How to Tell If Your Shampoo Is Breaking You Out, According to Derms

How to Tell If Your Shampoo Is Breaking You Out, According to Derms featured image
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You buy shampoo to clean and clarify impurities on your scalp and in your hair, but what happens when that backfires, and the product that’s supposed to cleanse actually leads to a skin freakout? If you’ve noticed acne or other blemishes around your forehead or on the scalp, it could be a result of the shampoo or other hair-care products you’re using. To get to the bottom of these pesky pimples in spots where they shouldn’t be, we turned to experts for their insight.

Featured Experts

  • Kally Papantoniou, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in Melville, New York
  • Valerie Callender, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in Glenn Dale, MD
  • Matthew Elias, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • Orit Markowitz, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in New York
  • Jeanine Downie is a board-certified dermatologist in Montclair, NJ
  • Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu are cosmetic chemists at Chemist Confessions
  • Amy Peterson is a medical aesthetician and founder of Skincare by Amy Peterson

Why do shampoos break you out?

“Some shampoos contain oils—they can be olive, argan or coconut—that are pore-clogging, aka comedogenic,” says Melville, NY dermatologist Kally Papantoniou, MD. “These oils may not make everyone break out, but if you are prone to acne, you may be more sensitive to oil-containing shampoos.” New York dermatologist Orit Markowitz, MD, notes that if you’re breaking out, it may also be an indication of allergy to an ingredient in your shampoo. Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD adds, “In shampoo, mineral oils are largely responsible for break outs and acne. Coconut oil and cocoa butter as well as silicones, shea butter and jojoba oil can all break people out. If you shampoo frequently with any of these ingredients and are acne prone, you may have a higher rate of acne breakouts.”

If you have curly hair and are seeing an uptick in breakouts, this is normal. “Because black hair is frequently dry due to the curly nature of the hair, shampoos containing oils like cocoa butter or shea butter are frequently used,” explains Glenn Dale, MD dermatologist Valerie Callender, MD.

How can you tell if your breakouts are caused by shampoo?

Experts say bumps caused by shampoo often have a few unique identifiers. “When shampoo is the cause of your breakouts, you likely will get whiteheads and bumps along your hairline, forehead and nape of the neck,” says Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias. According to Dr. Callender, shampoo breakouts can be “inflammatory and present as red itchy bumps or as blackheads” as well as whiteheads. Dr. Papantoniou notes that you may “also notice breakouts on the upper back and shoulders, especially if you have longer hair.”

How do you avoid breaking out from shampoo?

To avoid shampoo breakout altogether, Dr. Elias suggests looking “for products that say non-comedogenic or non-acne forming or oil-free to be certain they won’t clog your pores and lead to breakouts.” It’s also crucial to avoid falling for the classic “all-natural” marketing, notes Dr. Papantoniou. “I would be careful with some of the ‘natural’ shampoos,” warns the doctor. “They can lead to buildup for some people,” she adds. For additional caution, try to avoid the ingredients that tend to cause a breakout listed below.

What are some common ingredients that can cause breakouts?

There are a handful of ingredients that are common offenders when it comes to causing shampoo-related breakouts. Dr. Elias says any oils, found in pomades, shampoos, conditioners, gels, sprays and waxes, can lead to acne. Dr. Markowitz notes that propylene glycol, tea tree oil and alcohol or alcohol-like ingredients can also lead to breakouts.  

Ingredients in shampoos to avoid that can cause breakouts include sulfates such as sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate,” adds medical aesthetician Amy Peterson, “Sulfates like these disrupt the skin’s natural barrier function and can lead to inflammation and potential breakouts especially for individuals with sensitive or acne-prone skin. Silicones are also found in many shampoos and can create a film on the scalp which can trap debris and bacteria, which can result in acne. Other popular ingredients found in most shampoos are fragrances and dyes, and these are also potential causes of breakouts because they often contain allergens that can irritate the skin.”

The Best Acne-Safe Shampoos

Now that you’ve gotten the gist of why shampoos can break you out, here are some expert-approved and vetted options for shampoos that will not cause breakouts and instead make sure your skin and hair stay happy and healthy which every wash.

1 / 6

Crown Affair Ritual Shampoo ($36)

A classic from this viral hair-care brand, Crown Affair’s Ritual Shampoo is one of Peterson’s favorites in the realm of acne-safe shampoos. “One of my favorite acne-safe shampoos is The Ritual Shampoo from Crown Affair. It gently and effectively cleanses the scalp and is designed for all hair types,” she notes on the clean, vegan and sulfate-free formula.



2 / 6

L’Oréal Elvive Total Repair 5 ($10)

For cosmetic chemist Victoria Fu, struggling with acne is a personal journey, and as a result she’s experimented with many options for cleaning the hair without breaking out. After much trial and error, she’s learned to avoid ultra-nourishing formulas and opt for ones that are less dimethicone/oil-heavy, like L’Oréal’s Elvive Total Repair 5 Shampoo.



3 / 6

Eva NYC Mane Magic 10-in-1 Shampoo ($14)

You’ve heard of a 2-in-1, but what about a 10-in-1? Another one of Fu’s personal favorites when it comes to acne-safe shampoos, Eve NYC’s Mane Magic revitalizes, strengthens, smoothes, nourishes, reduces breakouts and more all without causing breakouts.



4 / 6

Dove Daily Moisture Shampoo ($6)

Peterson recommends Dove’s classic, Daily Moisture Shampoo as a great, affordable option for acne-safe shampoo. “It is formulated to be gentle and non-comedogenic, helps to maintain the skin’s natural moisture barrier and is formulated to reduce irritation or over drying, making it an excellent option for sensitive skin,” she notes.



5 / 6

SEEN Shampoo ($29)

Dermatologist-developed and backed by Dr. Downie, SEEN’s Shampoo is formulated to be gentle and safe on acne-prone skin with it’s non-comedogenic, sulfate-free and skin-type universal formula.



6 / 6

Paula’s Choice All Over Hair & Body Shampoo ($24)

Born from one of today’s hottest skin-care brands, Paula’s Choice’s All Over Hair & Body Shampoo is a fragrance-free product formulated for sensitive skin and perfect for colored hair, making it one of Dr. Downie’s favorite acne-safe shampoos.



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