Beauty / Skin Care, Lifestyle

Cosmetics and Acne – How to Identify and Prevent Acne Cosmetica

Cosmetics-and-Acne-–-You-don’t-have-to-give-up-one-to-prevent-the-other_woman wearing red lipstick

If you wear makeup to conceal acne breakouts and scarring, it’s possible your stopgap solution is part of the problem. However, cosmetics are not the cause of true acne and there are steps you can take to insure that your makeup and toiletries aren’t making a bad situation worse. This variety of faux acne is called acne cosmetica.

Identifying and Preventing Faux Acne

Is it acne cosmetica or true acne?

Acne cosmetica usually shows up after a change in skincare, haircare, and other personal grooming products. When you stop using that product the outbreak tends to clear up. That’s the best-case scenario. In some cases, more effort is required to bring skin back into balance.

Acne cosmetica is the result of using skin and hair care products that don’t rinse away cleanly with water, buildup around the hair follicles and clog the pores, creating acne-like bumps. True acne or common acne (acne vulgaris) starts within. The body overproduces sebum and an overgrowth of skin cells plug up the pores. The cause can be hormonal, stress-related, nutritional, or a combination of these factors.

Acne cosmetica is mostly preventable but, depending on the circumstances, both it and acne vulgaris can be equally challenging to get rid of. Faux acne bumps have little to no redness or inflammation; however, this lack of inflammation makes picking at outbreaks much less painful and more tempting, which tends to lead to greater scarring.

Products that contain ingredients capable of blocking pores are called “comedogenic”.

It’s not just comedogenic ingredients causing the problem

Many cosmetics – including shampoo, conditioner, moisturizers, and colognes – contain irritating ingredients that can cause breakouts. Sometimes these breakouts are immediate and sometimes they begin weeks, months, and even years after use.

“A dermatology study published in 2010 found that more than a third of over 900 study participants had at least one allergic reaction to cosmetic ingredients. … Problems can range from simple rashes to full-blown allergic reactions. Symptoms can start right after you use something new — or after years of using a product with no problems.”1

Using cosmetics past their expiration date can also cause irritation and lead to acne cosmetica outbreaks. It’s not just because the ingredients have turned. Old makeup can harbor bacteria that can trigger not just true acne but cystic acne. Cystic acne (P. acnes) is the least common, most painful and disfiguring and potentially dangerous form of acne.

Comedogenic ingredients are more likely to be in hair care and styling products. Products designed for dry hair and scalp are more likely to cause problems, as they contain more oils and waxes.

If you’re using a skin or hair care product that contains one of these ingredients, your chances of suffering from acne cosmetica will be higher than normal:

  • Acetylated Lanolin
  • Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol
  • Algae Extract
  • Carrageenan
  • Isopropyl Isostearate
  • Isopropyl Myristate
  • Isopropyl Palmitate
  • Laureth 4
  • Lauric Acid
  • Octyl Palmitate
  • Octyl Stearate
  • Oleth-3
  • PEG 16 Lanolin
  • Propylene Glycol Monostearate
  • Red Algea
  • Sodium Chloride
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Syearyl Heptanoate
  • Wheat Germ Oil

These are not the only comedogenic ingredients capable of causing faux acne, but they are the comedogenic ingredients found most commonly in popular skin and hair care products you probably own.

In the case of makeup, simply using a silicone-based primer can prevent comedogenic foundations and concealers from making their way into your pores and clogging them.

If you are suffering from faux acne, there are several things you can do to drastically improve the condition of your skin fairly quickly, without giving up the cosmetics you depend on entirely.

9 Simple Steps to Prevent and Reverse Acne Cosmetica

  1. Shampoo and condition your hair before washing your face, neck, and body (if you’re in the shower)
  2. Do not cleanse your skin more than twice a day; over-cleansing skin encourages greater oil production, sensitivity, and irritation
  3. Use skincare products for sensitive and acne-prone skin
  4. Use a toner (or diluted rubbing alcohol) around your hairline after applying any heavy or oily hair product
  5. Always use a toner, for your skin type, all over your face after makeup removal and cleansing, to insure that ALL makeup, moisturizer, and cleanser have been thoroughly removed
  6. Choose products labeled “oil-free’’ or “non-comedogenic”, even if you have drier skin, at least until your skin is back to normal
  7. Do not over apply moisturizer. Most quality skincare products require only a small amount to cover face and neck
  8. Use a primer under liquid foundations and concealers or use a mineral powder foundation
  9. Thoroughly wash anything and everything your face and hair touched while you were using the offending cosmetics – pillowcases, bed sheets, hats, headbands, visors, towels – and clean these items often thereafter

Whose at Risk?

Because acne cosmetica is triggered by topical products rather than the complex inner process that creates true acne, it can strike anyone – even people who are not physiologically prone to the condition and don’t wear makeup. Acne cosmetica is just as common among men as women.

If you believe you have acne cosmetica, follow the 9 steps to improve the condition of your skin. If after one month you see no progress, it may be necessary to consult a dermatologist. A more aggressive approach may be necessary to reverse the issue.

If you have any questions or comments about acne cosmetica post them below or tweet me on Twitter.


1“Skin Reactions to Beauty Products”. WebMD, n.d. Web. July 2019

Angela Palmer. “Acne Cosmetica Causes and Treatment”. Very Well Health, June 29, 2019. Web. July 2019

Markus MacGill. “Everything you need to know about cystic acne”. Medical News Today, December 4, 2017. Web. July 2019

“Debunking Acne Myths: Does Wearing Makeup Cause Acne?” MDEdge | Dermatology, February 14, 2018. Web. July 2019

“Are your hair care products causing breakouts?” American Academy of Dermatology, n.d . July 2019

“Comedogenic Ratings”. Platinum Skin Care, n.d. Web. July 2019

Shannon Farrell. “What Happens to Your Face When You Use Expired Makeup”. Women’s Health, April 17, 2015. Web. July 2019

Andrea Lewis
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