Five Surprising Breakout Culprits

five surprising things that cause breakouts | via vmac+cheese

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough that my skin was only really bad for a very short amount of time. It started with breakouts on my forehead, I quickly figured out what a godsend salicylic acid was to hormonal teenage skin, and that was the end of my acne. My teenage skin was impervious to sun, stress, diet…pretty much everything, it felt like. As an adult? Ugh. Sometimes I think my skin has more issues now than it did as a fifteen year old.

These days, using products meant to treat teenage acne don’t really work for me — in fact, they tend to irritate my skin horribly, just because they’re so chemically harsh. I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject (a holistic approach to health and beauty is one of my favorite topics!), and I’ve actually found that any time I’m having a flareup or breakout on my face, I can typically trace it back to one of five big time culprits. Curious what they are? You might be surprised… 

cute bathroom | via vmac+cheese


This happens to me a lot in winter time, when all I want to do is soak under a piping hot shower for as long as possible. The hot water feels great on the rest of your body, but it can wreak havoc on your sensitive facial skin. I often find that if I only wash my face with very lukewarm water for a couple days after a post-hot shower breakout, the blemishes go away like magic. I can’t take credit for discovering this trick though — during a facial, an aesthetician once told me that the kind of blemishes she noticed in certain areas of my face were likely due to water that was too hot. She was right!


Easily the tip you know about, but still won’t always follow. Drinking water is so essential to good skin, not only because it keeps your cells nice and plump and moisturized (like a plant!), but also because it’s necessary to help transport toxins out of your body in a timely manner. Your liver and kidneys and intestines can’t do their work as well when you’re dehydrated, so you end up retaining all kinds of chemicals, pollutants, and irritating things from your diet in your system, which manifests itself in your skin. Which leads me to the next point…

dairy bottle | via vmac+cheese


Listen, I love pizza and pasta as much as the next person. But I find that when I overload on too many refined carbs, or too much dairy, or — worst of all — too much of them together (think several days in a row here), my skin absolutely pays for it. When I eat lean proteins like fish, shellfish, and chicken, along with TONS of veggies and fruit and TONS of water, I barely need to do anything to my skin at all — it just naturally glows. Easier said than done, especially lately as work has been busy and Joe and I grab takeout more often than not. But if my skin has been really bad, I find that doing a mini cleanse is just the ticket to reset it. After all, your skin is your largest organ and the way it looks on the outside just reflects what’s going on with your internal immunity. It’s kind of a good health compass, really!


Similar to the previous point, if your immunity is compromised and busy fighting a lot of different battles on your insides, it’s much harder for your skin to do its job properly. Inflammation is a complex subject that can be caused by any number of things depending on the person, their particular body, and of course, the environment they live in, but you should know that most of us have it to some degree (for example, bloating is a form of inflammation, as is cystic acne). Taking a super high quality fish oil tablet and eating a diet that alkalinizes the body can help with inflammation significantly. I find that if I stick to a great diet, combined with a fish oil tablet and some zinc (also good for your skin and immunity), my skin looks pretty awesome.

5 surprising breakout causes | via vmac+cheese


Again, this is another big thing that happens to me in winter, and another tip I picked up from a skincare specialist. Oddly enough, if your skin is very, very dry, you can actually get terrible acne. What ends up happening is your skin goes into overdrive, trying to produce more oil to keep your dry skin hydrated. But, much of that excess oil ends up getting trapped under the skin and causes acne. As I transition into colder winter months, if I find myself with an unusual number of breakouts, I’ll try and amp up the volume and type of moisturizers I use (for example, I’ll use Weleda’s Skin Food at night in the winter, whereas it’s too heavy for me in summer. Even the pros swear by it!). Having this excess moisture topically applied to the skin often makes my blemishes go away — no harsh zit cream required.

What about you? What’s a surefire thing that causes a breakout for you, and how do you cure it?

{Image Credits: Martha Stewart Living; AB Chao; Hold the Wire Etsy; Lucas Allen for Domino}

Leave a Comment


  1. 2.26.13

    I agree no.3 can be very true, I have noticed dairy can be a problem for my skin. Also fish oil capsules can really help as you say. I find Hydraluron and Seabuckthorn facial oil together have been a godsend for dry skin.

  2. 2.26.13
    Chelsea said:

    I think these are some great recommendations and things that people often overlook in skincare. I love looking at things holistically rather than a band-aid.

    • 2.26.13
      vmacandcheese said:

      Me too!

  3. 2.26.13
    Kimberly said:

    Completely agree with you on all counts – my skin sounds very similar to yours! I swear by Fish Oil pills and take them 3 times a day – it makes such a difference for my skin, hair & nails!!

  4. 2.26.13

    love the beauty talk!!! let’s discuss essential oils next, hmmmm?

  5. 2.26.13

    Something I definitely needed to read! Thanks for sharing – these tips are so helpful. Xx

  6. 2.26.13

    Would have NEVER guessed that hot water causes breakouts. This is a great list to keep handy.

  7. 2.26.13

    Thanks for the great tips. I think I have the problem with not drinking enough water. I never knew that hot water can affect your skin negatively. But I’ve been really lucky not having any major skin problems in my teens or as an adult.

  8. 2.26.13

    This is surprising; I had no idea that dairy products can be the cause. I guess my butt/thighs aren’t the only parts that resents me for eating cheese…

  9. 2.26.13

    I had mild acne as a teenager, then 10 years later I had a flare-up of bad skin, and now again 10 years later another flare up. My dermatologist tells me that we go through cycles, mostly hormonal that create these waves of years when things are worse.
    Pregnancy, nursing, etc. can trigger these hormonal waves that can change your skin.
    She doesn’t believe in certain foods creating problems for your skin though, but obviously good nutrition helps your overall health, which in turn helps your skin.
    Sun protection, moisturizing, mild cleansers, water that isn’t too hot and removing dead skin cells are key.

    • 2.26.13
      vmacandcheese said:

      I find that most dermatologists don’t believe this. It’s just a
      totally different approach to skincare and health overall (I mean,
      how many dermatologists actually support using natural skincare
      products or cosmetics? Like a regular doctor, I do believe that
      dermatologists can help with severe skin issues and acute problems,
      but that the persistent issues most of us deal with on a daily basis
      are due to simple things like the hot water or diet.

  10. 2.26.13
    Naomi said:

    Acne is a problem I’ve dealt with for years. I’ve used medication to get it under control but still had terribly oily skin. Last summer I switched to a gluten-free diet because of GI issues and found that my skin is no where as oily as it used to be.

  11. 2.26.13
    Ashley said:

    This was such an interesting post Victoria! I’ve been having some random breakouts lately and wondering where they’re coming from.. I’m thinking the too hot water is adding to the problem. Great info!

  12. 2.26.13
    Jasmin said:

    I have been commenting to my husband for a while now that it seems like I missed teenage acne and was instead hit with it in my mid-twenties. I’ll definitely be trying these tricks – I’ve noticed that my skin has become dry over the past three years so perhaps that is the root cause. Thank you so much!

  13. 2.26.13
    Alyssa said:

    A facialist told me about the “not enough moisture” thing a few years back and it completely changed my skin. I was always a bit oily, so I just stopped moisturizing, thinking it would make it worse. Now I know that’s a big no-no!

    • 2.26.13
      vmacandcheese said:

      It’s so counter intuitive but it’s crazy how it
      can change your skin!

  14. 2.26.13
    Kara said:

    Similarly, I have worse acne as an adult than as a teen AND find that most acne-fighting cleansers are too harsh for my skin. I usually look for products that are acne-fighting, but aren’t in that aisle. Can be tough to find, but worth the hunt because they’re more gentle. This is a great list, I know that when I take care of myself my body always looks and feels its best. Gotta quit those long hot showers though.

  15. 2.26.13

    Great blog, very helpful. Great info.

  16. 2.26.13
    Julie said:

    The dairy and carbs tip really resonates with me-I adopted a paleo diet, and my skin has really improved. I also find that how much I eat affects my skin…I have some autoimmune issues, and eating super clean (and only enough to “thrive”) really makes a huge difference in how I look. The hot water tip was totally new, though. Thanks, Victoria!

  17. 2.26.13

    Great post. It’s so easy to forget the simple things in life can be the culprit of breakouts and less than amazing skin. More than anything, stress causes my breakouts and some stress more than others. The hardest habit to kick is getting rid of blemishes once they appear, which furthers scarring. If you can, try to let them be and you won’t have scars.

    Oh! And I recently began getting facials every few months – for a fresh start!

    Luci’s Morsels – fashion. food. frivolity.

  18. 2.26.13

    Interesting post – I’d never heard of hot water but that makes sense! Dairy (or lack of) is definitely key for me – it makes a world of a difference!

  19. 2.26.13

    Love this post! Like you, I used products that were too harsh for my skin during most of my teen years. They stripped the oil from my skin, actually causing my skin to produce more oil to moisturize it, starting a vicious circle.

    I really like your advice on diary and refined carbs. Since the first of the year I’ve been eating mostly Paleo which occasional cheats here and there and have noticed an amazing change in my skin as far as clarity. Who knew?!

  20. 2.26.13
    chelsie said:

    wow- totally didn’t know about the hot water… i love my water scorching so this explains so much!

  21. 2.26.13
    kelsey said:

    i get terrible breakouts when i’m not moisturizing, though it can seem counterintuitive to people with oily skin! even got my boyfriend to start using a nightly moisturizer!
    kw ladies in navy

  22. 2.26.13

    Ugh, I am so with you on the no teenage acne but all of a sudden adult acne thing. Incredibly frustrating to try and combat aging while feeling like a teenager.

    My acupuncturist suggested a supplement called Zyflamend. I take fish oil and that makes my skin nice and soft and glowy, but the Zyflamend is specifically targeted towards internal inflammation. And boy does it work, I’ve been taking it for two weeks, and the first week I saw a little difference but week two sold me. It has lots of good for your skin & inflammation ingredients like turmeric, ginger, green tea, olive oil, and a few Chinese herbs.

    • 2.26.13
      vmacandcheese said:

      Interesting! I try to eat turmeric whenever I can (mmmm…
      Indian food!), but this sounds good too. Where do you
      get it?

      • 2.26.13

        I got mine at Whole Foods. It wasn’t super expensive, maybe $20 for 60 / a month’s worth? I’m sure you can find it on Amazon even cheaper. It’s by a company called New Chapter. It’s one of only two supplements I take that I can tell a huge difference on days I take vs. don’t take. The other is the Perricone MD Omega 3’s.

        • 2.26.13
          Alyssa said:

          Tumeric really does help! It helped me with teenage acne and (in high doses) cured my uncle’s psoriasis.

          • 2.26.13
            vmacandcheese said:

            (Both conditions of chronic inflammation – not surprising!)

        • 2.26.13
          vmacandcheese said:

          Oh yes, I like New Chapter’s fish oil. Perfect!

  23. 2.26.13
    Allyssa said:

    Great tips! As a teenager my skin was flawless. Now within the past 2-3 years I breakout all the time. I’ve found that moisturization and hydration are definitely key!

  24. 2.26.13

    Yes, I have noticed my skin has changed its problems since my teens. I will often get cysts under my skin and they are the absolute worst. I never got these in my teens. I’m doing my best to drink more water, but you’re right about inflamation/dairy/carbs. I also think a lot of our skin issues have to do with getting enough sleep — something I’m especially bad at.

  25. 2.26.13
    Rachel Morris said:

    Ohhh I needed this read! Thank you for sharing this. Even the comments – what a great and encouraging resource this is.


  26. 2.26.13
    Alyssa said:

    People laugh when fabulous celebrities say that drinking lots of water is the key to fabulous skin, but there really is some truth in it!

    I notice a significant change in my skin when I don’t drink enough water.


  27. 2.26.13

    I definitely agree that diet/hydration make such a huge difference, but I had never heard the one about hot water- good to know!

  28. 2.26.13

    This is such an informative post! Like you mentioned, I have worse skin now than I did in high school. It’s so frustrating!

    I only recently discovered the moisturizing factor Amazingly, it was my husband who actually told me I better keep my face moisturized. After I heeded his suggestion, my acne improved a little. I think that is definitely a factor.

    Also, natural face masks are great!

    FashionEdible Blog

  29. 2.26.13

    fantastic tips, v! they are all things most ppl do NOT think about – especially the alkaline diet. i’ve noticed a big improvement in my skin since i’ve been taking my greens!

    i would also add over exfoliation esp. with harsh scrubs! they drag bacteria around spreading it over the face and over stimulating the skin to produce more oil. x

  30. 2.26.13
    Elisa said:

    I’ve started using the olay brush (imitation clarisonic) and I’ve noticed a dramatic decline in breakouts. I still battle one or two at a time but not the 5-10 that it was. I just think my skin wasn’t clean enough!

  31. 2.26.13
    Katie said:

    I agree with the healthy holistic way to cure things skin related! I to try to figure out why my skin might be freaking out from the way I am eating, feeling, etc. I notice that when I eat dairy, especially ice cream or chocolate candy, my face breaks out extremely bad with a few sore, extremely red underground blemishes. The more I stay away from sugar and dairy, the better my skin looks. I’ve also noticed when I drink a lot of coconut milk, my skin is beyond shiny and breakout free. I just wished I liked coconut more, so I could drink coconut water all the time because I know it makes such a huge difference on my skin. Thanks for sharing the hot water tip, I’ve never heard of that before and will deff have to try washing with lukewarm water.

  32. 2.26.13

    I know I don’t drink enough water. I’m going to have to change that.

  33. 2.26.13

    Thanks for this! While I had blackheads in my teens, I’ve now been blessed with full on acne in my twenties. I had no idea about #1. I love hot showers…. :(

  34. 2.26.13

    I had no idea dairy could cause breakouts! I have terrible skin–sometimes it feels like I’m still 16. I’ll have to try some of these tips and see if it makes a difference.

    Has anyone ever tried using olive oil on your skin? I’ve heard this skin-care tip before but I’ve been too chicken to test it out.

    • 2.27.13
      vmacandcheese said:

      I have! Along with argan, jojoba, and lots of other things. Olive is okay, works fine, though the lipids in it are larger than other types of fats and don’t sink into skin as easily. However, olive oil is often an ingredient in many skin/facial oil blends! My only advice would be to look for organic olive oil — no sense in rubbing pesticides all over your face.

  35. 2.26.13

    I swear, my skin thinks I’m 10 years younger than I am right now. It’s ridiculous. Moisturizing was a huge revelation for me. I thought my skin was really oily, but I actually wasn’t moisturizing enough (because I thought my skin was oily!). I can definitely tell a difference when I’m moisturizing enough and following a healthy diet.

  36. 2.26.13

    As a teen my skin was of course the worst (V your very lucky!) but my ambition and drive to have what I considered nearly perfect skin (A few bumps here and there) lessened my days as a teen as well. I too learned about salicylic acid and moisturizing early on. And now, as an adult I’ve learned about controlling my diet and following a very strict facial regiment. Its funny because ppl think I’m much much younger than what I really am, hence the reason I’m constantly carded?

  37. 2.27.13

    If I don’t change my pillowcase weekly, or bi-weekly, it is the CHIEF culprit of my breakouts.

  38. 2.27.13
    brighton said:

    had NO idea about hot water. that’s crazy but I guess it makes sense since it opens up your pores? who knew, but what a great post V!

  39. 2.27.13

    I’m like you–great skin as a teen (thank God) but now as an adult all you have to do is give me a dirty look and I break out. I know a lot of it is hormonal (I’m currently pregnant).

    Another culprit is not cleaning makeup brushes properly.

    Great post!


  40. 2.28.13
    Kristie said:

    As an esthetician, I must say that I agree with you on all points. I’m tend to forget about water temperature, so I’ll have to test that one out.

    If anyone needs scientific studies to support the assertion that diet affects skin, read more here:

  41. 3.3.13

    My #1 cause of breakouts is hormones! I’m guaranteed a major skin situation once a month, no matter how well I’m eating. I’ve also found that my pillowcase is a sneaky culprit.

    But I do believe that EXERCISE and a clean diet are the keys to glowing skin!

  42. 3.13.13

    I love learning all I can about beauty and have packed away some good years of knowledge, but this article was really helpful. I didn’t know that hot water could be a culprit; I always shower with the temperature all the way up, and my skin shows it. Thanks for the tips!

  43. 9.7.14
    Alissa said:

    Totally agree with this, suffering from adult breakouts I was able to clear it with these exact things you have pointed out, diet does for sure effect your skin! Like you I also was finding more breakout in the colder months and not any in the summer, so I agree with the moisturing as took me a while to figure these things out, but it has made a great difference.