The 9 Biggest Mistakes People With Acne-Prone Skin Make

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
This post was originally published on November 29, 2014.
We’ve all been there — a pesky zit pops up the night before a big event, interview, or date. It can be mortifying and annoying, and sometimes even long-lasting. While this is certainly a common frustration for those with acne-prone skin, breakouts can be minimized (and quickly abolished) with proper care. Read on for some common mistakes people with acne-prone skin make that they might not even realize are having an impact on breakouts.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Using Acne Products Incorrectly
Many acne products are formulated to dry up oil on the skin, but this can backfire. Using an acne product all over the entire face will dry out skin — including the areas that have no breakouts. This can actually trigger new blemishes, as oil and bacteria get trapped under the newly formed dry skin cells. Instead of using powerful, drying acne treatments on the entire face, apply an acne spot treatment on individual blemishes or areas prone to breakouts as needed. To reduce acne-causing bacteria and prevent breakouts, use a gentle, sulfate-free cleanser with the ingredient salicylic acid.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Skipping Nighttime Cleansing
The number one reason people don’t wash at night is because they are too tired, but washing your face at the end of the day is especially helpful in keeping skin clear. Oil on the skin makes for a breeding ground for bacteria — and bacteria is what causes blemishes. Sleeping not only with your makeup on, but also the oil, dirt, and debris that has built up on the skin during the day can absolutely trigger new blemishes. At the end of each day, remove makeup and wash with a sulfate-free cleanser. If you're at risk of falling asleep before cleansing, simply make it a habit to wash your face earlier in the night — your skin will thank you.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Failing To Exfoliate Often
Exfoliation is important for keeping breakouts at bay. Dead, dry skin creates layers of dead skin cell buildup that trap oil and acne-causing bacteria under the skin, resulting in clogged pores and blemishes. Incorporate a gentle, exfoliating acid serum into your routine to keep surface dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria from getting trapped in the pore lining. Look for exfoliants with glycolic or salicylic acid as these ingredients can reduce acne-causing bacteria, while penetrating pores to clear out impurities. Bottom line, by decreasing oil and increasing exfoliation, you should have fewer breakouts.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Not Changing Pillowcases Often Enough
For problem skin, bacteria and oil may build up on your pillowcase and be reintroduced to skin the following night. Invest in a stack of nice pillowcases and change them every night or every other night — and be sure to flip over the pillow nightly. Make sure to wash them with a dye and fragrance-free laundry detergent. It's a simple step, but one worth checking out if your breakouts persist.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Over-Indulging In Dairy Products
Many people are under the impression that greasy foods and chocolate cause breakouts; however, in my experience from working with acne-prone clients for 25 years, this is often not the case. One type of food that I have found to be a big culprit of cystic acne is eating too much dairy — especially when these hard bumps occur in the chin and jawline area. Try cutting out cheese, milk, ice cream, and frozen yogurt for three weeks to see if this prevents the formation of new cysts.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Treating Your Skin Like You’re A Teenager
If you struggled with acne during your teenage years, more than likely you used products that were quite harsh and over-drying. They might have helped heal your breakouts back then, but as you've progressed into your 20s and beyond, they've likely become too harsh for your skin — which is dryer than it was when you were a teen. Dehydrated skin may produce more oil, ultimately leading to breakouts.

Because aging skin doesn't have the same resiliency or oil production, it’s important to slowly move away from the products of your past and transition to age-appropriate acne fighters that won't cause your complexion to become flaky or clogged. I recommend a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer with antioxidants. I also recommend getting an assessment from a skin-care professional (especially if you haven’t done so in a while).
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Not Keeping Pores Clean
Of all the skin-care questions people ask me, "How can I clear up my acne?" is definitely at the top of the list. People use product after product to try and clear up their clogged pores, bumps, and breakouts, and while they may have some success, nothing works more effectively than a professional facial that includes manual extractions.

The little bumps under the skin that never seem to go away are pores that need to cleaned deeply. Once they're thoroughly cleaned out at the hands of a skilled aesthetician, your products (especially those with salicylic acid) can get into the pore lining and help keep skin clear. Be sure to ask around and find a recommendation for an aesthetician who is well-trained in gentle, yet effective extractions.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Avoiding Sunscreen
If you have oily skin and are prone to clogged pores and blemishes, you know how challenging it can be to find sunscreen that won’t cause you to break out. Because of this, many people skip it entirely, thereby exposing their skin to damaging UV rays that lead to premature skin aging. You know those dark-purple or reddish marks that are left behind after a blemish has run its course? Because sunlight increases pigment cells, instead of fading, the unsightly marks actually linger longer when exposed to UV rays.

The good news is that sunscreen has come a long way, and with the popularity of ingredients like micronized zinc oxide, people can now find sunscreens that are lightweight and not greasy. If you simply can't find one that isn't compatible with your skin, you can also dust on an SPF-infused mineral powder over moisturizer to give the skin instant sun protection. No matter what skin type you have, don't skip this important step in your routine.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Picking At A Blemish
Picking is a big no-no, and it’s one of the most common skin sins I see. The goal of picking is to get rid of a blemish and make it less noticeable. However, applying concealer on an over-picked, inflamed, bleeding scab is difficult to hide — moreover, it might cause a dark scar that can linger on the skin for weeks. It’s much easier to camouflage a smooth, closed bump, which is why it's really imperative that you do not pick at blemishes.

Take comfort in the fact that when it comes to blemishes, your body will do everything it can to fight the infection to make it go away fast — even without using a topical spot treatment. However, there’s a general rule of thumb when it comes to blemishes: If, and only if, there is a visible whitehead can you wrap your fingers in tissue and give it a gentle squeeze to remove the infection. Once removed, a drying spot treatment will get into the pore and clear out any remaining infection. If no whitehead is present, don’t touch it. It’s important to be mindful of letting your body do its work to heal a blemish without disrupting the repair process. You’ll be thankful in the long run.

While blemishes are unavoidable from time to time, correcting these common mistakes can definitely limit the amount of breakouts you experience. A few simple tweaks, and your skin’s clarity will improve.

For those of you with sensitive skin, check out my post, which focuses on proper care for easily irritated skin. Or, if you have dry skin, you can find my tips here. And, finally, those with oily skin — not the same as acne-prone — should check out my advice from this post. Paying attention to what type of skin you have and caring for it accordingly can be a big step in maintaining a healthy, clear complexion.

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