As long as the modern beauty industry has existed, so has the quest to combat acne. It’s something that basically all of us go through, and it’s something that, in my opinion, extends a little beyond just a topic of vanity. I know when my acne was at its peak and I was dealing with cystic breakouts and developing ice pick scarring (which I am very much still dealing with), I would have given anything for some guidance on getting my skin to a calmer and more comfortable state.
Unfortunately, acne can be caused by so many things, which is why it’s virtually impossible to say that one thing is definitively the source for your breakout woes. Even with the involvement of professionals like dermatologists or aestheticians, figuring out how to heal your skin often ends up being a process of elimination that can take several months (at the very least) to find a solution. I previously went over some lifestyle habits that may be encouraging breakouts without you realizing it. So today I wanted to run through some ingredients that could also be causing your acne that you may want to consider removing from or avoid adding into your routine.
Acne can be caused by so many things, so figuring out how to heal your skin often ends up being a process of elimination.
Shea butter is quite a common ingredient in moisturizers and even more so when you look at products that are from brands in the “green” or “eco” beauty movement. As someone who isn’t breaking out regularly but is still very much prone to congestion, it’s something that I avoided for a very long time for fear that it would break me out.
Turns out that I can use shea butter with no problems (so far), but I know that is not the case for many other people. This could largely be due to the fact that although it is non-comedogenic, shea butter been found to be high in oleic acid (I talked more in depth about oleic and linoleic acid in my article about facial oil basics). The train of thought here is that oleic acid content can make the oils that your skin produces naturally become a texture that is thicker than normal.
Again, I actually quite enjoy shea butter in my products, and there are some spaces online that even praise its ability to heal skin irritation and make your skin stronger overall, which can help heal breakouts. But I feel that shea butter is something to introduce into your routine very purposefully so you can monitor how it’s impacting your skin. I know, there’s never an easy answer, lol.
I have known people since I was a child that will basically swear by coconut oil for every beauty woe possible. And when you look for home remedies online, people will say to use coconut oil for literally everything from dandruff and eczema to acne and dry skin. The truth of the matter is that coconut oil can definitely be helpful for people with acne—it contains a high percentage of lauric acid, which has been shown to have antibacterial properties. Antibacterial doesn’t automatically equal acne-fighting, but it can absolutely be a key player for some people in healing their skin.
Unfortunately, there is a flipside (of course there is) to the situation. Coconut oil is also known to be comedogenic, meaning the molecules are able to clog the pores on your skin, and this can spell trouble for people, especially if you’re already prone to congested skin like me. I personally learned this the hard way when I decided to use coconut oil as a body moisturizer: I ended up with very moisturized hands, feet, and legs and also started getting breakouts on my shoulders, which is not something I’ve ever dealt with previously. If you have dry skin, you could give a product with coconut oil on your face a shot, but if you’re oily and/or congestion-prone, proceed with caution.
Drying alcohols have a whole variety of forms that show up in skin care, and they all look different on an ingredients list too. Denat. alcohol, ethanol, SD alcohol 40, whatever you call it, it’s something that I don’t like seeing in skin care in general, but especially not in products that are marketed towards people with acne-prone skin. I promise you, it’s not doing you any favors.
The issue here is that these drying alcohols are, well, drying out the top layer of your skin. Sure, you might temporarily be mattified, and that could potentially look like it’s making your acne “better” (it’s just less shiny for a second, y’all, no magical healing is happening). But that drying action is just leading to more irritation on your face and therefore giving your skin even more things to deal with on top of your existing acne. Your face is doing the best that it can; you want to focus on providing it with support, not giving it more to deal with.
Things have changed a bit as of the last few years, but in my teenage years, anything that was labeled as “oil-free” or an “acne wash” basically meant it was going to dry the crap out of your face. The perception of wanting “squeaky clean” skin is something that still has not gone away unfortunately, but there is honestly nothing to be gained from excessive face washing and aggressive, stripping cleansers.
It’s one thing to have a leave-on product that can be drying like I mentioned above, but when you take something like a cleanser, which is already supposed to be removing oils and debris from your skin, and then amp up those stripping properties, it’s a one-way ticket to dehydrated skin. A harsh, high pH cleanser is one of the things that can really throw off the health of your skin and seriously impair your skin’s natural protective outer layer, and it certainly won’t help your skin look, feel, or function any better.
Whether it’s synthetically or naturally derived, there are a lot of opinions on how fragrance in skin care can impact your skin. The thing is, whether or not your skin may normally be able to handle fragrance without issue, when you’re breaking out, you have to consider the more sensitive state your skin is in. An ingredient or product that wasn’t an issue before can become one when your skin is already under stress. Due to fragrance being a bit of a wildcard, I would advise that you try to remove it from your routine as much as possible, if not entirely, while you’re getting your skin to calm down and then reintroducing products with fragrance at a later time if you want to do so.
I can, and probably will, continue to talk about acne because it is so common and yet so puzzling at the same time, but I hope that this has given you some things to consider and look out for if you find yourself scanning an ingredients list of a product for potential acne triggers. It’s likely going to be a long journey when it comes to healing your acne, so be gentle with yourself and with your skin. And do not race as fast as you can to find your end point of calmer and healthier skin—you will run out of steam way too quickly in a situation that can already be very emotional and frustrating. If you have any questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to provide some guidance. Have a great week and don’t forget your sunscreen! <3