Beware of These Hidden Causes of Acne

What’s triggering your breakout? It could be your phone, yoga mat, or even that out-of-state vacation.

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All of a sudden, you have a zit to zap. A pimple to pop. How, you wonder, did it get there? What went so wrong that your once flawless skin is covered with a red spot or two or three? Blame your yoga mat. Or your cell phone. Or even that pretty new shade of eyeliner you've been wearing. "Acne is a complex medical condition caused by four factors: hormones, inflammation, bacteria, and dead skin cells that clog pores," says dermatologist Jessica Krant, founder of the Art of Dermatology practice in New York. Triggers include "stress, poor sleep, and dietary choices. For some people, chocolate really does cause breakouts; for others, it's greasy foods, or a diet heavy in dairy."

And that's just the beginning of the list. Be alert to these often-sneaky causes of acne:

Makeup. Acne cosmetica, or pimples caused by topical creams, lotions, and makeup, is most common on the face, neck, hairline, and scalp. Products that contain mineral oil clog pores, so switch to brands labeled non-comedogenic, which are oil-free, don't strip skin of necessary moisture and nutrients, and don't block pores. And since makeup brushes collect bacteria and yeast, clean them once a week with soap and water. Washing that foundation and powder off every night is important, too, says Francesca Fusco, a dermatologist based in New York. She recommends using exfoliating wipes and pads, which are gentle but remove more dead skin than plain-old soap does.

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Cell phones. Your iPhone or Android is a cesspool of dirt and bacteria, and there's a good chance it'll trigger breakouts on your chin and around your mouth. Wipe it down daily with alcohol or Clorox wipes to keep it clean.

Medication. Check your medicine cabinet and tread particularly carefully with prescriptions that emphasize steroids, such as prednisone, cortisone, and hydrocortisone. These can both aggravate and cause acne. Also watch out for lithium, lithium chloride, and certain forms of iodine. "Unfortunately, many of these medications are given for serious conditions, and there are few available substitutes," Krant says. "So people can get stuck in troubling situations, having to take important medication that causes distressing side effects." Keep an open line of communication with your doctor, and make sure he's aware of your concerns.

Yoga mats. Go to class, grab a mat ... and consider all those who have come before you. "You're using a mat other people have been on, and who knows whether they had their feet where your head is," Fusco says. Soon, you'll be dripping with sweat and oil, and rubbing your face against the bacteria on the mat. "That provides a fertile environment for breaking out." The solution? Place a clean towel on the end of the mat where your head and face will be, even if you're using your own personal yoga mat.

Touching your face. Beware of contact acne: "It can appear anywhere you apply repeated or extended pressure on your skin," says dermatologist Ava Shamban, author of Heal Your Skin. "Resting your chin on your hand while you work, pressing your cell phone on your chin, or wearing tight clothing can all contribute to acne." She recommends trying not to touch your face, switching to a headset, and opting for a ponytail holder instead of a headband. And during the summertime, don't sit down in a wet bathing suit: Doing so puts you at risk of developing butt acne.

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Dandruff. Dead skin blizzard? Not fun, for plenty of reasons. And it doesn't help that dandruff often causes acne, typically in the form of tiny pimples lining the scalp. Using shampoo designed to treat dandruff is helpful, Fusco says. "A lot of people don't like to because of its medicinal nature and smell," she says. "But there are new lines that smell nice and can be used every day." Fusco recommends, for example, Clear Scalp and Hair Beauty Therapy products.

Sunscreen. Yes, you need it when you venture into the sun. But make sure it's oil-free and non-comedogenic. Avoid sunscreen with perfume or dyes, and steer clear of spray-on formulas; many of these contain alcohol, which may irritate sensitive skin, Shamban says. Products made with zinc oxide are often more tolerable than those with titanium dioxide.