Why am I breaking out? Acne causes & treatments

Time saver 5 min read

When you think of acne, you probably think of your teenage years spent coming into who you are, going through the awkwardness of puberty, and yes—battling an acne breakout or two. But you’re not a teenager anymore, so why are you breaking out? Even when stubborn breakouts last beyond your teens, it can bring back those same insecure teenage feelings.

Experiencing a sudden acne breakout?

It’s important to remember when you’re dealing with acne that everyone’s skin is different and requires different care. While some people can get away with a simple two- or three-step skincare routine, others require a more robust skincare regime to keep their skin clear.

What causes acne? There could be a number of reasons you’re experiencing a sudden acne breakout.

Hormone changes

Women are particularly susceptible to acne because of their body chemistry. Women who are pregnant, newly postpartum, menopausal, or just at a certain point in their menstrual cycle may experience breakouts, just like they did in their teenage years.

Irritation from shaving

For men who shave their face, they may find they develop acne around their jaw, on their cheeks, and on their necks. This is usually caused by using a dirty razor, or using a shaving cream that is causing irritation to the skin. Be aware that shaving bumps, razor burn, and ingrown hairs are not the same as acne, though they look very similar.


Thanks mom and dad! Sometimes, stubborn acne just runs in the family. If you’re consistently experiencing acne breakouts, check in with your family and see if they’ve had something similar. Who knows—your family might have some product recommendations for you that worked well for them.

Stress and anxiety

Unfortunately, when you’re feeling stressed and irritated, your skin gets irritated too. Having a stress management toolbox isn’t just important for your mental health, but your physical health as well. Your skin is no exception. As soon as the stress dissipates you may see your acne breakout start to subside.

Masks and facial protective equipment

That’s right! Mask use due to COVID-19 is crucial for protecting yourself and others against the virus, but they could be causing some new acne on your cheeks, chin, and jaw. “Maskne,” as it’s been cutely dubbed, is caused by the combination of heat and moisture trapped inside the mask from your breath, and friction of it rubbing on your face, creating the perfect breeding ground for acne. Washing your mask daily, throwing away paper masks when they’re visibly soiled or wet, and using unscented laundry soap when you wash your masks can cut back on the irritation and keep mask-wearing more hygienic.

Over exfoliation

Sometimes, too much of a good thing turns out to be even worse. If you’re taking a more aggressive approach to managing your acne—throwing physical and chemical exfoliators, targeted spot treatments, acne-fighting face masks, and an oil-stripping face wash into the mix—you may be stripping the good oils from your skin. This could cause irritation and microtears—making it a hotbed for pimples.

Starting a new product

That moisturizer you’ve been using for a month—or that new cleanser you’re enjoying—they might be the culprit behind your breakout. It can take products from a couple of weeks to a couple of months to start really making a difference in your skin. This is why it’s important to test one product at a time, instead of completely overhauling your routine at the first sign of trouble.

There are some products—namely chemical exfoliators like AHAs, BHAs, or PHAs, or retinol/retinoids—that put your skin through a “purging” phase, as the products increase skin cell turnover and push deeper acne to the surface. This purging will typically happen in the same place you usually experience an acne breakout and will clear up in a few weeks as you continue using the product. In these cases, do not stop using your product just yet, especially if it’s a prescribed treatment.

Reaction to fragrances

Facial products that are heavily scented may feel luxurious but will do a number on your skin, especially if you have sensitive skin. If you’re experiencing a new breakout after using a product that smelled nice—even if it’s scented with essential oils—that could be causing irritation and breakouts on your skin.

Foods that trigger acne breakouts

Some foods are known to cause acne flare-ups for some. A diet high in processed foods, sweets, or high in simple carbohydrates, can cause your skin to react. Some also experience acne from consuming milk and dairy products. Test out switching to rice or nut milk for a little while, or incorporating more variety into your diet to see how your skin reacts.

What should I do if I’m experiencing acne?

There are plenty of products that can help treat your acne, but sometimes it’s hard knowing where to start. Here are some tips to consider when tackling acne breakouts.

Go back to basics

If your night consists of a 20-step skincare routine, try stripping it back to a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen for a little while. This will help your skin reset and rule out over-exfoliation or irritation as the main cause. It will also set your skin up for testing what works for your skin. Take the time to assess your diet as well, and see if there’s any room to make some sustainable changes for the sake of your skin.

Incorporate new products slowly, and keep trying

The societal impacts of COVID-19 have led to a boom in the skincare industry, as people turn their focus to self-care routines and pampering-from-home. That means, there are tons of new products hitting the market—and plenty of articles, blogs, YouTube channels, and podcasts reviewing new products. There’s no one size fits all solution, so testing new products safely is your best bet to finding what works well for your skin.

Whatever new product you choose to try, make sure to try only one product at a time, waiting at least four weeks to see how your skin reacts to the product. If the product makes you break out, familiarize yourself with the ingredients to help you pinpoint what’s causing a reaction. Once you find the product that works for you, stick to it!

Avoid picking, scratching, touching, or popping

We know how tempting it can be to just try to “pop” the pimples to get them over with, but popping a pimple will cause irritation and inflammation to the pimple, open your skin up to more bacteria, and cause scabbing and scarring. It’s important to just keep it simple, and allow the acne to heal without interfering with it manually. If you’re struggling to avoid picking at it, hydrocolloid patches—the ones you might put on a blister from new shoes—or pimple patches can provide a protective barrier from your wandering fingers and keep the area moist and clean.

If it just won’t budge, start a visit

Getting an appointment with a dermatologist could take weeks. But you don’t need to see a dermatologist for acne—and you don’t need to go into a clinic.

Virtuwell can help you get prescription acne treatment online. It’s quick, easy, and affordable.

Just answer a few questions about what products you've tried and what kind of acne you’re experiencing. Then snap and upload a few photos of your skin, and a certified nurse practitioner will create your customized acne treatment plan.

Typical treatment options could include prescription topical retinoids, oral antibiotics, or hormonal birth control, sometimes coupled with over-the-counter options like a medicated face wash or lifestyle changes like diet modification.

If your prescribed treatment isn’t working as you’d hoped, you will have access to free follow-up care to assess how your skin responded and determine the next steps.

Sudden breakouts can trigger a range of emotions—from slightly bothered, to frustrated, to insecurity, to desperation—Virtuwell is here to help. Start a visit now and find the right balance of products for your skin.

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