Five common anti-acne product ingredients that do more harm than good

Adult acne is real. So real, we have tons of articles about it on PV! So far, we've shared the most common triggers, tips on dealing with breakouts, our fave acne treatments, and even a step-by-step guide to pimple popping! Armed with all of this information, surely we all should be dealing with zits like pros, right?

Even with a careful skincare routine, I still get breakouts a few days before my period, no thanks to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS, which I was diagnosed with after giving birth to my second child. Although hormonal acne isn’t quite as bad as a full-blown case of cystic acne, it has its challenges, particularly for someone like me with sensitive, combination skin. It’s really difficult to find something to treat my breakouts, since many products contain ingredients that my skin is sensitive to. So instead of easing my way out of pimple hell, they make the situation even worse by irritating my already troubled skin!

If you've ever tried to treat your pimples and only made them worse, there may be ingredients in your products that are actually bad for your skin. These may negate any positive effect the active ingredients may have! Before you try any more treatments, check the label and consider avoiding products that contain these potential skin irritants.

Sulfates

I recently shared that it might be a good idea to go sulfate-free when it comes to shampoos, and it's even more important to avoid it for your face! Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), and all their other cousins give that rich lather we love in cleansing products. They do their job a little too well though, as they end up drying the skin by stripping it of its natural oils. You might be tempted to lather away that pimple with a soapy wash, but you might end up making things worse! Drying out your skin with harsh cleansers that contain sulfates can actually trigger even more oil production, which may cause even more breakouts.

So when you see ~sulfate in the ingredients list of an “acne-fighting” facial wash, drop it like a hot potato. Go for a low pH, sulfate-free, truly gentle face wash. Of course we love the In Her Element Low pH Rose Gel Cleanser (which is also fragrance-free) but there are other great options like the CosRX Low pH Good Morning Cleanser and Cetaphil's Gentle Skin Cleanser

Scrubs

We’ve included microbeads in our to-avoid list before because of its damaging effects on the environment but we're also tossing scrubs that contain harsh exfoliants like ground-up nut shells. ICYMI, there's a lawsuit against the famous St. Ives apricot scrub because the walnut grounds have sharp edges that damage skin. I totally understand the compulsion to scrub away that ripe pimple, but doing so just traumatizes the already irritated skin and may even turn it into an open wound.

Sure, Gigi Hadid may swear by the St. Ives scrub, but there are a lot less painful ways to exfoliate. Troubled skin benefits most from a salicylic acid or BHA exfoliant, but if you feel the need for immediately visible results, a gentle peeling gel like Cure will do the trick.

Bad alcohols

I regularly used clarifying astringent-type toners in my teenage years, soaking up one cotton ball after another until I felt that my face was totally clean. I ignored the pain, thinking the sting meant the product was working! Looking back, this was incredibly damaging to my skin especially since I didn’t moisturize after (que horror). Unfortunately, it's a common mistake many of us have probably experienced because almost all toners in local drugstore acne care product lines are alcohol-based!

The good news is that there are good alcohols like cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alchol, and stearyl alcohol. These actually help skin to retain moisture because of their fatty content, while likes of ethanol or ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, methanol, SD alcohol, and benzyl alcohol dehydrate the skin.

I do still use several beauty products with drying alcohols in them though. I feel comfortable using them after I’ve layered all my skincare (like as a spray-on sunscreen or makeup setting spray). I love the astringent-like VMV Hypoallergenics’ Superskin 2 Monolaurin + Mandelic Acid Toner even though its label is practically one big hazard warning. It took me a while to get used to it and was obsessive about applying sunscreen but it all paid off! Used with the cleanser and moisturizer from the same line, I got rid of post-pregnancy blemishes and dark spots in a few months. I still use the toner now from time to time, but only as a spot treatment. Bottom line: do not automatically ignore products with alcohol, but proceed with caution and use only as directed. And keep a look out for possible skin irritation - it means the product is harming your skin!

Witch hazel

A popular active ingredient in anti-acne skin care, witch hazel has amazing antioxidant and skin-soothing properties. However, every single witch hazel product I’ve tried turns my skin into a blotchy red and worsens my breakouts! Apparently although it has skin-caring benefits, it’s considered a sensitizing ingredient, like sulfates, alcohol, and fragrance. It has high levels of tannin content, a powerful antioxidant that can be sensitizing with frequent use. The distillation process involved in producing witch hazel extract also involves adding up to 15% alcohol, which obviously isn't good for the skin. It also naturally has eugenol, a fragrance chemical and another possible irritant.

I’m so jelly of people who have found that witch hazel toners work wonders on their skin but if you’re sensitive to the plant extract like me, you can try hydrating toners instead. As for acne treatments, I’ve yet to try retinoids but both Angela and Kim swear by the ones from The Ordinary. Benzoyl peroxide is also known to address the root of acne: clogged pores.

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Fragrance

The skin on my face is highly sensitive to fragrance, particularly perfumes. Once it makes contact, the area flares into an angry red, and stays that way for at least a couple of hours! If I see perfume, parfum, or fragrance even midway or higher in the ingredients list, I skip it. I now know that there’s a definite difference between unscented and fragrance-free; just because there’s no detectable scent doesn’t mean it’s free of sensitizing fragrance.

There are many types of fragrance, and even “natural” essential oils are one of them. This unfortunately includes tea tree oil, yet another popular pimple-fighting ingredient. I can never use it in its pure form directly on my face without triggering a reaction. I work around this by mixing tea tree oil either with other oils (my faves are grapeseed, rosehip, and castor oils) or other fragrance-free skin care products.  I find my skin tolerates it just fine this way.


I’ve come to realize that what works for me when my skin acts out is to treat it with kindness. Being sensitive to many common skin care ingredients makes it extra challenging to find solutions to my skin care concerns, but over time I learned to avoid these pitfalls. Unfortunately, this process involves trial and error, and very few get it right on their first try. It's always best to consult your doctor to determine the real cause of your breakouts, recommend a plan for treatment, and/or refer you to another specialist (like an OB GYN for hormonal acne) if needed.

What do you do when you break out? Have you, like me, had negative reactions with products featuring these ingredients? Please do share what has and hasn’t worked out for you!

Header image by Samantha Gonzales

Source: Paula’s Choice Beautypedia