Why Am I Breaking Out? 7 Surprising Bad Habits That Can Cause Acne, According To An Expert

On days when I wake up to a particularly rough breakout, all I notice is how great everyone else's skin looks — and wonder what more I could possibly be doing to get smooth skin. If you've ever suffered from trouble spots, you know the battle you've raged against blemishes. But the reasons why you're breaking out could actually have more to do with bad everyday skincare habits than the efforts (or lack thereof) that you're making to prevent breakouts.

I spoke with Dr. Kally Papantoniou, New York-based dermatologist and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Dermatology, about what sneaky triggers can set off those dreaded bumps and blemishes. It turns out, the secret to having smooth and clear skin that stays that way involves a fairly comprehensive approach. "From diet, to daily regimen, and prescription medications, there is a lot that goes into getting better control over acne and preventing acne scarring," Dr. Papantoniou said. How comprehensive is an all-out war on breakouts? Even your bacteria-covered cell phone can stand in the way of clear skin. Dr. Papantoniou said, "With oils from makeup and our skin, resting [your phone] along the cheek can lead to breakouts on that side of the face." 

Read ahead to learn about the habits you can break to cut down on breakouts, as well as what over-the-counter solutions could lead to clearer skin tomorrow. If your skin's still seeing no signs of improvement, Dr. Kally Papantoniou advises seeing a dermatologist, and there are many prescription treatments available.

1. Skipping the Moisturizer

CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion AM/PM Bundle, $29, Amazon

Dr. Papantoniou recommends using this Cerave AM lotion for daytime, as it contains SPF 30, in addition to this Cerave PM lotion for evenings. "It is particularly nice because it will not clog pores and is ideal for sensitive skin, which many people will experience when using acne cleansers and products," she said. Dr. Papantoniou said patients often tell her they avoid moisturizing because they're afraid they'll break out. "It is really the opposite that is true," Dr. Papantoniou said. "If you have dry skin and are using acne cleansers, your skin will be less likely to break out, if kept well hydrated with a good moisturizer." 

2. Not Using Gentle Cleansers To Balance Harsher Products

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, $12, AmazonVanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser, $11, AmazonNeutrogena Visibly Clear Pink Grapefruit Cream Wash, $18, Amazon

When heavy acne cleansers are causing dry skin, use a gentle wash in the morning — Dr. Papantoniou suggests such as CeraVe Hydrating CleanserVanicream Cleanser, or Neutrogena's Visibly Clear Pink Grapefruit Cream Wash, Dr. Papantoniou said. Neutrogena's wash is a good option for mild breakouts, as it gently exfoliates with antimicrobial properties, without being too harsh or drying on the skin. "This is helpful for both inflammatory acne and black heads," she said. But don't wash more than twice daily. "[Over-washing skin] will strip the skin of the natural oils, which are actually protecting your skin," she said. This leads to dryness and a breakout-triggering "rebound production of oil." Not to mention, rubbing your face too harshly can aggravate skin breakouts, increasing the risk for dark scars left from acne lesions.

3. Not Diluting Essential Oils When Applying Them Topically

Many of Dr. Papantoniou's patients have sought out natural, over-the-counter remedies for acne. But several natural treatments actually cause redness and can lead to more irritation anyway. She said, "If you are interested in using an essential oil, which can actually have great benefits, you should be diluting it in a carrier oil — such as rose hip oil or sesame seed oil."

Radha Beauty Rosehip Oil, $14, Amazon; Organic Sesame Seed Oil, $13, Amazon

This rosehip oil is the No. 1 best seller in facial polishes, and its anti-inflammatory properties can be helpful for many different issues, from treating acne scars and sun damage to soothing dry skin. Users say it dramatically lightened acne scars, and more than one reviewer reports their lifetime loyalty to the brand. This organic sesame oil is an excellent diluter for essential oils, too, according to user reports.

4. Not Having A Balanced Diet & Not Treating The Side Effects

Clean & Clear Essentials Foaming Facial Cleanser, $7, Amazon; Neutrogena Rapid Clear Acne Eliminating Spot Gel, $9, Amazon

An imbalanced diet (particularly one composed mostly of refined carbohydrates, sweets, and dairy) can be a trigger for acne, said Dr. Papantoniou. For inflammatory acne resulting from a particularly sugary meal, she suggests a cleanser of five to 10 percent benzoyl peroxide — particularly the Clean & Clear cleanser, in addition to a good spot gel. "If you need to spot treat a blemish, Neutrogena Rapid Clear Acne Eliminating Spot Gel is good to keep in your medicine cabinet," she said.

5. Using Hair Products That Contain Oil

Magick Botanicals Oil-Free Shampoo & Conditioner, $25, Amazon

If you're noticing recurring breakouts on your shoulders, back, and hairline, the issue could come back to daily grooming habits. In fact, "using hair products that contain oil can be a trigger for many people," Dr. Papantoniou said. Consider switching it up from your regular shampoo and conditioner to an effective oil-free option, to see if there's any difference. Users say this set leaves hair shining and tangle-free, and users say its fragrance-free formula is non-irritating, too.

6. Staying Up Late & Sleeping On Dirty Pillows

OOSilk Mulberry Silk Pillowcase, $21, Amazon

"Not sleeping enough each night can increase your stress hormone levels and can trigger breakouts," Dr. Papantoniou said. And once you do hit the sack, she advises sleeping on your back as much as possible. Otherwise, pressing your face up against a dirty pillow can be one more source of angry breakouts and flare-ups the next day. Silk pillowcases can be a great switch-up for acne-prone skin, too, she said.

7. Assuming Blackheads & Other Blemishes Shouldn't Be Touched At All

One common misconception people have about their breakouts, Dr. Papantoniou said, is assuming blackheads and acne lesions should not be touched. "In my experience, and studies have actually been done that support this, acne surgery (extraction of black heads and closed comedones) has been shown to reduce the risk of scarring," she said. "I encourage patients to seek out a dermatologist or professional facialist for cleansing pores — this can help reduce enlarged pore sizes."

Professional Blackhead & Acne Remover Kit, $13, Amazon

For deep acne lesions with risk of scarring, be sure to consult your dermatologist regarding the best treatment. When dealing with everyday blackheads and whiteheads — don't pick with your fingernails! A sterile kit is much better for relieving your pores from clogging toxins than bacteria-coated fingers.

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Images: Fotolia (1); Amazon (11)

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