7 Reasons Your Skin Is Breaking Out And What You Can Do About It

It’s not uncommon to feel as though you’re doing all the right things to get your acne under control and yet still struggle with acne flare-ups and pimple breakouts. It may be that, despite your best intentions, your actions aren’t helping.

Read on to find out what could be making your pimples worse and causing frustrating acne flare-ups. 

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What causes pimples on your face?

Acne is a common skin disorder that occurs when hair follicles or pores get blocked by a combination of sebum (the oil that your body naturally produces to lubricate your skin and hair), dead skin cells, and bacteria (Cutibactrium acnes).

Pimples are usually distributed over your face, jawline, neck, chest, and upper back, as these are the areas in which sebaceous glands are densest. Sebaceous glands are the small glands at the base of hair follicles that secrete sebum. 

Acne can be caused by anything that increases sebum production, such as:

  • Puberty

  • Some medications, e.g. corticosteroids

  • Certain medical conditions, e.g. polycystic ovary syndrome

  • Hormonal fluctuations such as during pregnancy

  • Emotional stress.

Acne can also be caused by anything that increases the likelihood of pores becoming blocked or skin bacteria proliferating, such as:

  • A hot, humid climate

  • Profuse sweating

  • Occlusive skin products (moisturizing creams which form a layer on the surface of your skin).

Struggling with acne breakouts can be frustrating and demotivating. However, identifying possible reasons for pimple flare-ups can help you to get your acne under control.

7 Reasons you might be getting pimples on your face

1. Changing your acne treatments too frequently

You may feel so self-conscious and desperate to get rid of your acne that you try an acne treatment for a week or two and then when it doesn’t seem to have improved your symptoms, you change to a different treatment. If you find yourself jumping between products every couple of weeks, this may be causing more pimples to appear. Changing acne treatments too frequently, without giving them time to work, can irritate your skin and worsen symptoms¹.

What you should be doing

When you decide to try a new topical acne treatment, use it for at least six to eight weeks before deciding whether it is effective. This will give the treatment enough time to start working properly. You’re likely to see the full effect only after three to four months¹ of consistent use. 

Also remember that with some acne treatments, such as topical retinoids², your skin can initially appear worse after starting treatment but should settle as your body adjusts to the medication. 

2. Applying your topical acne treatment only to your actual pimples

Topical acne treatments can cause some stinging to your skin and may leave it slightly reddened and irritated, especially at the beginning of treatment. For this reason, you may be tempted to apply the cream only to the actual pimples. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prevent future breakouts.

Acne treatment works on multiple layers and often targets the pimples even before they appear visibly on your face. One of the main aims of topical acne treatments is to prevent pimples from actually forming. Salicylic acid does this by helping to unblock pores, benzoyl peroxide does this by killing skin bacteria, and topical retinoids do it by unblocking pores and reducing inflammation. 

What you should be doing

Apply a thin layer of topical acne treatment over the entire acne-prone area. If you only tend to get pimples on your forehead, nose, and chin, then apply the cream to these areas, even if you don’t have pimples there at the time. If you get pimples on your cheeks and jawline as well, then you would need to apply your treatment to your whole face, again, even before pimples appear. 

3. Using skin products that aren’t suitable for your skin

Wearing make-up, using sunscreen, or using other skin products that aren’t specifically tailored for acne-prone skin could be causing pimples on your face³. Very thick, oily, or occlusive skin products can block pores and contribute to acne flare-ups. 

Even if you are using products formulated for more oily skin, if you aren’t washing them off properly in the evenings before you go to bed, they could still trigger pimple breakouts. Make-up and sunscreen should be washed off before going to bed.

What you should be doing

Look for products that are formulated specifically for people who are prone to getting acne. These products should be light and oil-free, and should ideally contain the words non-comedogenic (won’t block pores) or non-acnegenic (won’t cause acne) on their labels.

Wash your face thoroughly in the evening with lukewarm water and a gentle cleanser to remove any residual skin product from your face. 

Also, avoid sharing make-up brushes and applicators¹ with other people; residual oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria may cling to the make-up brush or applicator and end up being transferred to your face. This can block your pores and cause pimples. 

4. Washing your face too much

This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is possible to be washing your face too much. Washing your face too frequently, or washing it too vigorously (think: scrubbing it roughly with a mesh sponge) may make you feel as though you are performing a thorough cleaning, but it can irritate your skin and worsen your acne. 

The skin has an inherent barrier function⁴ that helps to keep it stable. Excessive face-washing can damage the skin’s natural barrier function, causing an increased likelihood of infection. 

What you should be doing

Wash your face twice daily, or after sweating, with a gentle cleanser. Use your fingertips to massage your face wash it into your skin and rinse it off with lukewarm water. 

5. Squeezing or picking at your pimples

You may think that you’re getting rid of a pimple by squeezing it. Or perhaps you pick at the pimples on your face without even realizing it. Squeezing, popping, or picking at pimples may well be causing or worsening your acne breakouts. Fiddling with your pimples introduces infection and can make them worse. It can also damage the skin, increasing the risk of acne scarring or dark spots. 

What you should be doing

Avoid touching your face as much as possible. If you do have a big acne bump that is bothering you, see your doctor to have it properly extracted under sterile conditions.

6. Stressing too much

Stress⁵ is a recognized trigger for acne flare-ups. If you are suffering from unexpected pimples on your face, consider whether you’re going through a particularly stressful period. Stress causes a cascade of hormones to be activated in your body, including cortisone, and these can lead to increased sebum production.

What you should be doing

It may be worth trying some relaxation techniques to decrease your body’s response to stress. Mind-body techniques⁶ use the mind to influence physiological functions. The aim is to reduce some of the harmful physiological processes triggered by stress. Mind-body techniques that may be of benefit include meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, biofeedback, and guided imagery. 

7. Fluctuating hormones

Hormones³ affect your skin. Puberty is associated with high androgen levels, which lead to stimulation of sebaceous glands and increased sebum production. Likewise, the rise in progesterone⁷ after ovulation in females can cause increased sebum production and pimples to appear on your face around menses (menstrual flare-ups).

Fluctuating hormones can trigger acne breakouts, so if you’re struggling with pimples on your face, your hormones may be to blame.

What you should be doing

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that you can do about puberty. Luckily, you can treat the acne that’s associated with it. See a dermatologist for advice on treatment if your skin is negatively affecting your self-esteem and quality of life. 

If your acne is specifically flaring up around menses each month, it may be worth considering going onto the combined oral contraceptive pill to stabilize your hormones and your skin. Again, this is something you can chat with your doctor about. 

When to see a doctor

When acne is left untreated, it can cause low-self esteem and depression⁸, and can negatively impact your quality of life. On top of that, acne that isn’t adequately controlled can cause scarring that may leave permanent damage to your skin. If you’ve tried all of the recommendations listed in this article and you’re still experiencing acne breakouts, you should see your dermatologist or doctor for a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan. Most acne can be fully treated.

The lowdown

There are many reasons as to why your skin may be breaking out. Despite your best intentions to get your acne under control, some of your habits could actually be causing your pimples to flare up.

Ensuring that you follow a good skincare routine, using appropriate skin products, and avoiding squeezing, popping, or picking at pimples, can go a long way to controlling breakouts. Managing stress and getting on top of hormone fluctuations can also help to stabilize your acne. 

If you’re doing everything right and still struggle with distressing pimples and acne flare-ups, make an appointment to see your doctor. With expert advice and guidance, your acne can be treated.

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