When it comes to acne, you may find many causes – from hormonal imbalances to the wrong diet. While I have covered the major triggers of acne in my previous articles, let me introduce you to the surprising acne causes that you have never thought about.
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No, no, moisturizing your skin is actually one of the main things that help clear out acne. But over-moisturizing may lead to breakouts.
The skin absorbs the amount of the product you apply it needs. The unabsorbed rest product just sits on the skin, creates an additional layer, and may attract dirt and bacteria, leading to acne. The pores may clog, and you may experience blackheads or whiteheads. Use only the amount of the hydrating cream your skin needs, and do not try to over-moisturize.
Another reason for getting acne when using moisturizer is the wrong moisturizer. Greasy, oil-containing products that clog your pores may also lead to acne. Look for non-comedogenic, oil-free moisturizers that are suitable for acne-prone skin.
2. Hair Care Products
This is another surprising acne cause. No matter how we like smooth, sleek, or shiny hair, sometimes hair care products may make you breakout. Shampoos, masks, or hair spray may cause acne along the hairline, forehead, or back. This is a type of cosmetic acne.
Many of these products contain oil or cosmetic butter. Oil may make your skin even greasier and clog pores. Some of these oils are highly comedogenic. Avoid coconut oil or butter, cocoa butter, marula, moringa, palm, and mineral oils in your hair care, as they may make you break out.
Hair spray is alcohol-based; if it gets on the skin, it can dry out and irritate your skin. Dehydrated skin will increase its oil secretion, which may lead to acne.
Also, be sure to wash everything your hair and face touches: pillowcases, towels, hats, headbands, etc.
3. Acne Treatment
How surprising is this one! You do everything to get rid of acne, and here you go – acne treatment may make you break out!
It is not the treatment itself. It is overusing, not proper using, or not using supplemental products that help to rehydrate, restore the skin, and maintain a healthy skin barrier.
Many acne treatments starting with retinoids and Accutane and finishing with home skincare, eventually will dry out your skin. Acne treatments are meant to reduce sebum production (which means reducing natural skin hydration), shrink pores, and remove the very outer layer of the skin to unclog the pores (i.e., damage the skin barrier).
Dehydrated skin with an impaired skin barrier function may lead you to acne again!
This is why you should always use moisturizer and skin repair products along with your acne treatment.
4. Hair Removal
Some hair-removing techniques are pretty irritating.
Skin shaving may damage your skin and likely dry it out. And you know what happens with dehydrated skin – it starts producing more oil to increase its moisture—more oil, more clogged pores, and hello, acne.
Hair waxing physically extracts hair from the roots. The hair follicles may become swollen and attract more dirt and bacteria.
But you do not have to avoid hair removal. Instead, take action to prevent acne after hair removal.
Try not to remove your hair on period days as your skin is more sensitive then and may become irritated more easily.
Exfoliate your body or face (if you will be removing hair from your face) before hair removal. It will remove the dead skin cells and help to pull out the hair a lot easier with less strain on your skin.
Use antiseptic and anti-inflammatory products after hair removal. Many specialists suggest using hydrocortisone, but it is a serious hormonal medication. I highly do not recommend using it for… post-waxing itching.
Look for aloe vera or tee tree oil products instead. They will calm down your skin and reduce inflammation.
Wait, what? UV rays should reduce inflammation and kill bacteria, right? Well, sort of yes. But the improvement is very, very temporary. The sun dries out the skin, and it may seem that the oil production is reduced, and the skin looks better. Only to find out that acne looks worse later.
And if you are not using sunscreen, the sun may damage your skin, lead to premature aging, face capillaries, and even skin cancer. Not even talking about messing up your acne and increasing hyperpigmentation!
Sun actually will thicken your skin and dehydrate. Dry skin will start to secrete more oil to moisturize itself, and the thick outer layer of the skin and billions of dead skin cells will clog the pores.
It takes time for this process to happen. This is why many people do not realize that the sun worsens their acne (even if it seems better at first).
The only light that helps clear out acne is blue light therapy. It is approved by FDA, does not contain UV rays, kills bacteria, and is safe to use. You can also search for home blue light devices.
One more surprising acne cause. The high doses of vitamins B6 and B12 and iodine have been linked to acne (1). Also, whey and muscle-building supplements (probably, because of the anabolic steroids which have androgenic activity) may cause acne.
Another reason for vitamin-related acne is the lack of some vitamins. Vitamins are essential for our body’s metabolism and healthy cell life and are used in thousands of chemical reactions.
If you lack any of these crucial nutrients, something may go wrong. Skin is not that important to the body’s survival (as the heart or lungs), so it suffers first.
Vitamin deficiency acne was associated with lacking vitamins A, E, D, and B group vitamins. I have covered all of these vitamins and how they are related to acne in this comprehensive article.
Humidity does not cause acne, but it can make it worse.
When it is hot, we sweat. And when it’s humid, the sweat can not evaporate quickly because the air is moist enough.
Heat and humidity may make pores expand and produce more oil. And here we go again – more oil, enlarged pores, sweat that attracts dirt and bacteria, wiping off the sweat with whatever is at hand leads to acne.
8. Air Conditioning
Related topic to humidity. Air conditioning may dry out the air and your skin and leave you with a compensated overproduction of sebum. And you know the rest of the story.
This is probably the least surprising acne cause. Smoking creates free radicals which attack fatty acids found in skin oil. Damaged fatty acids are a perfect environment for the acne bacteria to thrive (2,3).
Smoking also decreases vitamin E levels, which is a powerful antioxidant capable of scavenging free radicals. So, it turns out that smoking creates free radicals and prevents antioxidants from catching them.
Smoker’s acne usually presents as comedones – whiteheads or blackheads.
What can I say – try to stop smoking or reduce the number of cigarettes.
10. Lack of Sleep
The lack of sleep may increase stress and stress hormones – cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).
High cortisol leads to inflammation and increased sebum production. It also impairs the immune system (and the skin’s immune system), lowers estrogen levels, indirectly increasing androgens and leading to acne.
Read more about cortisol-induced stress acne here.
Not surprising at all, right? Air pollution is worst in big cities. Breathing in the tiny particles of carbon monoxide and other chemicals is dangerous. But they can also affect your skin.
Air pollution not only causes the debris to land on your skin but also causes free radicals, which can change and impair fatty acids in the sebum and create an excellent environment for acne bacteria.
It was also estimated that acne might exacerbate in regions of high air pollution (4).
People living in high air pollution zones should protect their skin with emollients that maintain the natural skin barrier and SPF filters.
12. Face Scrubs
Face scrubs will not cause acne but can make it far worse. I am talking about the harsh abrasive scrubs containing large particles such as salt, coffee, fruit pits, volcanic rock, and microbeads.
These scrubs damage the skin by causing micro-tears and weakening the skin barrier. And if the scrub contains fragrance and colors (and those fruity scrubs usually contain all of these), it can damage your skin even more.
When it comes to acne, scrubs may spread acne bacteria and inflammation all over your face (or back or wherever you use it). Sharp particles damage pimples. The filling of the pimple (including bacteria) is spread by performing face scrubbing. Instead of a few spots, you may have the whole face covered with zits.
I do not recommend using these scrubs on any type of skin.
13. Face Brushes/Make-up Brushes
Any brushes or sponges you use on your skin (including make-up brushes) collect dirt, oil, and bacteria over time and should be cleaned regularly. If not, dirty brushes could cause acne or other serious skin infections (staph infection).
A separate word needs to be said about facial cleansing brushes, the devices which are supposed to clean, massage, and tone your skin. But this is not exactly the truth.
Those brushes can also spread your acne and inflammation by injuring the pimples (same as with face scrubs). The filling of the spot is then spread by performing face cleaning with the brush.
Facial cleansing brushes are the devices to avoid!
Takeaway of Surprising Acne Causes
Acne is a multifactorial disease and has many causes and underlying conditions. In this article, I have reviewed acne causes that many people with acne do not think about.
The surprising acne causes include over-moisturizing, hair-care products, humidity, and air conditioning, the overdose of some vitamins, and the lack of them.
The products to avoid include harsh face scrubs and facial cleansing brushes.
For other acne causes and treatments, read more articles on this website.
- Zamil DH, Perez-Sanchez A, Katta R. Acne related to dietary supplements. Dermatol Online J. 2020 Aug 15;26(8):13030/qt9rp7t2p2. PMID: 32941710. Read
- Patterson AT, Tian FT, Elston DM, Kaffenberger BH. Occluded cigarette smoke exposure causing localized chloracne-like comedones. Dermatology. 2015;231(4):322-5. doi:10.1159/000439046
- Capitanio B, Sinagra JL, Ottaviani M, Bordignon V, Amantea A, Picardo M. Acne and smoking. Dermatoendocrinol. 2009;1(3):129-35. doi:10.4161/derm.1.3.9638.
- Krutmann J, Moyal D, Liu W, Kandahari S, Lee GS, Nopadon N, Xiang LF, Seité S. Pollution and acne: is there a link? Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2017 May 19;10:199-204. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S131323. PMID: 28579815; PMCID: PMC5446966. Read