The Annoying Reason You May Be Breaking Out

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
A heavenly-smelling shampoo, a nourishing deep conditioner, a stay-all-day hairspray — you probably have a favorite hair product. But if you're prone to breakouts, you may want to start paying attention to what's in the formulas making up your hair routine.

Let us introduce you to what's commonly known as "pomade acne," a term given to pimples caused by hair products. To help guide us on the topic, we turned to Marina Peredo, MD, dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She walked us through the best way to determine whether your beloved products are the cause of your acne, what to replace first if they are, and how to prevent it from happening again. Here's what we learned.

How Do You Know If It’s Your Hair Products?
"When a patient walks in with breakouts on their hairline, upper forehead, jaw, or sideburn area, my first question is, 'What hair products are you using?'" Dr. Peredo says. Breakouts on the chest, shoulders, and upper back can also be indicators, especially for those with long hair. "Oils, conditioners, pomades, even some hairsprays can make you break out; it's not always the case with these areas, but it does help [narrow it down]."

If you have bangs and you're breaking out on your forehead, it's often the products you're using.

Dr. Marina Peredo
What Products & Ingredients Are To Blame?
First, it's important to note that everyone's skin is different. What could irritate one person's skin and clog their pores could be totally fine for someone else. Which is exactly why the first step is to cut out all of the ingredients believed by derms to cause skin issues, such as sulfates (often in shampoo), anything petroleum-based (found in things like masks and serums), silicones (in most products that claim to be "smoothing"), and what Dr. Peredo notes as the most common culprit: fragrance, which is in almost everything.

However, Dr. Peredo reminds us that it's not always chemicals or additives that could be causing blemishes or irritation. "Sometimes, it's more about the vehicle than the ingredient," she says. "Products that are oil-based or cream-based, like creams, oils, and pomades, are more likely to cause a breakout." That means your weekly coconut-oil hair mask — even though it's oh-so-natural — could be clogging the pores on your face long after you rinse it out.

"Anything that comes in contact with the scalp could eventually run into the face and cause a problem," she says. (Like, during a sweaty workout.) Even many light products, like hairspray or gel, could cause problems thanks to their high alcohol content, she says.
How To Stop & Prevent The Breakouts
If you're breaking out in the telltale places mentioned above, it's best to stow your shampoo until you can narrow down the offending product. "The first thing we recommend is for the patient to switch to a milder shampoo, like baby shampoo, or to something fragrance- and color-free," Dr. Peredo says. While not the biggest culprit, it is the one product that must touch your scalp to do its job, which is why you should eliminate it first. Remember, not all baby shampoos are created equal, so check the label to be sure you're avoiding the ingredients listed above. Philip Kingsley makes a great formula to consider, and a variety of dye- and scent-free baby shampoos exist, too.

Dr. Peredo says rich conditioners are also often to blame for breakouts, so she suggests patients avoid allowing them to have any contact with their scalp. The best practice? Lean your head back, apply your conditioner no closer than a few inches from the scalp, and rinse, while limiting conditioner-skin contact. Then, cleanse your face and body.

The first thing we recommend is for the patient to switch to a milder shampoo.

Dr. Marina Peredo
Want to be really thorough? To keep your long hair from making contact with breakout-prone areas, like the back and shoulders, put on a plastic shower cap after you rinse your conditioner. It may feel super-weird to have your wet hair inside a shower cap, but it will solve the problem. After you get out of the shower, wrap your hair in a hair towel. We swear by Aquis' Hair Turban.

It's best to completely eliminate styling products — especially rich ones like serum, oil, pomade, and cream — and then slowly add them back in to see what's causing your breakouts, being mindful to avoid the roots and scalp. Unfortunately, this is a game of trial and error. (Upside: This is a great time to get better acquainted with the beauty of your natural hair texture.) But if you absolutely cannot go cold-turkey, avoid applying product on the crown and roots, and try to eliminate hair-to-skin contact.

"If you have bangs and you're breaking out on your forehead, it's often the products you're using," Dr. Peredo says. "I tell my clients with bangs to put on a headband when they get home." The same goes for long hair: "Put your hair into a bun or a ponytail as soon as you get home; anything to get the hair off your face."

Dr. Peredo adds that you may not be washing out your products quickly enough. A product may not be causing a breakout when applied and removed within a day or so, but if you skip several days between shampoos, it could compound with the oil on your scalp and cause problems. Translation: Be sure to keep your scalp and hair clean.

Before bed, tie up your hair with a soft scrunchie à la Saved by the Bell (it's gentler than a hair elastic) and try changing your pillowcase nightly. (Hair touches pillowcase, pillowcase touches face — you get it.)

Have you ever suspected your favorite product as the cause of a breakout? Sound off in the comments below.

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