Face Makeup

Applying Makeup When You Have Acne Can Be Frustrating—These Expert Tips Make It Easier

Though entirely common and absolutely normal. breakouts can be annoying. For beauty lovers, it’s also common to feel frustrated with those breakouts while applying makeup—it can change the way your makeup sits, some products contain ingredients that can exacerbate acne-prone and/or sensitized skin, the works. That doesn’t mean those with acne-prone skin are destined to go bare-faced, though. Instead, you just have to know which products to use and how to apply (and remove) your makeup to keep your skin happy. To help you navigate your routine with ease, we tapped dermatologists and a makeup artist to share tips on how to wear makeup with acne.

Meet the Expert

  • Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York. She is also a member of Byrdie’s Beauty and Wellness Review Board.
  • Geeta Yadav, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Facet Dermatology.
  • Emily Gray is a celebrity makeup artist based in Nashville.

How Makeup Impacts Acne (and Vice Versa)

In addition to oil and dead skin cells, makeup can clog pores, too. “Some ingredients in makeup are considered ‘comedogenic,’ meaning they can plug the pores and create an environment more likely to trigger acne flares and pimples,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian says. 

Beyond makeup formulas, the techniques you use can trigger breakouts, too. “[While] some makeup products are formulated with ingredients that help acne—either combined with acne-fighting ingredients or are void of any acne-triggering ingredients—any makeup, if heavy enough or applied thickly, can make it difficult for the skin to breathe and communicate with the outside environment, which can also lead to acne flares,” Nazarian says.

Meanwhile, from a tool stance, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Geeta Yadav points out that most people don’t apply their products with clean tools (i.e., freshly washed brushes and sponges) and may use their fingers. The issue is that beauty products and tools are a prime breeding ground for bacteria, Yadav says. So, for example, if you dab your BeautyBlender all over your oily skin and then dip it into your cream contour palette, you run the ongoing risk of transferring acne-causing bacteria between your products and tools. 

On the other hand, acne can impact your approach to makeup application, as most breakouts create textural and visual differences on the skin. “[Discoloration and texture] impact the way makeup sits on the skin,” celebrity makeup artist Emily Gray says. “Discoloration is easy to cover with color correctors, full-coverage foundation, and concealer. However, texture is nearly impossible to disguise. That’s definitely the most challenging part of covering acne.”

How to Choose Makeup Products When You Have Acne

Consider the Formula’s Texture and Finish

When shopping for makeup for acne-prone skin, you’ll want to keep the product’s texture and finish in mind. “It’s always better to choose oil-free makeup products, specifically when discussing foundation, concealer, or other base routine products,” Gray says. “These sit on the skin, which impacts acne the most.”

However, Yadav has a solution if you can’t bear the thought of nixing oil-based makeup products from your makeup routine. “While I’d generally recommend steering clear of oil-based formulas, you can consider formulas made with squalane or jojoba oil, which are ingredients that function similarly to your skin’s sebum and won’t cause congestion,” she reveals.

Gray recommends sticking to water-based formulas with a matte finish. “Matte finish and powder products are going to reduce the texture of acne,” she explains. “It makes any texture look more flat.” Contrastingly, she says that products with a dewy or natural glow will emphasize texture and the appearance of oily skin.

Investigate the Ingredients

Yadav advises using products that are clearly labeled as non-comedogenic. “Though ‘non-comedogenic’ is a buzzword invented by beauty marketers with no actual regulations or standards, looking for products labeled with this term can be a helpful place to start your search when shopping,” Yadav says. “These products will be formulated without ingredients known to clog pores, such as coconut oil.”

Nazarian says lanolin, cocoa butter, and beeswax are other comedogenic ingredients to avoid. “The [drug and cosmetic] red dyes have some evidence to suggest their comedogenic potential as well, and these are often found in blushes and other makeup,” she adds.  

In addition to knowing which ingredients to avoid, Nazarian says there are some ingredients worth making room for in an acne-prone skin beauty routine. “Look for ingredients that can offset any comedogenic products (called ‘comedolytic’ ingredients)—they can enhance skin sloughing, keep pores clear, target oil production, and ultimately act as a fabulous weapon against comedogenic ingredients,” she explains. “Some of these ingredients include salicylic acid, sulfur, and retinol.” While these ingredients are most often found in skincare, they can occasionally be found in foundations, concealers, and powders.

More Beauty

How to Prep Acne-Prone Skin for Makeup

Wash Your Face

Both Nazarian and Yadav suggest starting by cleansing your face. For a breakout-busting rinse, Yadav recommends using a salicylic acid face wash, like the Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash ($11). For a gentler cleanse, Nazarian suggests the Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar ($1).

Apply an Antioxidant Serum

Nazarian and Yadav agree that an antioxidant serum is a solid choice for protecting and defending acne-prone skin. “A lightweight antioxidant serum like SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic ($182) will help protect your skin from free radicals,” Yadav says. “Throughout the day, you’ll come into contact with environmental stressors that create free radicals, and it’s believed that makeup can hold these free radicals against your skin. Creating a barrier with an antioxidant serum is a great way to protect yourself.” 

Apply Acne Medication

Nazarian says that if topical acne medication is part of your routine, applying it before moisturizer and SPF is best. This will help reinforce the moisture barrier and prevent the medication from causing adverse sun sensitivity on the skin.

Apply Moisturizer

Next, lock everything in with a lightweight moisturizer formulated with ingredients like hyaluronic acid to pump up moisture without weighing down your skin or clogging pores. Popular picks include Tatcha’s Water Cream ($72) and the Jones Road Oil-Free Moisturizer ($38). If you want more recommendations, we’ve rounded up the best moisturizers for acne-prone skin here.

Finish with SPF

No matter the season, finishing with SPF is a must. Nazarian recommends the La Roche-Posay Anthelios AOX Daily Antioxidant Serum with Sunscreen SPF 50 ($45), while Yadav likes the Dermalogica Clear Start Clearing Defense Moisturizer SPF 30 ($30).

After applying your skincare, let your sunscreen fully dry before applying your makeup. This will reduce the chance of pilling and allow the products to sink in to work their acne-fighting, skin-protecting magic fully.

How to Apply Makeup to Acne-Prone Skin

Prime Your Skin

Once your skincare has dried, Gray says to prep your skin with a primer before applying makeup. “For acne-prone skin, you’re going to want to look for smoothing and pore-filling formulas,” she shares. “I recommend Benefit’s The POREfessional Pore Minimizing Primer ($35) or the Hourglass Vanish Airbrush Primer ($58),” she reveals.

Select Your Tools

Gray says it’s important to be mindful of the tools you use to apply makeup to acne-prone skin. “The best way to apply makeup to acne-prone skin is to use a brush—it’s going to give you more coverage than a beauty sponge,” she shares. She loves the density of the My Kit Co. 0.44 My Cream Complexion Brush ($28). 

Work in Sections

When applying your foundation, Gray says to work in sections. “I start with the center of the face and blend out,” she reveals. “Then I will add more product to areas that need more coverage. In this instance, focus on the acne areas of your face and build up the coverage to the desired amount.”

If you don’t like to wear a full face of makeup, Gray says to apply a full-coverage concealer (like the Nars Soft Matte Complete Concealer, $32) with a flat brush. You can also do this for added coverage after applying a base layer of foundation. “Take a flat brush and place the product over any acne you wish to conceal,” she instructs. “Then take the foundation brush and gently go over it to blend into the foundation.” 

Set Your Makeup

Last but not least, set your makeup to ensure the coverage lasts all day long. Gray recommends using a fluffy brush or powder puff dipped in matte setting powder, such as Laura Mercier’s Setting Powder ($43). “For extra hold, use a setting spray,” she adds. “Charlotte Tilbury’s Airbrush Flawless Setting Spray ($38) has incredible staying power.”

Remove Your Makeup

When it’s time to remove your makeup, Yadav says double cleansing is best. “Though it sounds counterintuitive, a good oil or cream cleanser can help keep skin clear by breaking down the stubborn oils and residue left on your skin,” she says. “Following that step with a cleanse using a salicylic acid face wash will remove any traces of makeup left while helping to treat blemishes.” If you’re looking for a new cleanser, we’ve tested the 14 best acne face washes here.

The Final Takeaway

Can makeup exacerbate acne? Yes. However, this isn’t always the case if the proper products and techniques are used. According to our experts, avoiding comedogenic formulas, adhering to sanitary application methods, and implementing a thorough skincare routine before and after wearing makeup can help reduce the chances of breakouts. As always, if you continue to experience increased acne after wearing makeup, consult a dermatologist to determine the best course of action.

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