Let’s face it, breaking out in the same areas over and over again is frustrating. At the end of the day, all breakouts are technically caused by the same thing—a combination of excess oil and dead skin cells builds up inside the pores, causing them to become clogged. This creates a more hospitable environment for bacteria, which can cause inflammation that leads to a full-on blemish.
With that said, the true nature of acne is complex, and it can be really difficult to pinpoint exactly what triggers it. Yes, some people are just more prone to it than others, but there can be all kinds of different triggers. Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen more clients for acne than any other skin condition, and it’s definitely taught me a thing or two about those triggers. While no two people are exactly alike when it comes to their acne, I’ve been able to observe certain patterns and correlations based on acne location.
In this post, I’ll share my own version of “face mapping” based on common acne triggers I’ve seen throughout my career. The location of your breakouts might just be telling you something, all you have to do is listen!
Acne Location: Chin and Jawline
This may come as no surprise, but if you’re always breaking out along your chin and jawline, hormonal fluctuations are probably the culprit. The chin and jawline are where people most commonly experience cystic breakouts (you know, those hard, painful bumps under the skin that never come to a head).
While the link between food and acne is somewhat tenuous, I’ve seen with my own eyes that certain food groups can be a trigger for some people. Specifically, there seems to be a link between cystic acne and certain types of dairy, particularly skim milk. Because sugar can spike glucose levels, it’s also possible for it to be a contributing factor.
What To Do
If you suspect a link between your hormonal acne and the foods you eat, the only way forward is experimentation. Again, not everyone is going to be the same. Some people may be able to handle moderate amounts of dairy, while some people may find their breakouts triggered by even a small amount. The same goes for sugar! My advice is to cut out one food group at a time and to cut each group out for three weeks while observing breakouts and acne location.
If you tend to only get cystic breakouts during the week leading up to your period, try adjusting your skincare routine a little.
If hormonal acne on your chin and along your jawline is constant, check out these eight tips for prevention. Anyone who experiences consistent hormonal breakouts needs Anti Bump Solution in their kit—it’s non-drying and can be used as a spot treatment for individual cysts, or it can be used all over the chin as a preventative serum. Finally, if you’re still not seeing any improvement from an at-home skincare routine, I highly recommend seeing a dermatologist. Hormonal acne is tricky, and they’ll be able to recommend prescriptions to address the hormones themselves.
Acne Location: Sides of the Face
The first thing I ask someone with clogged pores and pimples on the sides of their face is “Do you use hand cream before bed?”. It may seem like an odd question, but I used to see this ALL the time back when I was treating clients at my spa. Basically, people were slathering on thick, greasy hand cream before bed. On its own, that wasn’t an issue, but some people put their faces in their hands when they sleep. This caused the hand cream to transfer, and the heavy ingredients ended up clogging their pores.
Another possible issue is dirty pillowcases. If you’re acne-prone and have oily skin, switching your pillowcase out regularly is super important. Otherwise, oils and bacteria from your face quickly accumulate on the fabric and can transfer back onto your skin while you sleep.
What To Do
If you use a heavy hand cream at night, stop using it to see if there’s any improvement in your breakouts. You can try switching to something with a lighter, lotion-like texture. If you really struggle with dry hands and need to use something thick, try lightweight cotton gloves to keep your hands off your face. Bonus, this will help lock in your hand cream for even more moisturized hands!
As for pillowcases, I recommend switching them out weekly.
Acne Location: Cheeks
This is kind of a strange one, but hear me out. When I see someone with redness in their cheeks accompanied by breakouts, I’ll often advise them to cut down on acidic foods like tomato or citrus fruits. The cheeks contain a lot of blood vessels, and acidic foods can dilate them causing blood to rush to the area. People with acne already have very active skin metabolically speaking, so extra stimulation can make it worse. This is the same concept behind people with active acne should avoid very active professional treatments like microneedling. (This is what happened to my friend Heather when she started experiencing sudden breakouts.)
What To Do
You don’t need to give up acidic foods altogether, just try cutting down on them and seeing if it helps. If you really like spicy foods, I would also suggest avoiding these in excess. People with lots of redness in their cheeks are often prone to rosacea, so be sure to check out my tips for how to manage rosacea and calm redness.
Acne Location: Forehead
If you’re always breaking out on your forehead, consider your choice of headwear. Hats are a great way to keep your skin protected from the sun while outdoors, but they can also trap dirt, sweat, and bacteria, leading to clogged pores and breakouts. The same goes for sweatbands.
Another reason could be your hairstyle. If you have bangs that regularly touch your forehead, oil from your hair could be transferred onto your skin.
What To Do
Protecting your skin from UV damage should be your number one priority, so I wouldn’t recommend giving up hats altogether. Just try not to wear them every day for extended periods, and be sure to wash them regularly. Before putting your hat on, you can also swipe on a toner like Rapid Response Detox Toner. This toner reduces oil activity and discourages bacteria that can cause breakouts.
As for bangs, be sure to wash them every day and avoid hair products in this area.
If you already have clogged pores that are giving you a bumpy forehead and need to get rid of them, try incorporating a salicylic acid serum a few nights a week to help clear this up.
Acne Location: Hairline
If you consistently break out along your hairline, I strongly suggest taking a second look at the hair products you use. These products slip around throughout the day, and they often end up accumulating along the hairline. Since these products are formulated for hair, not skin, it’s not unusual for them to contain ingredients that can clog our pores. Additionally, ingredients that are often used in skincare at low percentages without issue might be used in haircare products at much higher percentages, at which point they do start to become a problem for skin.
Fun fact, when I was a teenager I struggled with horrible back acne before switching my conditioner.
What To Do
To figure out if a hair product really is the culprit, you would ideally stop using it for at least two to three weeks to see if your breakouts improve. If this helps, try switching to an alternative. If it’s a hair product you really love and feel you can’t live without, try being more conscious of how you apply it and avoid getting too close to your hairline. Also, be sure to wash your hairline area really thoroughly when you wash your face at night—it’s one people often overlook.
Acne Location: Nose
Whether you wear prescription glasses or use sunglasses (an important habit for protecting your vision and preventing eye wrinkles), they sit on a part of the face where sweat and oil accumulate fast. All that sweat and oil being trapped and rubbed around by your glasses is the perfect recipe for a breakout.
What To Do
If this is something you struggle with, try applying a thin layer of Daytime Blemish Gel to the bridge of the nose before you head out for the day. I created this product to act as a seal for blemishes, keeping bacteria and debris off the affected area. It contains salicylic acid to help keep pores clear and tea tree oil to discourage bacteria.
Be sure to clean your glasses daily as well as this will help prevent buildup.
Acne Location: Upper Lip
Finally, the upper lip. This is an area where many people practice hair removal. Whether it’s waxing, shaving, or threading, hair removal causes friction which can lead to irritation and bumps or breakouts.
What To Do
One of my favorite tricks is using Rapid Response Detox Masque to soothe the area right after hair removal. It’s really hydrating and cooling, but it also has antibacterial properties that help prevent breakouts by keeping pores clean. Bonus tip, store it in the fridge for a while for an extra cooling effect.
Speaking of hair removal, here’s my foolproof plan for preventing ingrown hairs from shaving or waxing.
I hope you found this helpful! Determining what’s causing your breakouts really can be tricky. Although face mapping can’t always tell you what’s causing your acne, it can provide clues as to what may be triggering it or making it worse. I’ve seen these triggers cause problems in specific areas of the face over and over again throughout the years, so I hope you learned something that resonated with you.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Her hands-on experience as an esthetician and trusted skin care expert has created a real-world solution — products that are formulated for nine different types of skin so your face will get exactly what it needs to look and feel its best. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”