Look At What’s Behind Your Bad-skin Days

You know the obvious triggers. But beyond stress and hormones, it’s the little culprits that aren’t on your radar that can really wreak havoc.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

You know the obvious triggers. But beyond stress and hormones, it’s the little culprits that aren’t on your radar that can really wreak havoc.

Photo Arthur Belebeau
Photo Arthur Belebeau

If your complexion is suddenly greasy and breaking out, red and blotchy, or dry and flaky, there are, of course, the usual suspects to blame: your period (high androgen levels can cause pimples), stress (anxiety stokes inflammation, causing acne), or a night of not enough zzz’s (which ups stress and interrupts skin repair).

But there are more mysterious things that can lead your skin to suddenly rebel – things the pros look for and now you will, too. For instance, when his patients who travel routinely return complaining of skin issues, Dr Dennis Gross, a dermatologist in the US, began questioning whether the different tap water could be at play.

Sure enough, he discovered that what comes out of your faucet can dictate the state of your complexion (more on that later). “Skin is very reactive,” Dr Gross says, adding that small changes can cause big problems precisely because they’re rarely identified and dealt with. Here’s what you must know.

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Why bad-skin days happen

Skin can be supremely temperamental – the smallest environmental shift or irritant may turn your usually clear complexion red, dry and dull, or spotted with breakouts. Frustrating, yes, but there’s good reason for it. “Think about the skin’s job,” Dr Gross says. “It’s the barrier between the inside of your body and the outside world, and as such, it plays an important role in your immune system.”

Below the surface, skin is closely linked to your nervous and circulatory systems. It contains large networks of nerve endings and blood vessels, and is chock-full of receptors for various hormones. Those characteristics make your complexion sensitive to fluctuations both inside and outside your body.

When skin comes into contact with something it senses might be a threat – potentially even the minerals in some tap water – it treats it as if it were an assault on the body and overreacts, and causes pimples, dryness, dullness and redness.

So how do you root out these hidden triggers? Start with the biggest culprits below.

Your skincare

Sometimes skin products backfire. “I see tons of patients who wake up with red, irritated faces because they’ve used a new cream or have layered on too many products,” says Dr Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in the US.

Although your skin could react to any new-to-you ingredient as an irritant, heavily perfumed creams are especially common culprits. In fact, at least 100 fragrance ingredients are known contact allergens, according to a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology.

But it’s the times when you haven’t switched up your skincare that those sudden blotches can blindside you. First thing to clue into: dryness. When skin is dry, substances penetrate it more easily, so if you apply a product with a harsh active ingredient, like an exfoliating acid, you can cause irritation, says Dr Ted Lain, a dermatologist in the US.

Anti-ageing products typically contain more active ingredients than moisturisers and are more likely to irritate skin, Dr Lain says. To reduce irritation, skip acids and exfoliators until your skin is back to normal (which could be days or months), use a mild cleanser, and apply extra moisturiser. Look for one containing ceramides to maintain the skin’s barrier function, Dr Zeichner adds.

You may also be especially susceptible to irritation in the days leading up to your period, according to a review in the journal Clinical and Experimental Dermatology. Yep, womens’ roller-coaster hormones can spark more than killer zits. They can cause skin to react negatively to a usual beauty routine, resulting in redness.

Although experts aren’t sure why, they theorise that the drop in oestrogen may aff ect the skin’s lipid content, causing the barrier to become more permeable. Research also suggests that your skin may be driest during your period, when hormone levels are low. During this window, use a moisturiser with ceramides and avoid exfoliating acids and scrubs that may further strip or dry your skin.

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Your hair

“Women don’t realise how much not washing your hair can affect your skin,” Dr Gross says. “Even if your hair doesn’t look greasy, a microscopic avalanche of oil can advance from your scalp, not just at the hairline but down the forehead and cheeks, too.”

The fix is easy: Shampoo more often. Let the lather sit on your scalp for a few minutes to break down oils, then scrub with your fingers. Regular shampooing, especially at night, can also save your skin from breakouts caused by hair products.

“They can contain thick, sticky ingredients that easily clog pores,” Dr Gross says. Residue can migrate to skin directly from strands, but it can also build up on your pillowcase and be pressed into your face all night. If a nightly shower isn’t your thing, tie a scarf around your hair to block the transfer to your pillow.

The water

What’s on tap at your house is unlikely to cause a sudden skin freak-out because your skin is used to it. However, you may want to invest in an activated carbon filter for your bathroom faucet if you suspect an ongoing sensitivity.

The problem is more likely to stem from the water in a place you’re visiting. Hard water and well water naturally contain excess calcium, as well as metals like zinc, copper, and iron, which may be safe to drink but are rough on skin. Dullness, irritation, large pores, and small red pimples can show up immediately if you wash your face with hard water, Dr Gross says.

High calcium levels make it difficult to fully rinse off cleanser, and that residue can irritate skin, causing it to be blotchy and dry. Minerals in water can also change the chemistry of skin’s natural oil, making it waxier and more likely to clog pores.

On top of that, the metal particles themselves are free radicals; they’re unstable molecules that can trigger inflammation, Dr Gross explains. A good rule of thumb when you travel: Pack pre-moistened cleansing cloths instead of rinse-off cleansers.

How to stay in the clear

Following the recommended simple strategies can guard against bad-skin days. But there are additional habits that will help tremendously. Make nightly cleansing a priority; dirt, oil, and makeup can clog pores. “Skin can only compensate so much for a harsh environment,” Dr Zeichner says.

A diet rich in fruits, veggies, and whole grains also supplies skin with protective antioxidants. Limiting refi ned carbs, alcohol and salt keeps it hydrated, bright and youthful.

Be aware of your caffeine intake, too. Initially, the ingredient constricts blood vessels, but there’s a rebound effect, and the burst of blood fl ow can trigger redness, Dr Gross says.

Finally, never underestimate the power of sleep. “It’s a time of renewal and repair,” says Dr Kunin. A good rest lowers radiancerobbing stress hormones, like cortisol, and optimises blood fl ow to your skin, delivering nutrients and clearing toxins.

It’s not enough to simply log sevenplus hours in bed. Sleep quality is at least as important as quantity, Dr Kunin says. To improve it, power down your smartphone and laptop at least an hour before bed. Your body mistakes the screen’s glow for sunlight, which throws off your circadian rhythms and interferes with the deep sleep that ensures you’ll wake up to gorgeous skin every day.


Pre-emptively treating skin with the right products can help you avoid problems before they begin, says American dermatologist Dr Audrey Kunin. If you’re prone to break outs right before your period, keep pores clear by using a cleanser with salicylic acid, followed with a sulphur mask mid-cycle.