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8 Makeup Tips for Acne-Prone Skin

A woman cleaning her face with a makeup remover pad.
Geinz Angelina/Shutterstock

You break out, so you cover it with makeup. The makeup then clogs your pores and causes a new breakout. It’s a vicious cycle that never ends.

Many makeup lovers with acne-prone skin have gone through this cycle at least once. But as time goes on and makeup formulas become more skin-friendly, it’s far easier than it used to be to manage acne while wearing makeup. Still, those of us who struggle with breakouts benefit from approaching makeup strategically.

If you have adult acne but also like cosmetics, these tips can help you minimize breakouts while you continue to use the products you love.

Give Your Skin a Makeup Break

If you wear makeup on the daily and have acne-prone skin, the first thing you should do is give your skin a makeup break for a few days.

Many skincare experts say if you wear makeup (even foundation) every day, it doesn’t harm your skin. After all, today’s makeup formulas are much gentler than the heavy, pore-clogging products of the past. However, acne-prone skin can still benefit from a break.

Even if your makeup isn’t inherently contributing to your skin problems, it can play a role. For example, if you don’t thoroughly wash off all your makeup at night, it leaves residue on your skin. This residue can grow bacteria and contribute to breakouts.

But most importantly, you never know how your skin will react to a makeup break until you try it.

It can be terrifying to expose your makeup-free, acne-having face to the world, but the benefits are worth it. For example, if you notice you’re breaking out less after a few makeup-free days, you can wait for your skin to clear, and then start wearing makeup occasionally rather than daily.

If you don’t feel comfortable going out makeup-free, take this break when you’re spending most of your days at home. Invest in a high-quality moisturizer with SPF to wear on those days (mattifying formulas are great for acne-prone skin).

Give your skin some makeup-free time and see what happens—you can learn a lot from this process.

How to Wear Makeup and Reduce Breakouts

Once you’ve taken a makeup break, you can see whether your makeup is contributing significantly to your breakouts. Based on what you discover, you can change up your makeup routine.

If you can wear makeup even a little less often, that’s usually the best thing to avoid breakouts. When you do wear it, these tips can help you keep acne to a minimum.

Clean Your Brushes Often

Container full of makeup brushes.
Mla Drumeva/Shutterstock

Dirty makeup brushes harbor bacteria, oil, and other filth that can cause acne. If you’re prone to breakouts, you should clean your brushes more often.

If you wear makeup regularly, clean the brushes you use once a week. The brushes you use for eye products can be cleaned a little less often (try every other week).

Use a brush cleaner or simple castile soap to get the job done. You can also use dish soap or a gentle shampoo in a pinch.

Moisturize Properly

If you skimp on moisturizing, your skin produces extra oils to make up for the lack of moisture. If you already have oily skin that tends to break out, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Even when you wear makeup, always apply your favorite moisturizer first. If you want to skip a step, you can use a tinted moisturizer instead of foundation. And, of course, always wash your face before you apply moisturizers and makeup.

Apply Light Layers

When you have severe acne or acne scars, it’s hard to resist the temptation to hide them under thick layers of product. But not only do those layers contribute to more acne, but they can also make your existing skin issues look worse.

Heavy layers draw attention to uneven skin textures, like bumpy zits and acne scars. A light layer hides acne better, even if a bit of redness still shows through. Add some concealer to boost the coverage of your foundation where you need to, but use a light hand.

Try Color Correcting

If you have serious acne-related discoloration, you can also conceal it better with color correctors. The opposite color on the color wheel cancels out the color of your acne or scars.

So, for example, greenish concealers help cover up red spots, while peach or orange concealers work well on the cool blue tones of many acne scars.

Don’t Be Afraid to Highlight

If you have acne, your skin is probably also shiny or oily. This can make you reach for matte formulas, which is great. However, don’t shy away from a dose of shimmering highlighter, too.

Highlighter makes your skin look more natural than a completely matte canvas. Plus, it’s fun to play with all the different highlighting colors and formulas. If you find yourself drawn to those shimmering products, by all means, use them. Apply a small amount at first, and then build up from there, so you don’t overdo it on the shine.

Stop Shopping Oil-Free

For many years, oil-free formulas were the default makeup choice for people with acne. However, oil-free means something a little different than it used to.

Many of today’s best makeup and skincare products contain hydrating natural plant oils, like olive or jojoba. These oils are actually good for acne-prone skin. So, instead of defaulting to “oil-free,” check the ingredients list for skin-loving oils.

You can also buy plant-based oils in small amounts and test them on your skin, so you can find out which ones work best. For example, coconut oil makes some people break out, while others find it gives them great skin.

If you buy a plant oil your skin doesn’t like, you can use it as a hair mask or body moisturizer, or even in the kitchen.

Isolate Formulas

If you have acne-prone skin, you know how sensitive it can be. No matter how carefully you select a formula, when you add something new to your makeup routine, it might cause a breakout.

If you add multiple new products at once, you won’t know which one is causing the acne. So, try to add only one new product at a time. Give your skin a week or two to adjust, so you can see how it fares with that product before adding anything else.

If your current makeup routine seems to be making you break out, use each product one at a time, and see if you can isolate the problem.

Sometimes, merely wearing fewer products simultaneously can help your skin. The issue might not be with an individual product, but rather, the interaction of ingredients in two or more of them.

While makeup habits alone can’t cure acne, these small changes can help keep breakouts at bay. If you find the right products, apply them to clean skin with clean tools, and give your skin regular makeup-free days, you’ll find it much easier to keep your acne under control.

For more skin-friendly makeup habits, don’t miss our guide to proper makeup removal.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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