Hair products causing acne
October 15, 2015 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I've rotated through a ton of shampoo products in the past year, but my skin keeps breaking out. What to do?

I had clear skin just about all of my life, aside from the occasion blemish as a teen. Now, in middle age, I've developed recurring acne on my forehead and especially my temple and sometimes along my hair line on the back of my neck. As far as I can tell, it is caused by shampoo or conditioner. I abandoned all sorts of products (save for shampoo and conditioner) and it improved. But I've determined that shampoo and conditioner or even shampoo alone is still causing breakouts. I tried reducing how often I wash my hair and I wash my face at the end of my shower, as well as in the morning and evening. I thought I had eliminated the acne last week by using benzoyl peroxide wipes (5%), but it came back in full force today, after my shower yesterday. I wash my face with warm and then cold water and pat dry, as I have done my entire life. Lately, I've been using the benzoyl peroxide wipes 3x a day, which did help...till today.

I'm probably an acne wimp, having made it through most of my life without much. It's a combination of bumps, blind pimples and pustules. It's probably mild by most people's standards, but the bumps and blind pimples are quite painful.

How do I solve this problem? I've rotated through tons of products, don't think there is coconut oil in it, and I'm using more eco products without sulfates and parabens.

I switched to box colour about a year ago, but I haven't noticed a correlation. The acne has got worse in the past couple of years and has been pretty bad (by my measure) since summer. My skin has definitely changed in my 40s and I'm not very happy with it and unsure what to do. I also admit to being a bit clueless about acne.

posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Health & Fitness (21 answers total)
Best answer: Could be contact dermatitis rather than acne. Worth visiting a dermatologist on this one.
posted by me3dia at 11:49 AM on October 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Have you seen a dermatologist about it? This is a perfectly reasonable normal thing to ask about, and some treatment options are Rx only.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:49 AM on October 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I had a skin patch test that determined I have an allergy to propylene glycol, which is both a surprisingly common allergy and an extremely common shampoo and conditioner ingredient.

It might be worth looking for propylene glycol-free shampoo (and especially conditioner). If you're in the US, I use Stonybrook unscented shampoo and conditioner.
posted by amtho at 12:01 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you changed your hairstyle or anything major in your lifestyle at all?

I found myself suddenly breaking out on the back of my neck when I grew my hair out, making it slightly more difficult to wash the back of my neck well in the shower. (Also if I skipped a few days of hair washing and let my hair get oily, there was just that much more oily hair in contact with the back of my neck.)

I found myself suddenly breaking out on my forehead and hairline when I started commuting by bike and thus wearing a sweaty bike helmet a lot.

Bangs also led to more forehead breakouts, going back to the changing hairstyle idea.
posted by Sara C. at 12:09 PM on October 15, 2015

Best answer: I agree that you should have a dermatologist check it out, but in the meantime this is a good primer on acne basics, and this explains some of the causes of breakouts along the hairline. If you only ever use water on your face without a facial cleanser, that might be a good place to start.
posted by neushoorn at 12:17 PM on October 15, 2015

Best answer: If you've tried a bunch of different products, do you have ingredient lists for them? Amazon often has them if you can remember names but don't have the bottles anymore.
Check and see what's in all of them, there might be a common ingredient.
Especially useful would be ingredient lists for products that you stopped using, and saw an improvement.
And take those ingredient lists in to the dermatologist when you go, it might help them figure out what it is.

Any chance it's actually the water that's changed? (did you move?)
posted by nat at 12:18 PM on October 15, 2015

Best answer: I've always had some acne (not horrible) and I have combination skin with oily hair, and I do tend to break out where my hair falls. If it's painful (or even if you just don't like it), I'd see a dermatologist if you could, my PCP was able to recommend one in network.

But, if you dont want to see one, or if it takes you a while to get in: I feel like skin problems build up overtime for me, I.e. changing to a certain shampoo/face wash might not immediately cause a flare up, only persistent use will. Can you take a break from the box color or change brands? Just in case it's a build-up kind of thing.

I'll also sometimes get in a cycle of over-treating, which makes everything worse (I get super oily and flakey). So I'll sometimes stay in all weekend and just do the bare minimum: just sponge bath armpits, etc, and leave the face and hair alone. No makeup, product, or washing, period until Sunday night. And then fresh bed linens etc.

I've also started using baking soda followed by a vinegar rinse instead of shampoo, and I find I can wash my hair less often, and I feel like my skin has been generally clearer (I think due to my scalp being less oily, I'm not directly using the baking soda on my face). I used to need to shampoo daily, dry shampoo couldn't keep up with the oil slick that was my scalp.

Oh! How often do you change your sheets? Consider changing at least your pillow case more often (this helped a friend if mine out in highschool, I think she did it every other day).
posted by ghost phoneme at 12:18 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely see a dermatologist on this because it doesn't sound like acne at all. It could be seborrheic dermatitis. This commonly affects the areas around the hairline. Also, this benzoyl peroxide wipes 3x a day sounds like wayyyyyyy too much exposure to foreign substances. If your skin is irritated from some kind of condition like seborrheic dermatitis or something else, piling all kinds of chemicals onto it is going to stress the region even more. New research is showing that all of the cleansing and removing of benign microbes and fungi from the skin is having negative effects on the skin's condition and ability to fight off bad bacteria/pathogens. I have sebhorric dermatitis and I have found that a simple routine of washing my face with Cetaphil daily has worked wonders. It doesn't strip your natural oils off the skin and actually results in less acne and skin irritations than when I used to use all kinds of soaps, lotions, cleansers. A dermatologist will be able to make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. I would guess they would tell you to refrain from using the peroxide.
posted by incolorinred at 12:29 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Throw away disenfectants. Take a teaspon of plain yogurt to the shower. Rinse your hair bending over so you clear the back of your neck. Wash your face carefully with a gentle soap after the shampoo to remove residue. Pin up your hair in the shower after shampooing. Put the yogurt on the breakouts and leave it while you bathe everything else. Last thing rinse the yogurt off with hot water and pat dry. Don't worry it is on your skin. Make sure it is yogurt with active strains. Also, do not touch the afflicted areas at all after bathing. Don't go to work and rest your forehead on the arch betwen your thumb and forefinger, don't massage the back of your neck with work hands. Wash your hair brush and combs often.

If you dye your hair, use a different blocking agent to keep the dye off the forehead and neck. Try coconut oil, only because it is benign and thick.

If this is in response to hair dye, then you have an allergy, and try a different product. Peroxide is a known irritant to tissues.
posted by Oyéah at 1:21 PM on October 15, 2015

Best answer: One other idea: is your scalp wet a lot of the time? If you, for example, make a hair bun before your hair is completely dry, your scalp may not get 100% dry all day. This can lead to fungal issues, which can lead to ... bad things.
posted by amtho at 1:29 PM on October 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Are you using Aveda shampoo/conditioner? I love it, but it totally makes me break out on hairline and back of my neck. Almost any other brand doesn't. And I used Aveda for a long time before this started.
posted by sulaine at 2:46 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to have this issue. Started in my mid-20s with a bottle of Organix shampoo, I think, and it took months to figure out why I was getting so much hairline/back acne. I tentatively decided it was the SLS? But sulfate-/sulfite-free products wouldn't work for me either. So far I have only been about to use Dr. Bronner's and the baking soda/vinegar combo without having problems.
posted by ohkay at 3:54 PM on October 15, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks. Just to clarify, the BP wipes are very recent and they have been the only thing that got rid of the acne, although it just showed up again.

I live in Canada and I'm not sure my doctor would bother with a referral to a dermatologist for such a slight case of acne. I'm kind of reluctant to even bother my doctor with something so minor.

But I will ask my doctor to take a look. I have developed dandruff over the past few years and one of my parents has seborrhea. Maybe I have it now and didn't realize it. I will say that this "acne" is a little different and seem more infection-like and it leaves scars. The rest of my skin seems kind of dry, especially in t-zone, and I swear there are these very tiny dots all over my face now. I used to have totally perfect skin and I have no idea what it is - I might just be fussy because I have been spoiled.

I do not colour my hair more than 3-4 times a year, so I don't think it is that, although I do the roots with that brush-on dye. I only do that about once a month and so I don't think it is that either, but I will pay attention.

I will take a look at various products to see if I can identify a common ingredient. The acne showed up around the time the dandruff did, so maybe it is seborrhea. I have had eczema on my hands for about 10 years.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:16 PM on October 15, 2015

Best answer: I use Nutrogena "Body Clear" anti-acne body wash on my whole head. That's in place of both shampoo and facial cleanser. It's the only product I have in the shower. They have a pink grapefruit variety that smells very nice. I no longer have any problems with acne. I'm 48.
posted by yesster at 5:04 PM on October 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My sister had exact same thing. She had great skin for all of her teen years and then mid-twenties started getting acne on her chest and back. She thought it was SLS in shampoo and went to the 'no poo' camp. I believe baking soda/vinegar. Now her skin is once again perfect. She says she can't use any shampoo these days- even the SLS free types.
posted by KMoney at 5:16 PM on October 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would try to see a dermatologist, as it would be really useful to determine whether it's contact dermatitis (sensitivity to a particular topical ingredient in shampoo/conditioner, like SLS), or some sort of acne/seborrheic dermatitis.

In the meantime, I recommend you try a salicylic acid shampoo, which should help both acne and seborrheic dermatitis. I use the drugstore generic of Neutrogena T-Sal (both the name-brand and the generic both have 3% salicylic acid as the active ingredient). I think it's SLS-free, but I can't quite remember. It has the same active ingredient as the Neutrogena "Body Clear" anti-acne body wash mentioned above, but it's slightly stronger and it's actually meant to be a shampoo rather than a body wash, so it might have a better cosmetic effect on your hair than the body wash. You could also try a ketoconazole shampoo (brand-name: Nizoral), which is an anti-fungal and which helps with seborrheic dermatitis. Coal tar shampoo (Neutrogena's T-gel, or a generic) also helps a variety of scalp conditions.
posted by ClaireBear at 8:04 AM on October 16, 2015

Also, just as a general note, I would caution you to be wary of "natural" remedies, which are often neither efficacious nor safe. Products on store shelves have had to pass various rigorous safety tests in order to be sold; things in your kitchen cabinet have not. "No Poo" in particular is not good for hair and scalp (see my previous comments here and here), and seborrheic dermatitis in general usually gets worse if you stop shampooing.

I would recommend trying conditioner on the length of your hair only (i.e. only from the ears or even shoulders down). Avoid putting it anywhere near your scalp if you're breaking out there, as it can really exacerbate break-outs. If you can't get to a dermatologist, it might be worth trying a salicylic acid shampoo (possibly alternated with ketoconazole shampoo and a coal tar shampoo); if it's acne and/or seborrheic dermatitis, it should respond to that. If it doesn't, or if it gets worse, you might be experiencing contact dermatitis to some ingredient (although this is statistically less likely than acne/seborrheic dermatitis), and you really should see a doctor for testing to determine which one.
posted by ClaireBear at 8:18 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're in Canada, and you pay taxes. Your doctor is hardly bothered by you requesting an appointment - that is literally how they are paid and stay in business. You're not bothering him. You're using his services, as the system is designed to do. Put it this way: if you let it go on for too long, and get an infection, you could need antibiotics and more expensive treatment and followup. Part of being a good citizen in medical systems is not letting things go on TOO long!

And please, take a step back and realize you're doing the thing that many of us women do, by underselling our problems. You have painful acne/pustule/rash in visible places and have tried everything you know how to do for more than 12 months. You've replaced products, treated the symptoms, and hoped it was just a transitory thing, but nothing has worked. Can you imagine if there was a pipe broken in your walls, and it was leaking just a bit, and you'd tried to tighten the pipes, and had patched the hole and put some special epoxy on it, but still it's dripping? And you've repainted that wall 8 times, and are kind of at your wits end? You'd call a plumber right, because they're trained to do a certain kind of diagnostic investigation and have specialty tools, right? Or if your car was broken and you tried everything you knew how to do with home tools and layperson knowledge, you'd take it to the mechanic, right? Or if your cat or dog was having an ongoing painful and irritating skin issue, I can guarantee you'd be taking her to the vet to get checked out and a medication and cleaning system prescribed, right?

Why would you treat your body any differently? Call your doctor. Don't make excuses. Write out all the symptoms and things you've tried, on a piece of paper, and bring it into the office. When the doctor asks for a history of this problem, you've done two things: (1) made sure you haven't forgotten anything in the stress of the moment, so he doesn't make you try things you've already tried, and he can get a sense of things that make it better and worse. And (2) you've showed both yourself AND the doctor the extent of the issue. You're not just coming in for an appointment for no good reason, you're coming in because literally you've tried everything and nothing has worked!

Let us know how it goes.
posted by barnone at 12:59 PM on October 16, 2015

Sounds like it could be folliculitis, especially if it's itchy.

Never use conditioner near skin, dry it thoroughly with a hair dryer immediately after washing, keep it dry all day, avoid steam and heat, try minocycline, and Good. Luck.
posted by serena15221 at 1:40 PM on October 16, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks. I slept with my hair pulled back from my face last night. I washed my hair again this morning. I made sure to wash my face very, very carefully. Bingo. Once again, I have bumps all over my forehead...larger than before the shower. I guess they are closed comedones this time.

I'm going to eliminate/change one thing at a time. (OK, I both pulled my hair back and washed my face more carefully after the shower...that's two.) It will help me figure out what's working.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:06 PM on October 16, 2015

Are you using hairspray? Any chance that's getting on your forehead?
posted by amtho at 1:20 PM on October 19, 2015

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