Acne is really more about what’s going on internally than what’s happening on your skin. That said, what you put on your skin, for skin care and for makeup, can make a difference.

First, a quick breakdown on what acne is, to better understand why this is the case.

Acne Physiology 101

Your skin cells are made of a protein called keratin, and it’s punctuated by hair follicles (aka pores). Glands inside the hair follicles also produce fatty sebum, to help trap moisture inside your skin’s layers. But when the sebum tries to escape the pore to lubricate the skin, dead skin cells that haven’t sloughed off yet on the skin’s surface can trap the sebum inside the pore, forming a plug. The gland will still continue to produce sebum after that, even though it has nowhere to go.

That’s a blocked pore (either a blackhead or a whitehead). But just as stagnant water attracts mosquitoes, stagnant sebum tends to feed the bacteria that usually live quite harmlessly on our skin. When the bacteria proliferate, our white blood cells activate and go to work, creating inflammation. Now, you’ve got a zit.

So there’s multiple things going on here: 1) the skin not sloughing off its dead keratin fast enough; 2) possible overproduction of sebum, or overly sticky sebum; and 3) opportunistic bacteria cashing in on the action. That’s why most traditional topical acne treatments focus on either increasing skin cell turnover (those are the retinols), hormone balancing to lower sebum production, or killing the bacteria.

Again, the most important part of the process of getting rid of acne is internal. Here are a few of the avenues I’d suggest investigating.

  • For more on the diet links for acne, read here.
  • For a quick overview of naturopathic options for acne, read here.
  • For the estrogen dominance connection to acne, read here.
  • For the hypothyroid connection to acne, read here.
  • For the Vitamin D deficiency connection to acne, read here.

Cleansers and Makeup Tips for Acne

Once you’ve done the internal work, it’s time to look at your makeup cabinet. Your best bet for anything you put on your skin is to look for something:

1) Non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores). It’s certainly possible for your pores to clog without any outside help (from the combination of sebum and dead skin), but you want to stay away from anything liable to form a chemical glue that can simulate this process. Most cleansers and makeups proudly announce it if they are non-comedogenic… but I tend to favor ingredients so simple, they don’t even bother with marketing labels like that. (See below.) 

2) With as few ingredients in it as possible. There are several reasons for this. The first, of course, is that there’s a lot of toxic crap in our skin care products that gets into our bloodstream and can wreak havoc with our overall health. Here’s a list of the big ones to avoid.

But the more relevant reason for this is because chemically laden acne products tend to be harsh and drying. The more you dry out your skin, the more dead skin cells you’ll have to clog your pores and start the whole cycle of acne formation over again. Bad news. So stay away from the big long list of undecipherable ingredients as much as possible. 

Your best bet for cleansing? I like Dove Sensitive Skin soap. Doesn’t get simpler or gentler than that. 

Best bet for moisturizing? I like pure jojoba oil (Trader Joe’s has it for $7 I believe), as it does not clog pores and helps to balance our your skin’s natural sebum production. Hemp or rosehip oils work well too.

Best bet for makeup? Really, it’s best to avoid makeup as often as you can, as makeup is obviously designed to sit on top of your pores–and anything that sits there all day has the potential to clog them. That said, so far I haven’t found anything I like better than Bare Minerals for natural ingredients. Just make sure you’re washing the brushes or applicators you’re using every few weeks (you can do this with a little bit of your shampoo over the sink, as the brushes are just made of hair anyway. Leave them out to dry overnight!)