your skin’s normal microbiome, leading to breakouts and inflammation,” Marinelli said.
It might also be that whatever makeup you’re using doesn’t agree with your skin type. Those already prone to breakouts should look for noncomedogenic makeup, meaning it doesn’t have ingredients known to clog pores. “Clogging of the pores is the first step to an acne episode — the clogged pore can become a blackhead, or the clogged pore could lead to inflammation beneath the skin and become a cyst,” Henry said.
Paying attention to the ingredients label can help. Marinelli names coconut oil, palm oil, wheat germ oil, lanolin and artificial fragrances like benzaldehyde as problematic. Even seemingly benign ingredients, like algae and algae extracts (such as chondrus crispus and carrageenan) have a high probability of clogging pores. “These have very high comedogenic ratings, although there is some evidence that they have beneficial properties, as well. So while you may not want to avoid them completely, be aware that they may cause issues for acne-prone skin,” Marinelli said.
Also look out for certain fatty acids and fatty acid esters, which are used as smoothing and skin-conditioning agents in foundations and concealers, and are also very comedogenic. “Some of the worst ingredients for breakout-prone skin include isopropyl myristate, isopropyl palmitate, ethylhexyl palmitate, isostearic acid and stearic acid, to name just a few,” Marinelli said. She also suggests that if you’re buying products marketed for oily or breakout-prone skin, you should avoid ingredients that promote overdrying, such as denatured alcohols and isopropyl alcohol.
When it comes down to it, a rigorous (but gentle!) cleansing routine, clean applicators and a noncomedogenic ingredient list can help keep makeup-induced breakouts away.