Jun 24, 2023

The Worst Skin Care Products and Ingredients

You drink plenty of water and wash your face twice a day. You’re a wizard when it comes to lotions and potions — a scion of serums, a master of moisturizers, an expert on essences. And you never ever pick at your pimples (at least, that's what you tell people). But let's be real, here: Pobody's nerfect.

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We’ve all put things on our faces that were, to put it mildly, ill-advised. It's hard to avoid, especially if popular wisdom hasn't caught up to the science yet.

We asked physician assistant Samantha Stein, PA-C what products and ingredients we should be keeping off of our faces — and in some cases, off of our skin altogether. Five items made her list, some of which may come as a surprise to you.

You may have heard this before: Slathering toothpaste on a gnarly zit will disinfect and dry it out. This is one of those stubborn myths that refuse to die, no matter how often dermatologists warn against it.

The assumption that toothpaste is great for acne came from the fact that many toothpastes contain triclosan, which is an ingredient used in a wide range of soaps and cleaning products to prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria. It does have important medical uses — like preventing gingivitis — but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use in antibacterial soaps and other products in 2016. In addition to general concerns about allergies and bacterial resistance, triclosan can damage your endocrine system.

Triclosan isn't the only ingredient that makes toothpaste a bad choice for treating your acne. "It can do more harm than good because it contains ingredients that strengthen your enamel, whiten your teeth, reduce tartar and prevent tooth decay," Stein says. "Those ingredients aren't safe or gentle for the skin, especially the skin on your face." The result: Toothpaste can make your acne worse than it was to begin with.

If you’re hoping to get rid of a pimple fast, Stein recommends using 1% salicylic acid or 2.5% benzoyl peroxide as a spot treatment — whichever you prefer. Both are common ingredients in acne face washes and may well be part of your skin care routine already.

If your zit is exceptionally large or painful, Stein says it's a good idea to reach out to a healthcare provider for two reasons:

Chances are you’ve had a little brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide under your sink all your life. It does have practical uses, but they might not be the ones you were expecting.

Conventional wisdom says that you should flush wounds out with hydrogen peroxide. In this case, the conventional wisdom is … well, unwise.

Stein explains that people started using hydrogen peroxide on wounds because it has antiseptic properties. Some folks rode that logic train to what seems like a natural conclusion: Hydrogen peroxide must also be great for acne! Unfortunately, using hydrogen peroxide on your skin at all is a bad idea.

"In addition to fighting off bad bacteria, hydrogen peroxide also fights off the good bacteria on our skin. And we need that good bacteria to keep our skin barrier strong and working normally," Stein explains. "It also irritates the skin and causes redness and inflammation."

Not only is it unsafe, but — when it comes to acne — it's also the wrong tool for the job. Yes, hydrogen peroxide kills bacteria, but as Stein puts it, "There are many other causes of acne and pathways that we have to target when treating it."

You can keep the hydrogen peroxide around for cleaning, but for wound care, it's better to keep it simple. "I always recommend gently cleaning with soap and water," Stein says. "Nothing else. You don't need to use an antibacterial necessarily."

If you think that you have an infection, you should see a healthcare provider to find out if you need to be on topical or oral antibiotics. But for minor scrapes, burns or other wounds, all you need to do is wash with a gentle soap and cover it with petrolatum jelly. "Petrolatum jelly contains very few irritants or allergens and it's going to help repair that skin barrier," Stein explains.

If you’ve been using hydrogen peroxide on your acne, Stein suggests using salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide instead. If that doesn't do the trick, there are lots of other approaches you can try. If your skin isn't improving, consider seeing a healthcare provider: You may be a good candidate for prescription acne medicine.

Unlike toothpaste and hydrogen peroxide, there are some cases where using a product or ingredient with a fragrance is alright. But as a general rule, Stein encourages her patients to opt for unscented stuff.

"I’m not saying never use them," Stein states, "but fragrances are a really, really common cause of contact allergies.

"No one's skin barrier is perfect," she continues. Whether your skin tends to be dry, sensitive, acne-prone, or you have a skin condition that causes rashes like eczema, your skin barrier is probably at least a little bit compromised. "With any of these scenarios, I always recommend fragrance-free," she says. "I don't want you putting any fragrance on yourself that is going to get into the skin barrier and cause irritation.

"Even if even if you don't have any skin issues, I think it's better to prevent a skin allergy or irritation if you can."

But that's not the only reason fragrances aren't a good choice for your skin. Here are a few more:

When you’re looking at skin care and cosmetics, you should favor products that describe themselves as "hypoallergenic," "fragrance-free," "dermatologist recommended" or intended for sensitive skin.

And if a spritz of perfume is a crucial part of your daily routine, Stein recommends spraying it on your clothing instead of your skin. If you really want to put it on your skin, apply it to a location like your wrists, that's less likely to be exposed to the sun.

They might not be names that you’re familiar with, but you’ve probably got one or more of these ingredients in your medicine cabinet. Neomycin and polymyxin B are antibiotics that can be used separately or in combination to treat bacterial skin infections. You can find them — along with bacitracin — in triple antibiotic ointment, commonly known by the brand name Neosporin®.

So, why avoid these medications? Stein is blunt: "They aren't great antibiotics." She elaborates, saying "They don't target a large range of microbes and often cause an allergic contact dermatitis."

Stein clarifies, "It's not dangerous to use neomycin or polymyxin B. We’ve probably all used them. But I guide people to use plain petrolatum jelly instead. There's no difference in healing between the two and a much lower risk of an allergic reaction with petrolatum jelly."

Especially right now, salt and sugar scrubs are super trendy. People buy them by the bucketful, in all sorts of different colors and scents. After all, who doesn't love a good scouring every once in a while?

Your face, that's who.

"Those granules are used for exfoliation and removal of dead skin cells," Stein explains. "But they can cause little micro tears in the skin barrier, making it more susceptible to inflammation and irritation. Bacteria can get in those tears too, so I would avoid using those kinds of scrubs, especially on your face."

These scrubs are usually scented and dyed, making them a recipe for irritation. According to Stein, these harsh exfoliants can also strip your skin of its natural oils, compromising your skin barrier and making it more prone to water loss. The result: drier, more sensitive skin.

Salt and sugar are great in cookies. But keep them off your face.

If you feel like you need to exfoliate your face, Stein suggests discussing it with a healthcare provider. "They can help you figure out what would be beneficial for your specific skin type," she says, "We all have different skin types, we all have different tolerances. So, always talk to your healthcare provider if you’re considering something new."

If you have bumpy skin, it's particularly worth having a conversation with a healthcare provider. "I prescribe exfoliating creams sometimes — for conditions like keratosis pilaris," Stein says, adding, "Those creams have lactic acid in them to assist in exfoliating that top layer of skin but are also in a cream or lotion formula, so it's hydrating while it's exfoliating."

If you want to do the delicate skin on your face a favor:

You could save yourself a trip (or two) to the doctor.

Salicylic acid Benzoyl peroxide