Does Lotion Cause Acne

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

Finding a good moisturizing lotion can be quite a challenge. When you have acne, or are trying to avoid developing the condition, the search for a suitable lotion can leave you fed up and confused.

All of those weird sounding ingredients listed on the back of the bottle, what do they do? Are they good for your skin? Will one of them result in a horrendous breakout?

Well, as always, being armed with information will allow you to make a better decision about your lotion, so let’s open the knowledge bank. and make an information withdrawal.

Does Lotion Cause Acne?

Does Lotion Cause Acne

That’s a simple question with a (for once) simple answer. No, lotion does not cause acne.

If you already have acne, your choice of lotion can make the condition worse. Or it could make the condition better.

But if you don’t have acne, don’t worry, lotion won’t cause acne, because acne is caused by a perfect storm of factors that have nothing at all to do with moisturizer.

If you want to know what does cause acne, then stay tuned because we’ll go over the basics in just a minute.

Can Lotion Cause Spots?

Can Lotion Cause Spots

A slightly different question with a different answer. Yes, lotion can cause spots.

Spots and acne are not the same thing!

Spots, both whiteheads and blackheads are caused by blocked pores. But since the underlying skin structure is healthy, once you unblock the pore and release the buildup of sebum and other debris, the spot goes away.

That’s not the case with acne because when you have acne, you have damaged skin, and other factors are at work.

Some lotions use comedogenic ingredients which clog skin pores and lead to spots. Those lotions will increase the likelihood that you’ll break out in pimples and blackheads, and they’ll make acne worse.

So, it’s important to be able to decode the ingredients list on the lotions you’re interested in using.

And it’s a good idea to choose lotions made with natural ingredients – noncomedogenic nourishing oils, antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E, and essential oils that boost circulation, kill microbes and combat inflammation.

So What Does Cause Acne?

So What Does Cause Acne

Acne is a complicated beast which is why it’s so difficult to treat.

When you have acne, you have:

  • Damaged sebum and too much of it.
  • Lack of antioxidant protection.
  • Overgrowth of bacteria.

Ready to dig deeper? Okay then, here we go.

Sebum

Sebum is usually blamed for acne. And many people believe that if they could only reduce their sebum production, they would cure their acne.

However, sebum is a crucial component of healthy skin, and if you have too little sebum, you’ll have dry skin that’s prone to opportunistic bacterial infection because your skin’s protective barrier is too weak.

These opportunistic bacteria are different beasties to the microbes implicated in acne, those bacteria (P. acnes) actually live inside your pores, not on your skin’s surface.

Your sebum is composed of several triglycerides, these are:

  • wax esters
  • free fatty acids (one of which is linoleic acid)
  • squalene

Now, the wax esters aren’t a problem, but a lack of linoleic acid and damaged squalene are huge triggers for acne.

Undamaged squalene is vital for healthy skin, and some high end skin care products include squalene in their formulations because it’s so beneficial.

Damaged squalene is not beneficial, not one bit.

A process called oxidation turns your ‘good’ squalene into ‘bad’ squalene – squalene peroxide.

And squalene peroxide levels determine the severity of acne because squalene peroxide is the reason that sebum clogs pores. Squalene peroxide is highly comedogenic.

In fact, researchers have measured the amount of squalene peroxide in people with healthy skin, and in people with acne. Those with acne had almost 80% more damaged squalane than those with healthy skin.

And just to illustrate how bad squalene peroxide is when researchers need to induce acne in their lab animals (so they can study potential acne treatments), guess what substance they use?

Yep, you guessed it, they use squalene peroxide.

Linoleic Acid

Linoleic acid is something that you want plenty of in your sebum. It ensures that pore walls remain strong, yet flexible.

When your skin produces too much sebum, that sebum has a much lower concentration of linoleic acid than it should.

How much lower?

Studies show a 65% reduction of linoleic acid in the sebum of acne sufferers.

This means, weaker pore walls riddled with tiny holes, and with much less flexibility.

When squalene peroxide rich sebum clogs the pore, sebum builds up, and then because the pore wall is so weak and unable to stretch and expand, it ruptures, sending the contents of the pore into the adjacent tissue.

The resulting immune system response produces inflammation.

That inflammation is the red, swollen skin that characterizes acne.

The Buildup of Dead Skin Cells is Another Problem

The Buildup of Dead Skin Cells is Another Problem

Your skin continually produces new skin cells and sheds dead ones. This process usually runs smoothly with a steady stream of dead cells exiting the pore one by one.

When squalene peroxide is present however, this orderly process breaks down because squalene peroxide causes the cells to clump together and get stuck.

Why does this happen?

The main protein that makes up skin cells is called keratin, and one of its functions is to bind skin cells together. When too much keratin is present, dead skin cells can’t separate and get in line to be pushed out of the pore.

Squalene peroxide stimulates that higher keratin production.

The clumped up cells hang around, adding to the bulk of material in the clogged, weak pore.

They also provide an all you can eat buffet for the bacteria that live in the pore, allowing the bacterial population to swell and get out of control.

As part of their life process, bacteria produce wastes and toxins. The more bacteria there are, the more toxins they produce. These wastes also add to the congestion inside the pore.

When the pore finally ruptures, it’s these bacteria and their toxins that trigger your immune system response.

An oversupply of keratin also makes pore walls more brittle.

Your Immune System Response

We evolved with bacteria and couldn’t survive without them.

When they stay in their proper place, our immune systems don’t need to do anything about them. But when they step out of line, our immune system has to swing into action.

The immune system doesn’t react to P. acnes when it stays inside our pores, which is where it belongs, but once the pores rupture and spill bacteria and toxins into the surrounding tissues, an immediate search and destroy mission is launched.

But there’s a tiny problem. Bacteria don’t want to die, and P. acne bacteria have developed some nifty tricks to counteract everything the immune system throws at them.

When your immune system detects P. acnes, it sends out white blood cells called neutrophils to gobble up the bacteria and kill it. P. acnes however, deploys an enzyme called protease to destroy the neutrophils.

And what does your immune system do when that first wave of neutrophils are destroyed? It simply sends out more and more and more white blood cells.

All of these neutrophils, plus the increased blood flow that carries them, and the widened blood vessels that accommodate the extra blood flow cause inflammation.

And that’s why you need to use antibacterial agents (like those in essential oils) to kill the bacteria and stop the inflammatory response.

But while this can help to control acne, it does nothing to address the underlying cause of acne, which is the overproduction of sebum deficient in linoleic acid and rich in oxidized squalene.

Which brings us to…

Hormones

Hormones

Two hormones to be precise – testosterone and insulin.

Testosterone is an androgenic hormone, and even though it’s most abundant in males, females produce testosterone too.

Androgens are responsible for increased sebum production, and sebum production is 60% higher in people with acne than in those with normal skin.

The more sebum you produce, the less linoleic acid that sebum will contain. You’ll also have an abundance of squalene sitting around waiting to be oxidized.

Insulin is most well known for the role that it plays in blood sugar control. Insulin shunts glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells, where it supplies fuel for the cell.
When too much glucose is present in the blood (which is dangerous), insulin pushes it into fat cells where it can’t do any harm.

Insulin also causes more testosterone to be produced. Plus it increases the skin’s sensitivity to that testosterone resulting in more sebum production.

And…

In the presence of elevated insulin levels, enzymes in your skin convert testosterone into dihydrotestosterone which is an even more potent androgen capable of sending sebum production into overdrive.

This is why a low carbohydrate diet is so beneficial for acne. With less sugar (carbohydrates are sugar) to deal with, your body produces less insulin.

There are other causes of elevated testosterone besides insulin. If you already eat a low carbohydrate diet, have your doctor check your hormone levels and find out what’s going on.

And The Final Piece In the Puzzle – Antioxidants

Remember the role that oxidized squalene plays in clogging your pores, causing dead skin cells to clump together, and making pore walls brittle?

Well, if the squalene couldn’t become oxidized, none of that would happen.

You would still have very greasy skin because of the excess sebum, but greasy skin doesn’t always lead to acne, and the reason for that is the presence of antioxidants.

We have two major types of antioxidant to protect us from oxidative damage, (and oxidation can occur in all the body’s tissues not just the skin).

The two types are the antioxidants our body makes itself, and the ones we have to obtain through our diet.

The most important skin antioxidants are vitamin E and vitamin C, which both have to obtained from the food that we eat.

If your diet is lacking in either of these nutrients, your antioxidant reserves will be low and your sebum will be vulnerable to oxidation.

Because of the way that today’s food is grown, harvested, stored and prepared, it’s very difficult to get good levels of nutrients from diet alone.

If you have acne, your low levels of vitamin C and vitamin E are displayed right there on your skin.

Researchers have measured the antioxidant nutrient levels in people with acne. On average their vitamin C levels are 40% lower, and their vitamin E levels are 45% lower than those found in people with normal, healthy skin.

The easiest way to quickly boost your antioxidant levels is by taking a good vitamin C and vitamin E supplement.

Vitamin C is very straightforward, any ascorbic acid pill, capsule or powder will be fine.

Good vitamin E is harder to find. Most vitamin E on the market contains only one factor – d-alpha tocopherol, which has no benefits when taken in isolation.

Complete vitamin E contains 8 factors – 4 tocopherols (d-alpha, d-beta, d-gamma and d-delta) plus 4 tocotrienols (d-alpha, d-beta, d-gamma and d-delta).

Amazon carry the Vitacost Vitamin E Complex which is a complete vitamin E supplement.

Let’s Quickly Recap All of That Shall We?

Overproduction of sebum is the result of too much insulin and too much testosterone.

The sebum produced is low in linoleic acid which causes weak, inflexible pore walls.

Lack of antioxidant protection allows the squalene in the sebum to oxidize. Oxidized squalene is highly comedogenic which means it easily clogs pores.

Squalene peroxide also causes higher keratin production. Too much keratin makes pore walls brittle and causes skin cells to clump together and get stuck in the pore.

The dead skin cells and sebum filling the pore allow the bacteria in the pore to multiply massively, and when the overstuffed pore ruptures, these bacteria and their toxins flood the surrounding tissue.

When the immune cells arrive to kill the bacteria, the bacteria use protease to kill the immune cells.

The never-ending flooding of the site with immune cells causes chronic inflammation, and the result is a sea of red, swollen skin, littered with clogged pore islands.

As You Can Now Hopefully See, Lotion Doesn’t Cause Acne

Lotion Doesn’t Cause Acne

But using the wrong kind of lotion can make clogged pores worse, which is the last thing that you need when your pores are already stuffed with sebum.

So, it’s important to choose your lotion carefully and avoid comedogenic (pore clogging) ingredients. Let’s take a look at some of the most common culprits.

Acetylated Lanolin

This is a synthetic form of lanolin and shouldn’t be confused with natural lanolin.

Synthetic lanolin is highly comedogenic – acne.org give it a rating of 4 on their comedogenicity scale (5 being the most comedogenic), so you really do not want that anywhere near your face.

Natural lanolin however is a really effective emollient moisturizer. Whether it’s helpful or harmful will depend on the proportion of lanolin in your lotion and your skin type.

If you’ve got very dry skin, lanolin can really help you out. Anyone who has ever handled unwashed sheep’s fleece will know that the wool soon leaves a coating of rich (and quite sticky) oil on their hands.

That’s lanolin, the natural oil that sheep’s skin produces. Its composition is very similar to sebum.

Lanolin penetrates deeply, replenishing lost moisture and forming a barrier in the lower layers of the skin which prevents further moisture loss.

Lanolin has proven itself helpful for those who are suffering from the side effects of the acne treatment Accutane.

Accutane can leave the skin around the mouth cracked and sore, and lanolin quickly remedies this problem.

Lanolin is also an ingredient in the popular anti acne soap – Grisi Sulfur Soap with Lanolin.

If natural lanolin is high up on a lotions’ ingredient panel, you may want to give that lotion a miss, but at a lower concentration, the lanolin shouldn’t add to any oiliness.

Do be careful however if you have sensitive skin. Lanolin is an allergen and could cause a reaction. And of course, if you have an allergy to wool, avoid lanolin completely.

Isopropyl Myristate

This is another highly comedogenic synthetic ingredient. Acne.org give Isopropyl Myristate the highest rating of 5 on their scale.

It’s made from Isopropyl Alcohol which is sourced from gas, and the natural fatty acid Myristic Acid.

You’ll find this ingredient in all kinds of products – shampoos, deodorants, fragrance, lip balms, lotions and creams.

While it is an effective emollient moisturizer which doesn’t produce an oily feel, Isopropyl Myristate will clog pores. If you have oily skin or acne, this ingredient is one to avoid.

Laureth-4

Laureth-4 is an emulsifying agent and you’ll find it in lots of lotions and creams.

Because oil and water don’t mix, an emulsifier is needed in any product containing oil and water to make sure that they mix and don’t separate.

Not all emulsifiers are a problem, but Laureth-4 gets a pore clogging rating of 5 on the comedogenicity scale.

Check the labels on your sunscreens for this ingredient too because it’s a common addition.

And just in case you’ve overlooked sun protection in your skin care routine, please be aware that your skin has to use precious antioxidants to neutralize damage inflicted by the suns rays.

By using a sunscreen, those rays are blocked and your antioxidant reserves can be used for preventing oxidation of sebum.

Isopropyl Palmitate

This is a major ingredient in may lotions. Isopropyl Palmitate is a popular moisturizing agent which is easily and quickly absorbed. This gives skin an immediate boost, leaving it visibly refreshed and with a supple feel.

BUT, it’s also a high level pore clogger, scoring a big 4 on the comedogenicity scale.

Derived from coconut oil, this substance is sometimes listed under other names – Ethylhexyl Palmitate and Octyl Palmitate.

Because Isopropyl Palmitate is also an effective thickening agent, you need to watch out for its inclusion in any foundation and concealer that you use.

Silicone

Silicone resins appear under several different names, most commonly you’ll see silicone listed as:

  • Amodimethicone
  • Cyclomethicone
  • Dimethicone

Silicones help to give the appearance of well hydrated, supple skin. Which sounds great, but in reality, these ingredients cause toxins to accumulate inside skin cells.

Best avoided by all skin types, and doubly so if you already have acne.

Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is a rich natural oil that nourishes skin and leaves it beautifully soft and supple.

It’s added to creams and lotions because of those wonderful properties, but if you want to avoid making your acne worse, you’ll have to avoid products that use a high percentage of it in their formulations.

Acne.org give cocoa butter a rating of 4.

Soybean Oil (Glycine Soja)

Included in lotions and creams because of its rich emollient moisturizing action, soybean oil also provides skin with vitamin E.

With a comedogenicity rating of 3, this ingredient isn’t as bad as some of the others we’ve listed, but you still need to be careful with it.

If it’s one of the first ingredients listed on a panel, then the product will contain a high percentage of this oil and should be avoided.

But if it’s down near the end of the list, you’ll probably be fine, and that natural vitamin E will do your skin a world of good.

A Final Tip

otions and other skin care and cosmetic products

These ingredients are just a few of the problematic substances in lotions and other skin care and cosmetic products.

In total there are well over one hundred comedogenic substances, which makes figuring out which skin care products to use pretty tricky.

But, here’s some good news, there’s an easy way to determine if the products you’re currently using or intend to use are likely to clog your pores.

Head over to this page on the Acne Mantra website where you’ll find a nifty little tool which takes all of the guesswork and headache out of choosing noncomedogenic lotions and beauty products.

All you need to do is copy and paste an ingredient list into the tool and it will immediately show you which ingredients are a problem.

For products you’re already using, you could type in each ingredient, but it will be quicker if you hop over to Amazon, find your product and copy the ingredients list from the product page.

If you’re shopping at a store and need some help with the ingredients, there’s also a free Android App you can use. Just photograph the ingredient panel and you’ll get the results. You’ll find the details on the page linked to above.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.