Can Moisturizers Make Acne Worse

Can Moisturizers Make Acne Worse? 

Many people suffering from acne may be afraid that moisturizers make their acne worse. Frequent breakouts are an issue that many face and it can be challenging to find skincare products that work for your skin and do not cause breakouts or clogged pores. The two most important aspects to focus on when finding a suitable moisturizer is to avoid pore-clogging ingredients and ensure that the moisturizer contains barrier-repairing ingredients to heal the skin. 

The Purpose of a Moisturizer

jar filled with moisturizer

Moisturizers come in a variety of different forms. These range from lotions to creams. The texture of a cream tends to be thicker than a lotion.

In terms of ingredients, moisturizers often contain two kinds of ingredients. These include humectants and emollients.

Humectants are substances that retain water in the skin to keep it hydrated. They also prevent transepidermal water loss.

Emollients are substances that soften skin cells. They also help protect the skin from environmental stressors by soothing dry and flaky skin.

Each day, the skin faces many pollutants and other external events that weaken the skin barrier. These events cause the skin to lose water content and become dehydrated, which prevents the skin from effectively fighting against bacteria and other microbial contamination.

This leads to excess inflammation and acne. Using a moisturizer is one way to combat these issues from occurring.

Another purpose of moisturizing is to protect your skin from the harsh side effects of certain treatments.

For example, acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide can cause dryness, redness, and irritated skin initially.

These effects can be lessened by using a moisturizer to create a thin barrier and promote a soothing feeling on the skin.

In addition, moisturizing can combat dryness and tightness from cleansing the skin.

Whether you use a gentle cleanser or are using a cleanser with acne treatments or other harsh ingredients, your skin loses water each time it comes into contact with water.

This leads to changes in skin pH, loss of hydration, and dryness. Using a moisturizer immediately after cleansing can restore the skin’s pH, soften skin cells, and repair the skin barrier. 

Common Causes of Acne

In order to identify whether moisturizers can make acne worse, the common causes of acne must be understood.

Acne is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that is characterized by red bumps that may or may not have a whitehead.

It is caused partly by excess sebum production that leads to clogged hair follicles, which creates an inflammatory reaction and causes the bump to form.

Acne can be caused by poor shedding of skin cells which also causes the pore to clog.

Irritating ingredients such as fragrance and essential oils in skincare products can also lead to acne.

In addition, having a weakened skin barrier can cause acne, as the skin will struggle to fight against inflammation and stressors in the environment.

Hormonal fluctuations, such as those suffering from hyperandrogenism may experience increases in breakouts due to an increase in the androgen hormone.

Lastly, acne has been shown to be triggered by certain foods that may spike insulin levels and increase inflammatory reactions throughout the body.

A common theme of all of these acne causes involves inflammation in the skin. And moisturizing can actually reduce inflammation in the skin, making it unlikely to make your acne worse. However, it is important to choose the correct moisturizer to ensure that your skin does not react poorly to one of the ingredients. 

Can Oil-Free Moisturizers Cause Acne?

graphic of acne bump

Skincare products that are labeled as “oil-free” do not automatically mean that they are good for your skin or won’t cause breakouts.

Oil-free simply means that the product does not contain oils, but may still contain a variety of pore-clogging ingredients that can wreak havoc on your skin.

Not all oils will negatively affect your skin.

In fact, many oils have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties, speed up wound healing, and increase hydration.

Oils such as seabuckthorn oil have been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity when topically applied to the skin.

On the flip side, there are oils that you should steer clear from at all costs. This includes coconut oil, which can be highly irritating and comedogenic to the skin.

In addition, olive oil has been shown to damage the skin’s barrier and cause transepidermal water loss in the skin. This can lead to breakouts.

Can Moisturizers Cause Purging? 

Purging is a relatively new term used in dermatology that refers to the initial exacerbation of acne during acne treatment.

Only moisturizers that contain an active skincare ingredient can cause purging to occur.

This is because active ingredients like glycolic acid and retinoids can increase the cell turnover rate of the skin, causing dead skin cells to shed faster.

Due to this shedding, it may cause the acne that was already beginning to be formed in the deeper layers of the skin to become more visible.

Therefore, it looks like there is an increase in redness and inflammation.

However, purging should only last a few weeks before it subside. Again, this can only occur if your moisturizer contains an active ingredient.

Otherwise, your moisturizer cannot cause purging. If your moisturizer only contains inactive ingredients, then any breakouts that follow are likely not purging, and you should stop use of the product. 

How To Choose The Correct Moisturizer That Won’t Make Acne Worse

Moisturizers can be difficult to choose because there are hundreds available on the market.

The easiest way to choose a moisturizer is to go with one that has minimal ingredients and also contains a humectant and emollient.

For example, choose a moisturizer with no more than 30 ingredients (preferably less), and ensure that it contains some or all of the following ingredients: glycerin, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, ceramides, cholesterol, phytosphingosine, shea butter, and sunflower seed oil.

A good place to start is the CeraVe PM moisturizer. It contains a multitude of skin-barrier repairing ingredients that will help your skin. 

Once chosen, it is important to patch test the product before using it all over your face. To put it simply, this means to test a small amount of product on a patch of skin to see how it reacts over a 24-hour period.

This patch of skin can be behind the ears and/or on the lower part of the jaw. If you have a reaction to the moisturizer chosen (such as a rash or a breakout), stop use. You must choose another moisturizer and try again. 

It is important to strip your routine down to the basics so you can really see the effect that a moisturizer is having on your skin.

Also, it is important to differentiate between a breakout caused by the moisturizer vs a normal breakout that would have occurred anyway.

This can be done by closely monitoring the areas of your skin where a moisturizer is placed and seeing if it is a new area that is breaking out, or if you usually breakout in the particular area or not. 


Moisturizers – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf (

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