Why You’re Breaking Out This Summer (and How to Treat the Acne)
In the past week alone, every single human in the U.S. has gotten a pimple, according to very scientific data I just made up. But seriously, if I’m basing this solely off a dozen frantic, late-night text messages from friends and coworkers, then yeah, virtually everyone I know—including yours truly—has been inducted into the Big-Ass Breakout Club this summer, and we’re all asking the same thing: What the f*ck is happening right now?? Are we under attack? Is this the second (puberty) coming? WILL WE EVER BE OKAY?!
So, with a ZitSticka patch covering the throbbing cystic zit on my jaw and salicylic acid globbed onto the mysterious little whiteheads sprinkling my nose, I begged for answers from dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale University and OG calmer of my skin anxieties. And according to Dr. Gohara, there very much is a reason why you’re breaking out right now. Actually, there are three:
It’s this g’damn stupid heat wave.
Right now, around the country (and even in Europe), record-high temperatures are basically signaling the apocalypse. I mean, the freaking Washington Post is calling it “the hottest month that humans have ever recorded,” and guess what? None of this bodes well for your skin (or for the planet, but more on civilization-ending global warming later).
“When it’s really hot, people tend to sweat significantly more,” says Dr. Gohara. “That sweat then sits on your face, mixing with all the sticky gunk and grime and pollution in the air to create the perfect environment for pores to clog and acne-causing bacteria to grow.” Yay! I love summer!
But the heat and humidity are only half of the problem. You’re the other half. “When we notice, Holy shit, my face is a Crisco pad, we tend to touch our skin more—blotting with shirts or towels or sheets, wiping or fixing makeup with fingers, dusting on more powder to mattify the shine, and feeling for new or growing zits,” says Dr. Gohara. “So not only are you introducing new bacteria and oils to your face, but you’re also irritating your skin barrier with all the wiping and touching.” And an irritated barrier is an angry barrier—one that’ll start breaking out even harder from the disruption.
Hands. Off. Your. Face. Seriously—get your hands off your skin, stop rubbing at it, don’t triple-cleanse during the day, don’t pack on the makeup to cover the grease. Instead, gently soak up the shine once or twice a day with fragrance-free oil blotting sheets (my favorite: Clean & Clear Oil Absorbing Sheets), wash your face once or twice a day with a creamy, non-foaming cleanser (see below), and keep your makeup to a minimum on the areas where you tend to break out most. And maybe move to Alaska.
You’re blasting the A/C.
This goes hand in hand with the hellacious heat wave (is it fall yet?), but if you’ve been sitting in front of your air conditioner for three weeks or blasting your car’s A/C or existing only in frigid coffee shops, classrooms, planes, or offices, it could actually be breaking you out.
“Air-conditioning usually removes moisture from the air, making it incredibly drying, especially if it’s blasting you right in the face,” says Dr. Gohara. “So it ends up sucking the moisture from your face, which causes your skin to overproduce oil to compensate for the dryness.”
The result? Extra-oily skin (yup, even if your skin looks matte and dry; your pores produce oil from within, and too much too quickly can clog the pore before it reaches the surface). So while the A/C is kicking your oil production into overdrive, the heat wave is cranking out the sweat and the humidity is mixing it all together and sticking it to your skin.
Adopt an electricity-free life—maybe move to a remote shack on the beaches of Bali? Just kidding. There’s not much you can do when A/C is virtually everywhere in the summer, except try to redirect the air from blowing on your face as much as possible. If you’re traveling, push the air vents in your car away from your face or twist the airplane’s vent above your seat closed. And try adding a portable humidifier (the Hey Dewy Portable Facial Humidifier is honestly great) to your life—keep it on your desk, in the cupholder in your car, wherever. That bit of moisture can help offset some of the A/C’s drying effects.
You’re going crazy trying to fix your zits.
So you got a few zits (and then a few more), and you went bat-shit nuclear on your skin, trying to fix it fast. I get it—the panic is real. But changing up your entire routine, or even adding one new acne-fighting formula, can break the space-time continuum/your face.
“When people break out, they start reaching for more heavy-duty, acid-filled formulas, over-exfoliating their face, loading on the retinol and spot treatments, and basically flip to the extremes in the course of a week or a few days,” says Dr. Gohara. “And all that change creates a disruption in your skin’s equilibrium, causing it to freak out, dry out, and break out.” Think of your skin like a temperamental toddler—change its nap schedule and, IDK, dump some salicylic acid on it, and it’s going to be very pissed.
Also, if you do what I did—which was slather an acne-fighting serum all over my T-zone in a ~genius~ attempt at preventing more breakouts—you could inadvertently be causing the worst freaking breakout of your life: purging. “Purging is definitely a real thing,” says Dr. Gohara. “It’s when skin-resurfacing products, like retinoids and acids, bring your future zits to the surface of your skin all at once.”
It isn’t a surefire thing (you’re more likely to purge if you’re already acne prone or if you’re using a way stronger formula than usual), but it’s something to be aware of and ideally avoid. I knew all these things and yet I, the local idiot, still forged ahead, slapping acids on my face and waking up to whiteheads 48 hours later.
Just…wait. Do nothing. I know, this sounds absolutely insane, but trying to radically alter your routine will bring you nothing but skin sadness. “Resist the compulsion to do anything differently, and try to avoid disrupting your skin as much as possible,” says Dr. Gohara.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use a gentle spot treatment on the zits you already have (try a salicylic-based spot treatment—I’ve been using Murad Rapid Relief Spot Treatment—for red, inflamed bumps or a gentle benzoyl peroxide spot treatment, like Neutrogena On-The-Spot Acne Spot Treatment, for whiteheads), but make sure to apply sparingly just once a day.
Ultimately, your skin is under Mother Nature’s cruel, cruel thumb, so know that there’s only so much you can do this summer. “Just be cognizant of not deviating from what you normally do and also resist the compulsion to wipe, scrub, or touch your skin more than normal this summer,” says Dr. Gohara. Yeah, it sucks, but hey—fall is just a few weeks away, and if you’re really concerned (like you need that cystic zit gone now), you can head to your dermatologist for a cortisone injection or an extraction.
So next time (tonight) you’re staring at your new crop of zits in the mirror, take a few deep breaths, remember that breakouts are totally normal, and they’ll probs die a quick, painless death in a few weeks anyway.