Can Makeup Cause Acne?

Yes It Can. Be Sure to Select and Use Makeup Wisely.

The Essential Info

While most makeup today is relatively safe to use, some makeup products can still lead to acne. This is such a well-known phenomenon that dermatologists have a name for it: acne cosmetica.

It can take months for acne cosmetica to show up on the skin, and because it doesn’t always show up right away this can make it hard for the person to realize it was makeup that caused it. When it does finally show up, it often looks like many small, non-inflamed (not red or sore) bumps, but can also come with run-of-the-mill inflamed (red and sore) pimples as well.

When makeup causes acne it can lead to a vicious cycle:

  • Makeup causes acne –>
  • More makeup is needed to cover it up –>
  • More acne is produced –>
  • More makeup is needed to cover it up –>
  • Etc.

Some things you can do to break the cycle include:

  • Going makeup-free whenever possible.
  • Selecting non-comedogenic (will not clog pores) products – this normally means choosing sheer, light-coverage, fragrance-free, water-based products marketed toward a younger demographic.
  • Applying and removing makeup using a featherlight touch. Physical irritation of the skin can aggravate acne, so stay extremely gentle.

The Science

Acne Cosmetica

It’s a real concern: Cosmetic-induced acne is so widespread that it has its own name, acne cosmetica. Recent proof that makeup can cause acne comes from a recent Brazilian study in which 45% of women had dermatoses (skin disease) associated with the cosmetics they were using and 14% had active skin lesions due to cosmetics.1

Where it occurs: People typically experience cosmetic-induced acne on the chin and cheeks more than on the forehead.2 It presents as small, whitish bumps, sometimes referred to as “grains,” which are more noticeable when the skin is stretched. It can also show up as red, garden variety pimples.

It can take months to form: Cosmetic-induced acne can take months to form which can lead to confusion as a breakout seems to come out of nowhere, when in fact, cosmetics slowly caused the acne to form over time.

It can be long-lasting: Cosmetic-induced acne tends to be stubborn, sometimes lasting for years as the person using makeup enters into a vicious cycle of covering the breakouts, which lead to further breakouts.

Roughly applying makeup can contribute to it: Applying makeup too roughly can lead to irritation which can also aggravate acne.

Wearing makeup shouldn’t interfere with topical treatments: Fortunately, preliminary research suggests that wearing makeup during the day won’t interfere with topical acne treatments.5

How to Avoid Makeup-induced Acne

  • Go bare when you can
  • Use makeup as sparingly as possible
  • Choose sheer, water-based, non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores) products
  • Choose a mass-market makeup brand that is aimed at a younger demographic
  • Apply makeup products using a featherlight touch to minimize irritation3,4
  • Gently remove makeup at the end of the day and proceed with your usual anti-acne routine

What Are the Best Makeup Choices?

Not all makeup causes acne, but the wrong makeup products certainly can.3,6 One way some makeup products might trigger acne is by changing the balance of microorganisms living on and in the skin, leading to the overgrowth of acne bacteria called C. acnes.7,8

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on any “safe” makeup products.

Choose sheer or light coverage varieties which specifically claim to be non-comedogenic and are fragrance-free. Large, drugstore brands which are made for a younger, more acne-prone audience tend to be a safer choice than department store varieties, and less expensive to boot.

“Acne-fighting” or “anti-acne” makeup can be a safer choice because that means the manufacturer is likely thinking about acne-prone skin when formulating their makeup. However, most “anti-acne” makeups simply contain 0.5% salicylic acid, which will do very little to treat acne. Still, “anti-acne” makeup may be safer.

Mineral makeup should also be fine as long as it does not cause itchiness, which is a sign of irritation and can lead to scratching (further irritation).

Woman Reading Makeup Ingredient List

Tips for Using and Applying Various Types of Makeup

Now that you have chosen a safe makeup, follow these do’s and don’ts to ensure that makeup stays your friend instead of causing you trouble.

Applying Primer to Acne-prone Skin
Applying Foundation to Acne-prone Skin
Applying Pressed Powder to Acne-prone Skin
Applying Concealer to Acne-prone Skin
Applying Blush to Acne-prone Skin
Applying Bronzer to Acne-prone Skin
Applying Tinted Moisturizer to Acne-prone Skin

Instructions for Removing Makeup

Eye makeup:

  • Dispense mineral oil (baby oil) or jojoba oil on a cotton pad or cotton ball. Use a pad or ball to remove makeup.
  • To avoid irritation, do not scrub other areas of the face with the cotton ball or pad.

Foundation, powder, concealer, and blush:

  • Wash off using facial cleanser very gently for 10 seconds or less using your bare hands, just as you would if you were on The Regimen without makeup. See Step 1 above. Note: If your makeup does not come off easily by washing this way, switch brands to a lighter, more sheer variety. If on occasion you need something stronger, try using moisturizer and your bare hands to gently remove makeup.
  • Avoid using towelettes, wipes, washcloths, scrubbers, and anything other than bare hands.
Removing Makeup from the Face
Removing Makeup from the Eyes

Ingredients to Avoid

The table below lists ingredients that may be pore-clogging (comedogenic). If any of these are within the first seven (7) ingredients on the ingredient list of a makeup product you are choosing, you may want to choose a different product.

If, however, any of these ingredients are far down on the list, this means the manufacturer may have included it in a very small amount and the product may still be safe to use.

  • Definitely avoid: These are ingredients that people with acne-prone skin should definitely avoid, because compelling evidence shows that they are comedogenic.
  • Consider avoiding: These are ingredients that people with acne-prone skin may want to consider avoiding, because some evidence indicates that they might be comedogenic.
Ingredients That May Clog Pores
Avoid makeup that contains fragrances
Avoid Makeup Containing Comedogenic Ingredients
  1. Duarte, I., Campos Lage, A. C. Frequency of dermatoses associated with cosmetics. Contact Dermatitis 56, 211-213 (2007).
  2. Kligman, A. M., Mills, O. H. Jr. “Acne cosmetica”. Arch. Dermatol. 106, 843-850 (1972).
  3. Singh, S., Mann, B. K. & Tiwary, N. K. Acne cosmetica revisited: a case-control study shows a dose-dependent inverse association between overall cosmetic use and post-adolescent acne. Dermatology 226, 337-341 (2013).
  4. Khanna, N. & Datta Gupta, S. Rejuvenating facial massage–a bane or boon? Int. J. Dermatol. 41, 407-410 (2002).
  5. Bhatia, N. & Pillai, R. Randomized, observer-blind, split-face compatibility study with clindamycin phosphate 1.2%/benzoyl peroxide 3.75% gel and facial foundation makeup. J. Clin. Aesthet. Dermatol. 8, 25-32 (2015).
  6. Conforti, C., Giuffrida, R., Fadda, S., Fai, A., Romita, P., Zalaudek, I. & Dianzani, C. Topical dermocosmetics and acne vulgaris. Dermatol. Ther. 34, e14436 (2021).
  7. Fournière, M., Latire, T., Souak, D., Feuilloley, M. G. J & Bedoux, G. Staphylococcus epidermidis and Cutibacterium acnes: Two major sentinels of skin microbiota and the influence of cosmetics. Microorganisms 8, 1752 (2020).
  8. Staudinger, T., Pipal, A. & Redl, B. Molecular analysis of the prevalent microbiota of human male and female forehead skin compared to forearm skin and the influence of make-up. J. Appl. Microbiol. 110, 1381-1389 (2011).