• Jessica

7 Unexpected Ingredients That Contribute to Breakouts, According to a Dermatologist

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Dermatologist Michelle Hure shares her "Ingredient Naughty List" if you want clear skin.

Photo via @jvskincare

If you're interested in having clear skin, Dr. Michelle Hure, board-certified dermatologist of OC Skin Lab, shares a few unexpected ingredients that could be sabotaging your complexions. They aren't limited to ingredients in your skincare and cosmetics, either. Her top picks range from chemical preservatives, to common additions in our wellness supplements and shakes that are marketed as superfoods. As it turns out, these under-the-radar skin-sensitizers and irritants put us at risk of inflammation, skin reactions, and even acne.

If you have experienced skin woes like contact dermatitis, allergic reactions, eczema, breakouts, or even cystic acne, definitely keep reading. Hure notes that there are many more ingredients on her "Naughty List," but that these are the ones to start avoiding STAT.

Read on the learn about 7 unexpected ingredients in our diets, health supplements, and skincare products that can cause acne and other skin reactions.


If you've ever taken hair or nail vitamins, you are likely ingesting supplemental biotin, or vitamin B7. But as Hure reveals, unless you suffer from a rare genetic deficiency, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that it helps with scoring stronger, longer hair and nails.

As she points out, "Biotin supplementation can lead to an imbalance in [your levels of] vitamins B5 and B7." This, in turn, can actually lead to cystic acne — the most painful and difficult-to-treat form of acne that is notorious for causing scarring. In other words: Step away from the biotin.

Beauty-Stoned Picks

Philip Kingsley PK4 Soya Protein Hair Supplements, $44, feature no biotin in their ingredients' list while providing ample protein to the hair follicle, aiding with cell turnover.

Hum Nutrition Red Carpet Skin and Hair Health Supplement, $25, contains black currant seed oil, vitamin E, and more — but no biotin whatsoever.

Whey Protein Concentrate

The arguments for adopting a vegan lifestyle range from the ethical to the environmental. But dairy — particularly reduced-fat dairy — is a potent inflammatory agent that can wreak havoc on your digestion and skin. Whey protein is commonly found in protein bars and post work-out shakes, but Hure calls this form of protein "concentrated mayhem for your skin."

"Milk hormones increase the sebum production of the follicles, and whey protein is pro-inflammatory," she begins. This triggers the release of IGF-1, thereby raising insulin levels, further increasing sebum production, and resulting in clogged pores and breakouts. "If you want the extra protein, but not the acne associated with whey, try a vegan alternative like pea or hemp protein," she advises.

Beauty-Stoned Picks

Moon Juice Blue Beauty Adaptogenic Protein, $50, contains 20mg of organic brown rice protein per serving and reduces stress levels using adaptogenic herbs.

The Nue Co. Probiotic Protein - Plant, $35, contains 200 mg in 15 servings of organic pea, hemp, and brown rice proteins. The formula also incorporates probiotics which boost gut health and immunity. Hint: This is especially great for a post work-out option. P.S. They also sell Skin Food and a new product called Skin Filter, which is their take on ingestible retinol!


"Fragrance is one of the leading causes of contact dermatitis," Hure continues, explaining that you should opt for fragrance-free alternatives whenever possible. She also warns that products labeled 'unscented' are not the same thing as fragrance-free. The former actually just includes a masking fragrance, defeating the purpose of foregoing fragrance altogether.

Even more concerning is the fact that "fragrance" is a commonly listed ingredient on labels that can indicate the presence hidden phthalates (i.e. endocrine disrupters), as I learned from Dr. Sejal Shah. This is a particularly concerning point for clean beauty enthusiasts to consider.

Beauty-Stoned Picks

One Love Organics Botanical A Facial Cleanser, $39, is the newest launch from the clean, small batch-made brand featuring two forms of my favorite gentle, vegan exfoliants (lactic and salicylic acids) in a gel formula. These two actives are brightening, exfoliating, and anti-acne; salicylic is even anti-inflammatory.

Get Rael Good Chemistry Serum, $38, created this "out of this world" antioxidant serum that reduces inflammation, protects against pollution and free radicals, and prevents acne. It uses an antioxidant, Fullerene, that comes from outer space and they say is 172x more powerful than vitamin C! You can also combine the serum with freeze-dried hyaluronic acid capsules, which will hydrate and plump away any fine lines.

Limonene, Linolool, and Geraniol

Hure explains that these three ingredients are essential oil extracts which can be potent skin sensitizers, leading to allergic contact dermatitis. If you want to avoid itchy irritated bumps on the skin (i.e. contact dermatitis), steer clear of ingredients lists that contain these extracts.

Beauty-Stoned Picks

Tower 28 SOS Daily Rescue Facial Spray, $28, is an excellent option for eczema-prone skin types. This healing, scar-fading face mist balances pH and heals the skin. I wrote more about it's active ingredient, hypochlorous acid, here.

Lueur CBD Face Serum, $80, is a soothing facial oil blend with added CBD. Cannabidiol is one of the best anti-inflammatory ingredients you can apply to your mug, hands down. For extra absorption, you can follow up with a Gua Sha facial massage.

Methylisothiazolinone (MI)

MI is used as an anti-bacterial preservative to extend the shelf-life of products. "Unfortunately, it is a potent allergen and has been banned in some products in Europe," Hure states. I recently learned that while the EU bans 116 toxic ingredients in skincare and cosmetics, hundreds of those nefarious health-harmers are still completely legal stateside.

Beauty Stoned Picks

Skincando Wild Honey Face Mask, $80, this adaptogen-packed, anti-inflammatory mask and gentle cleanser is clean as can be — and perfect for sensitive skin. The brand also features sustainable packaging and its very own Washington D.C.-based spa. One of my favorite fashion bloggers — @districtofchic — uses this line. P.S. They also sell a CBD Cleansing Oil.

Akar Skin Soothe Cleanser, $46, comes from one of the purest, cleanest skincare lines, which I actually use regularly. Sourced from the high altitudes of Tibet, their ingredients are naturally effective and free of water as a filler (they use hydrosols instead). I am addicted to their Eye Serum, which I use over my eye cream daily. Newer still are their cleansers, available in clarifying and soothing formulas, which of friend of mine now swears by.

Coconut Oil

Beauty's favorite multi-tasking superfood is not the panacea we once thought it was. "This is one of the most comedogenic, or pore-clogging, oils out there. It essentially works as a wax film to seal off the pores, so nothing gets in or out," Hure warns. This makes it great for locking in moisture to the body after bathing, but "[I]t's a horrible idea for the face." For instance, the coconut oil deodorant by Kopari is a top-seller (and they have an exciting new launch on the way!) but I am always wary of using the ingredient on my face.

Beauty-Stoned Picks

LOLI Beauty Matcha Coconut Paste, $38, is raw, food-grade, organic, and zero-waste. Don't worry — it contains coconut milk, not coconut oil — and is both detoxifying and antioxidant-packed. I love this mask and have gotten a couple of friends hooked on it as well.

Hora Skincare Overnight Exfoliating Mask, $62, is my favorite, gently exfoliating overnight mask. It contains CBD, anti-inflammatory salicylic acid, vitamin A, borage oil, evening primrose, and MCT oil (which is commonly extracted from coconut oil but is not the same thing). I am prone to clogging and inflammation, so this formula is like gold for my skin. If I noticed even a few little clogged or congested pores — which look like closed comedones or bumps — I apply this at night and bid them adieu by morning.

DMDM Hydantoin

Unfortunately for us, this antimicrobial preservative is legal in the United States — in spite of the fact that it is a known formaldehyde-releaser. "There are many of these ingredients that, although not labeled as formaldehyde, [release it] when exposed to heat or oxygen," Hure says. "Formaldehyde is considered a carcinogen and potent allergen and should be avoided whenever possible."

I actually stopped using a cult-favorite lactic acid and hyaluronic acid serum upon discovering that it contains this toxic ingredient in their US formulation. I was sad to see it go, but formaldehyde poses serious health hazards. It is linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and can even lead to eczema when our immunity is low. Sadly, this is just one of many toxic ingredients we can be exposed to unwittingly. The beauty industry really needs to clean up its act — especially in the United States.

Beauty-Stoned Picks

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50W, is the sensitive version of the beauty editor-beloved, exfoliating toner. This gentle exfoliant is great for hyper-sensitive, reactive skin. To ease myself back onto chemical exfoliants — and to protect my moisture barrier during the winter — I am using this “diet” version of the line’s cult-favorite toner. They have a holistic approach to skincare that respects the integrity of the skin but works. Right now, almost my entire regimen is Biologique Recherche!

Herbivore Balance + Clarify Natural Skincare Mini Collection, $48, is one of the cleanest beauty brands around with a loyal base of followers. They hold their own at major retailers like Sephora, competing even with mainstream brands. Sample sets are great because they allow you to trial products developed in their interlocking system without committing to full-sized bottles.

Want to read more? Check out these self-care essentials to get you through the stressful holiday season.

Some of the affiliate links in this article provide me with a small commission when you shop them. Emphasis on small.

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