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Having Acne Doesn't Mean Your Skin Is Dirty

PSA: Having Acne Doesn't Mean Your Skin Is Dirty

Getting a breakout can feel defeating, especially if you're doing all the right things. When you're cleansing day and night and using your prescribed acne treatment but nothing is working, there's a tendency to think it's because you're eating too much oily food, you're not washing your sheets enough, or your skin is just "dirty" — but that is just a myth. The truth is, acne isn't your fault.

Unfortunately, you can't wash a pimple away; if it were that easy, we'd never have any. Acne is actually quite complicated. There's a symphony of things going on to cause it, and dirty skin is likely not one of them. According to dermatologist Sandra Lee, MD (also known as Dr. Pimple Popper), most of the time "it has to do with hormones and genetics."

New York City-based dermatologist Arash Akhavan, MD, FAAD, echoes this sentiment. "Acne is not caused by uncleanliness; it is caused by an overproduction of sebum in the skin which can stem from both internal and external factors," she says. "Having acne does not mean your skin is dirty, but rather there is an imbalance that is causing this inflammation."

There, you heard it straight from the experts. Read on to learn more about this skin myth and get more informed about what actually causes acne.

How Did the Dirty-Skin Myth Start?

The myth likely stems from this truth: pollutants, residue, dirt, and makeup can mix with moisture and cause inflammation leading to acne, explains Dr. Akhavan. "Not removing this dirt from your skin can cause acne, but again, acne does not mean your skin is not clean."

What Actually Causes Acne?

There are many factors at play — genetics, age, diet, stress, hormones — contributing to an imbalance in your body that affects sebum production. "When too much sebum is produced, your pores become blocked with oil and bacteria, triggering an inflammatory response resulting in acne," Dr. Akhavan says.

This can happen at any age. When your hormones are raging — as they usually are in your teenager years — your skin produces more oil. So, naturally, you're going to break out, says Dr. Lee. The same holds true for adult women, who tend to break out during ovulation or in the days leading up to their menstrual cycle. Likewise, pregnancy can affect your skin. "Either it can make your acne worse or it can make it better, just depending on the hormone level," Dr. Lee says.

Can Improper Cleansing Cause Acne?

Yes, it can. If you're not removing the day's worth of makeup, oil, and bacteria, it could trigger a breakout. Cleansing properly is key, says Dr. Akhavan: "If you find there is excess product on your face or your skin is feeling too dry and tight after cleansing, you may be cleansing improperly."

Be sure to wash day and night, double cleansing at night with an oil cleanser or micellar water first to remove makeup, sunscreen, and product buildup, followed by a gentle cleanser to wash away dirt, makeup, excess oil, and impurities without drying out the skin or disrupting the natural moisture barrier, suggests Dr. Akhavan. Check with your dermatologist for product recommendations that are a fit for your skin.

Can Washing Too Much Cause Acne?

Yes, frequent or aggressive washing dries out the skin, disrupting the natural moisture barrier. "When this happens, your body responds by increasing sebum production, which clogs your pores, leading to more breakouts," Dr. Akhavan says. When in doubt, have a chat with your dermatologist about the proper way to cleanse so your skin has a better chance of staying clear of acne.

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