Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/11/2021
When you’re in the middle of an acne breakout, makeup can feel like a lifesaver. Unfortunately, while products like concealer are fantastic for hiding pimples and other blemishes, makeup can also contribute to acne and, in some cases, make your breakouts worse.
Acne caused by makeup is often referred to as acne cosmetica. It generally develops over the course of days to months and can affect any part of your face where you apply makeup.
Like other forms of acne, acne cosmetica is treatable by changing your habits and using certain types of medication.
Below, we’ve talked about the link between makeup and acne breakouts, as well as the basics of how acne develops in the first place.
We’ve also shared a variety of tips and techniques that you can use to control makeup-related acne and keep your skin clear.
Acne develops when your hair follicles, or pores, become clogged due to a mixture of oils, dead skin cells and other substances.
Many types of makeup, particularly concealer, can hide acne. However, these products may also worsen your acne breakouts over the long term.
Since many cosmetics contain oils, it’s possible for some types of makeup to clog your hair follicles and cause acne lesions.
If you get acne after applying makeup, switching to non-comedogenic makeup may help to stop your breakouts or make your acne less severe.
Several medications are available to treat recurring acne, including topical treatments such as tretinoin and clindamycin.
Before we get into the specific details of how makeup can cause acne, it’s important to go over the basics of how and why acne breakouts happen in the first place.
Acne lesions form when the hair follicles in your skin (commonly referred to as pores) become clogged with sebum and/or dead, leftover skin cells.
Sebum is a type of oil that’s secreted by your sebaceous glands. It plays an important role in your skin’s health and natural defenses. As part of your skin’s protective barrier, sebum traps moisture in your skin and protects it from injury and infection.
Although sebum is an essential component of health skin, when your body produces too much sebum, the excess can become stuck inside your hair follicles.
Dead skin cells, the other major component in acne breakouts, develop as a byproduct of your skin’s natural renewal process.
Like other parts of your body, your skin constantly renews itself by producing new cells. These cells form in the lower layers of your epidermis, then travel upwards towards the surface layer over the course of several weeks.
This process is referred to as epidermal turnover. It’s estimated that it takes 40 to 56 days for your skin to turn itself over by replacing old cells with new ones.
As your skin replaces old cells with new ones, dead cells can gradually build up on the surface layer of your skin. Over time, the debris from these cells can mix with sebum and contribute to clogged hair follicles.
Many clogged hair follicles develop into comedonal acne, such as whiteheads (also referred to as closed comedones) or blackheads (open comedones).
As well as sebum and dead skin cells, bacterial growth plays a role in the development of some types of acne.
Some forms of bacteria, such as Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), can grow inside clogged hair follicles, causing infections to develop. This bacterial growth causes acne to become red, inflamed and painful to the touch.
When acne becomes infected, it can develop into papules, pustules and, in some cases, even nodular or cystic acne.
So, how does makeup fit into this process? Although makeup isn’t responsible for all acne breakouts, the oils and other ingredients used in many popular cosmetic products can contribute to clogged hair follicles and acne breakouts.
Now, it’s important to put this statement in context. While some cosmetics can cause acne, you aren’t guaranteed to develop pimples just because you wear makeup regularly.
Acne caused by makeup is called acne cosmetica. It usually develops as many small bumps on your face. If you wear makeup often, you may notice acne cosmetica developing on your chin, cheeks, forehead and other prominent parts of your face.
Acne cosmetica can also affect your lips. In fact, the oils and other ingredients in many lip balms and lipsticks can trigger acne breakouts on the skin close to your lips.
Like other forms of acne, acne cosmetica usually doesn’t develop immediately. It’s common for breakouts of acne cosmetica to start several weeks, or even several months, after you begin to use makeup regularly.
Dealing with acne cosmetica can be a frustrating experience, especially if you develop severe or recurring breakouts. Luckily, like other common forms of acne, acne cosmetica is treatable.
In many cases, acne cosmetica can be treated by changing your makeup habits. When makeup is one of several factors causing your acne breakouts, you might also need to use medication to control your acne and clear up your skin.
Small changes to your makeup and skin care habits can often have a big impact on your skin, especially if you’re prone to acne cosmetica. Try the following techniques:
Switch to non-comedogenic makeup. Many cosmetics contain oils that can clog your pores and contribute to acne breakouts. However, some cosmetics are formulated with ingredients that are less likely to cause clogged pores and acne lesions.
When you’re shopping for makeup, look for products that are labeled “non-comedogenic” or “won’t clog pores.” These use skin-friendly ingredients and are generally less likely to contribute to acne breakouts.
Use a gentle cleanser. It’s important to cleanse your face regularly if you often get acne breakouts, especially if you wear makeup and use other products that can clog your hair follicles and contribute to blockages.
Try to cleanse your face twice a day with a mild, non-comedogenic cleanser. Our Deep Sea Cleanser is designed to wash away acne-causing substances without stripping your skin of its natural oils or causing irritation.
Identify acne-causing products. If you’ve recently noticed acne after adding a certain type of makeup, try taking a break from that product for a few weeks. If your skin clears up, avoiding the acne-causing product may help to prevent breakouts in the future.
Never sleep in makeup. Sleeping in your makeup is never a good idea. Make sure to remove all of your makeup before you go to sleep. If possible, use an oil-free makeup remover to reduce your risk of developing clogged hair follicles.
If you have mild to moderate acne that often flares up when you use makeup, you may notice improvements by using an over-the-counter acne treatment.
These products can be found online or from your local drugstore. Many contain science-based ingredients that treat and prevent acne by getting rid of dead skin cells, cleansing away sebum or controlling bacteria. Popular options include:
Benzoyl peroxide. A common ingredient in cleansers, benzoyl peroxide helps to kill the bacteria that cause inflamed, infected acne. In fact, research shows that regular use of benzoyl peroxide can reduce P. acnes levels by as much as 98 percent.
Our guide to benzoyl peroxide for acne talks more about how benzoyl peroxide works, as well as how you can use it to treat acne breakouts.
Salicylic acid. Another common ingredient in cleansers, facial washes and other acne products, salicylic acid is a peeling agent that can treat acne, blemishes and other skin issues.
Over-the-counter retinoids. Retinoids such as retinol are derivatives of vitamin A that are commonly found in skin care products. They work by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover cycle and preventing acne lesions from developing.
While prescription retinoids like tretinoin are the most effective at treating acne (a topic we’ve covered below), over-the-counter retinoids like retinol may be helpful if you have mild acne breakouts that only flare up occasionally.
Several prescription medications are available for treating acne. Although these aren’t designed specifically for cosmetics-related acne, they may help to prevent acne breakouts and keep your skin clear throughout the year. Popular prescription medications for acne include:
Tretinoin. Tretinoin is a type of topical retinoid. It works by increasing the speed at which your skin produces new cells. Tretinoin is available as a cream or gel, and as an active ingredient in skin care products like our Customized Acne Cream.
In addition to treating acne, tretinoin can also help to reduce fine wrinkles and improve the general appearance of your skin. We’ve talked more about how it works, what you may notice after starting, side effects and more in our guide to tretinoin for acne.
Clindamycin. Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic. It works by slowing down or preventing the growth of bacteria such as P. acnes that can develop inside blocked hair follicles and contribute to inflamed acne breakouts.
Our guide to clindamycin for treating acne goes into more detail about how clindamycin works as an acne treatment, its effectiveness, side effects and more.
Hormonal birth control. Some combination birth control pills, including Yaz®, Estrostep® and Ortho Tri-Cyclen®, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat acne. These work by changing the levels of certain hormones that regulate your skin’s sebum production.
We offer a variety of birth control pills online, following a consultation with a physician who will determine if a prescription is appropriate. You can also learn more about how birth control can treat and prevent acne in our guide to acne and birth control.
While certain types of makeup are great for concealing acne, makeup can contribute to a form of acne called acne cosmetica.
If you’re already prone to acne, the oils in some cosmetics may also worsen your existing acne breakouts and make your skin worse.
To avoid makeup-related acne breakouts, try to practice skin-friendly habits and replace greasy or oily makeup with non-comedogenic products. For moderate or severe acne, it’s also helpful to talk to your healthcare provider about using a science-based, proven acne medication.