Why Am I Breaking Out? A Guide


There are plenty of things in the grand scheme we call life that are worse than having a pimple. Consider, for example, going to your favorite restaurant in New York City—which is really close to your office, so you don't have time to change into something cute—only to have your date cancel on you at the last minute. Then you have to amend your reservation ("Actually, it's just going to be one tonight—I'll still take the bottle of wine, thanks") and ride out alternating waves of disappointment and rage. An uncomfortable evening better spent at home watching American Crime? That's worse than getting a pimple.

A digression. Life is full of small inconveniences and minute sufferings, and in the grand scheme of things, acne barely moves the needle. So instead of agonizing over why you have a pimple, we at ITG assembled a glossary of sorts on any and all reasons your blemishes have popped up, plus what to do with them. Save face for the real problems, and leave your acne to us:

Stress, both physical and metaphysical

The most vicious of cycles: Something at work goes wrong and your cortisol levels go up. This causes your oil glands to produce more, elevating your risk for a bacterial infection in any of your 20,000 pores. You end up with a zit (or five), increasing your stress even more. You find yourself in the mirror, you lean forward and start to pick, which momentarily soothes your nerves, but opens your skin up to even more infection. Hoo boy. Where do we start with this?

Assuming you're not quitting your job, abandoning your family, and moving to an ashram as a cure to your occasional breakouts, the key is finding realistic ways to curb your cortisol levels—essentially cutting the stress hormone out where it starts. This list is suspiciously easy: Go on a run (or do some other kind of cardiovascular activity), make sure your diet is balanced, maybe do some meditation... Deep breathing and accupressure massage with an essential oil of your choosing can do a body good in 20 minutes or less.


Cortisol is technically a hormone, but let's set that one aside for a moment and focus on estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and the havoc those can wreak on your skin.

Many women are put on the pill starting in high school (or even earlier) to regulate the onset of acne that comes with puberty. The way this works, if you're curious: Androgens (male sex hormones like testosterone) can cause excess sebum production when they're not properly balanced with estrogen and progesterone. Most birth control pills deliver estrogen and synthetic progesterone to curb the androgen production and reduce breakouts.

BUT! This isn't the case for everyone. The pill can help women who were already acne-prone before, but in a lot of women, any hormonal change can result in pimples. Annoying, but if your cycle is regular, it's something you can solve for. The week before your period, introduce a cleansing mask or exfoliating toner in the mix—daily even. ITG's recommendations go to the Omorovicza Deep Cleansing Mask and Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid.

The wrong products

Skin purging is not real, folks. Your body does indeed detox, but it does that in your liver, not your skin. So if you suspect a product is causing you to break out, this is not a part of the process. This means your skin would politely like you to cease and desist.

But how exactly do you know if it's the product's fault, or just your own body turning against you? The best tip for identifying if a breakout is caused by a product is to look at where the breakout is on your face or body. Do you have a history of getting breakouts in that area? If the answer is no, it very well might be the product. For instance, Emily Ferber just got her first Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 and developed an array of angry zits on her chin. Her normal problem zone is her forehead. Hence, she ditched the P50. It's up for grabs if anyone is interested.


This is a tricky one, with a lot of pseudoscience floating around. So we'll keep it short. Foods with a high glycemic index are probably the most scientifically and clinically associated with acne. This boils down to simple carbohydrates, which boils down lower to sugars. Some researches say that a carbohydrate-heavy diet can end up raising androgen levels—you know what this means because we already covered it! More on this study here, but tl;dr, just know there's a lot more research that could be done in this arena and it's not necessarily air-tight.

Dairy is another category that gets a lot of flack for its apparent complexion-ruining powers. No studies have shown dairy and acne to be directly linked—but some people will point out that the hormones given to many milk-producing cows may inadvertently effect humans. This science is hazy at best, so take with a grain of salt.

Your surroundings

Where to start? Because this could be a laundry list:
- Maybe you just moved and the water coming out of your faucet is hard instead of soft
- Your pillowcase could be cleaner
- Your phone could also be cleaner
- Smog is clogging your pores
- The radiator in your bedroom is drying your skin out, causing it to produce more oil, resulting in breakouts
- The air conditioning at the office is drying your skin out, causing it to produce more oil, resulting in breakouts
- The subway platform is grimey and makes you sweat and it has to be to blame for something, anything

Obviously there's no one cure all for the above—but knowledge is power and can help you find the right solutions for your particular problem. If you need any help, here are a few to get you started:

Emily's Pick: Linné Botanicals Balance Face Oil

I've spent most of my life with dry skin and no pimples—but for the last six to 12 months, I've had a new couple of bumps every few weeks. I suspect a couple of culprits: not moisturizing enough, while simultaneously not knowing what to do about hormonal oiliness. After what feels like countless rounds of trial and error, I've landed on an oil targeted at balancing oil production. It helps treat the problem before it starts, while still hydrating at the same time. —EF

Brennan's Pick: CosRx Pimple Pads

I stole these from Emily Ferber. And I don't mean that I cajoled her into giving me her Pimple Pads—they were on her desk and I physically removed them and took them home and now they are mine. But they're my favorite thing for breakouts, both impending and in progress, because they're much easier to use than a spot treatment. Instead of toning with my usual astringent lotion, I take a pad and wipe down my face and neck after cleansing, and then I toss it. A few days later, we're all back to normal. —BK

Tom's Pick: La Roche‑Posay Effaclar Duo

I have no quippy things to say about this! My skin refuses salicylic acid, so a lot of acne products don't work for me—and the list of benzoyl peroxide products that aren't completely abrasive is pretty short. This is the best I've used. I apply it on wet, clean skin every single night, and since using it, my skin has cleared up immensely. It doesn't dry me out, it doesn't make me red, and it's available at the Duane Reade down the block from me. I need nothing else. —TN

Photographed by Tom Newton.

From head to shoulders, knees, and toes: Here's how to take care of the acne that's not on your face.