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Does Moisturizer Cause or Aggravate Your Acne?

A woman with red fingernails dispenses her moisturizer while asking herself, "Does moisturizer cause acne?"

Sometimes, it may feel like your skin problems will never end. As soon as you tackle one issue, another appears.

During certain times of the year, you may notice your skin becoming especially dry and flaky, which might lead you to apply extra moisturizer. Other times, you might notice your skin is shinier than usual due to excess oil production, which might make you skip moisturizing altogether. Both of these tactics can actually be harmful and lead to more frequent or severe acne breakouts.

Daily moisturizing prevents both dryness and extreme oiliness. But for dry, oily, or acne-prone skin, the type and amount of moisturizer you use on a daily basis makes a big difference. 

So does moisturizer cause acne? Let’s take a look.

Types of Skin

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recognizes five skin types — oily, dry, sensitive, combination, and normal. Those in the lattermost category are unlikely to be reading about acne prevention, so today, we’ll stick to discussing the first four.

Finding the right moisturizer for acne-prone skin can be especially challenging if you have combination skin. Combination skin can be dry, oily, and sensitive — all at the same time — easily leading to a myriad of problems. And no matter your skin type, you may notice changes to your skin’s texture and appearance based on external factors like the season, the amount of humidity in the air, even the temperature of your showers.

Unfortunately, acne doesn’t discriminate by skin type — you can suffer from frequent or severe acne breakouts no matter what type of skin you have. If this is your present reality, it’s important to learn more about every product you use on your skin, especially your moisturizer.

Does Moisturizer Cause Acne?

If you have acne-prone skin, you’re probably wondering, does moisturizer cause acne?

Unfortunately, there’s no quick or easy answer to this question. Moisturizers come in many different formulas and consistencies, and most could have one irritating ingredient or other. A few common ingredients that might aggravate your acne are fragrances and perfumes, certain oils, waxes, petroleum, parabens, and retinoic acid, which is used in many anti-aging products.

The best way to decide which skin care products are right for you is through trial and error — but when it comes to moisturizers, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is using too much product on your skin. 

Here are a few common signs that you may be over-moisturizing:

  • Your moisturizer takes longer than a few minutes to absorb into your skin — or never fully absorbs.
  • You’re going through moisturizers every week or two instead of every month or two. It should take a minimum of 10–14 days to finish your bottle.
  • Your pores are clogged, leading to an increase in blackheads or whiteheads.
  • The frequency or severity of your acne breakouts has increased.

Excess moisturizer won’t absorb into your skin to prevent dryness. Instead, it will clog your pores, attracting dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells — a recipe for more acne. So for the question, does moisturizer cause acne, the answer can be yes, if you use too much.

Infographic: Does Moisturizer Cause or Aggravate Your Acne?

Can I Stop Moisturizing?

At this point, you may be saying, “I’ll just stop using moisturizer to dry out my acne!” If this thought comes to mind, pump the brakes. Over-moisturizing can cause skin problems, yes, but so can under-moisturizing.

If you skip moisturizer as part of your skin care routine, your skin will dry out, and in the short-term, you may see fewer pimples. But long-term excessive drying will cause a damaging chain reaction within your skin cells: to balance things out, your skin will produce more oil on its own. This oily buildup will clog your pores, along with dirt, bacteria, and additional dead skin cells from dry skin.

External factors you encounter every day already dry out your skin, so it’s important to replenish that lost moisture. Otherwise, you could wind up dealing with more problems than the occasional pimple.

Does Moisturizer Help Acne?

Can your moisturizer help treat your acne breakouts?

The answer to this question largely depends on the ingredients contained in your favorite moisturizer. A common side effect of topical acne treatments is skin dryness and irritation, making finding the right moisturizer for your skin type vitally important.

According to a notable study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, moisturizers containing these common ingredients are more likely to help your acne breakouts when compared to other products:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Retinoids
  • Dimethicone
  • Glycerin 
  • Botanical extracts
  • Metals

Moisturizers containing the listed ingredients are sometimes referred to as cosmeceuticals: products used for both cosmetic and medicinal purposes.

Note that salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids are more likely to cause excessive dryness, so it’s important they be used in the right concentrations. For example, a concentration of salicylic acid over 2% is likely to dry out your skin too much to be considered helpful for acne breakouts. 

Dimethicone and glycerin are silicone derivatives used in place of mineral and vegetable oils. These ingredients make a moisturizer oil-free, which is important if you have acne-prone skin.

Botanical extracts are naturally derived ingredients, and the ones used in moisturizers have an anti-inflammatory effect. A few renowned examples of common anti-inflammatory botanical extracts are green tea, aloe vera, and ginkgo biloba. Lesser-known examples include allantoin and licochalcone. 

Certain metals can also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin, including copper, aluminum, and selenium. Zinc is one of the most common metals used in acne-fighting moisturizers because it helps promote healing of the skin. 

A few key phrases to look for when choosing a moisturizer that won’t aggravate your acne are “non-comedogenic” and “oil-free.”

The Final Verdict on Whether Moisturizer Causes Acne

So, what’s the verdict? Does moisturizer cause acne? 

As you’ve likely gathered, this is a complicated question that doesn’t necessarily warrant a simple “yes” or “no” answer. There are many variables to consider, including your skin type and the ingredients of the moisturizer you choose.

Unfortunately, it may take up to three months to fully test a new skincare routine and determine if the products are effective at balancing your skin and reducing breakouts. But with a little trial and error, and a lot of patience, you’ll find a moisturizer that works for your skin type and won’t cause acne.

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