Breakouts can be frustrating at the best of times, but they can be even more so when you can’t discern what is causing them. With working from home leading to many of us forgoing our (often polluted) commute and usual make-up application (which can clog pores), you might have expected your skin blemishes to become clearer, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case.
Wider environmental factors as well as stress, hormones and even our skincare, all play a part. We spoke to the experts to discover exactly how to tell what is causing your breakouts and how to tackle them when they appear.
Remind me. What exactly is acne?
“Acne develops from blocked pores and too much oil from our sebaceous glands, clogging up our skin,” says dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. “When this happens, it leads to the formation of comedones. Those annoying skin-coloured bumps, often seen best under unkind lighting, are called closed comedones. If these are open to the air, they are called blackheads. A bacteria called P. acnes thrives in the clogged, oily pore, and as a consequence we get inflammatory lesions.”
Can make-up cause breakouts?
“A lot of women blame their cosmetics for triggering breakouts, hence the expectation that by wearing it less often, their skin might improve,” says Dr Bunting. “I hear this a lot in clinic too – many women are in the habit of removing make-up as soon as they get in from work for the same reason.”
“I think the truth of the matter is that breakouts can be triggered by certain types of cosmetics that aggravate pores that are already prone to clogging – long-wear foundation is probably the worst offender,” continues Dr Bunting. “But it’s often just one piece of the puzzle and even if it is contributing to your breakouts, we’ve probably not been locked down for long enough to know for sure. Any change to reduce breakouts usually takes from six-to-12 weeks (one-to-two skin cycles) to really make a difference to skin.”
WHAT ELSE CAUSES BREAKOUTS?
As anyone who struggles even slightly with PMS will know, your hormones can have a significant impact on your mood, energy levels and your skin. The week before your period, which is when many hormonal blemishes arise, sees progesterone levels drop and oestrogen levels rise. This leads to the production of more oil by the skin’s sebaceous glands, thus contributing to blocked pores and breakouts. Fortunately, these breakouts should clear as you move through your cycle and are therefore fairly easy to identify.
Spending more time on your skincare routine can be a recipe for better skin (especially if you dwell longer on properly cleansing your complexion) but it can also ‘overwhelm’ it, leading to irritation and breakouts, if you go about it the wrong way. Getting carried away and experimenting with layering lots of new products or starting many new actives at the same time, such as retinols, should be avoided.
Furthermore, while starting retinol when you are spending more time indoors (allowing more protection against UV rays) seems wise, the super ingredient can also cause ‘skin purging’ aka breakouts, due to an increase in cell turnover. This unfortunate side effect is caused by an increase in excess sebum and skin build-up that can clog pores. To lessen the effect, build up your retinol (or any other active) tolerance gradually, by introducing it slowly into your routine, rather than applying it everyday.
Whatever stresses you might have in your life – from work, relationships or family – it can show on your face and at times like these, that state is of course heightened. “A lot happens to our bodies when we are stressed,” says the education expert for Foreo, Chris Luckham. “On a skin level, our body actually increases its oil production which can lead to more dilated and swollen pores and breakouts.”
Dr Nathalie Broussard, Shiseido’s scientific communications director agrees, citing a 2018 study carried out by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. It found that “stress and anxiety had visible effects on the skin including decreased barrier function, increased sebum production and an increased inflammation factor. Consequently, the skin had trouble retaining moisture and became dehydrated. It was more fragile, making it extra sensitive to excess sebum too.”
Diet and alcohol
“A bad diet can cause issues in the gut and result in unwanted breakouts,” says the skincare expert and No7 ambassador Michaella Bolder, “while alcohol can trigger them due to the high sugar intake.”
A hangover will also dehydrate the skin, leading to the production of more oil to compensate, so your complexion is more likely to become congested.
While we should all focus on not touching our faces right now, it’s easier said than done. Inadequate working-from home conditions, especially where you don’t have a proper desk or monitor, can exacerbate the problem as you can find yourself leaning your head on your hands.
“When we touch our face, it’s usually in one position until the arm or wrist gets sore, so we move to another, touching another area of the face,” says the education expert for Foreo, Chris Luckham. Unfortunately, “hands are the best transporter for acne bacteria. We mostly notice breakouts along the jaw or temples for this reason.”