What is fungal acne? Fungal acne treatments, triggers, and safe products

Do you suffer from breakouts and/or small bumps that never seem to go away? Do you feel like almost every product gives you a breakout? You might be dealing with fungal acne. Even though it sounds a little off-putting it is very common and it happens to the best of us.

What is fungal acne?

Pityrosporum folliculitis or Malassezia folliculitis is caused by excess yeast known as Malassezia building up within the hair follicles. Even though this may sound weird, we all have this ‘yeast’ living on our skin. People with fungal acne simply have too much of it causing inflammation which in turn shows on the skin as bumps. These fungal acne bumps are often confused with whiteheads which are caused by dead skin and sebum build-up which clog the pores. These two skin issues are two completely different things and therefore should be treated differently as well.

Example of Malassezia Folliculitis (Fungal Acne) via dermnetnz.org/topics/malassezia-folliculitis/
Example of Malassezia Folliculitis (Fungal Acne) via dermnetnz.org/topics/malassezia-folliculitis/

What causes Malassezia?

Fungal acne is caused by an overgrowth, disturbance, or imbalance of the natural yeast on the skin. Like most fungi, it thrives in warm climates and loves sweat and humidity. If you love working out, this might be the source of your sudden fungal acne breakout. Another cause might be antibiotics that affect the gut flora making you more susceptible to develop Malassezia. Use high-quality probiotics after you finish your antibiotics treatment to restore your gut microbiota. Additionally, those with immune deficiencies, nutritional disorders, diabetes, and or HIV are more susceptible to Malassezia folliculitis.

How do I know if I have fungal acne?

Malassezia folliculitis can often be confused with regular acne, but there are a few major differences. Fungal acne presents itself as small uniform bumps (papules and pustules), whereas regular acne varies in size. It often feels very itchy, whereas your typical acne feels sore. Even though it’s most common on the body (especially the back and chest)  it can also affect the face. Fungal acne on the face often arises on the T-Zone, which produces the most sebum.

How to treat fungal acne

Fungal acne is not acne at all and requires a completely different approach than regular acne. Conventional acne products including antibiotics won’t help your skin and might even make your symptoms worse. Make sure to talk to a dermatologist first if you are worried about your skin. Depending on the severity of the infection they may prescribe you an anti-fungal medication, a fungal acne safe cleanser, or an anti-dandruff shampoo like Head & shoulders which contains Pyrithione zinc and salicylic acid. These are both great ingredients for slowing down yeast growth.

There are also many things you can do yourself such as thoroughly cleansing your face and body after each workout. Additionally, you may want to avoid tight synthetic clothing and adjust your skincare routine to include only fungal acne safe products.

Common fungal acne triggers

There are quite a few ingredients commonly found in skincare products that can feed Malassezia and are noted as fungal acne triggers. The list of these trigger ingredients is so long we recommend searching for a product or copying its ingredient list into a database such as Folliculitis Scout or Skincarisma to check if they have any of these potential triggers. Notable ingredients that should be avoided include:

Oils & fatty acids

Unfortunately, Malassezia feeds on fatty acids which are present in a lot of skincare products. Most common ones being Myristic, lauric, linoleic, palmitic, and oleic acid. The last two being particularly helpful in the growth of fungus and therefore should be avoided at all costs. 

Esters & Polysorbates

Esters are a combination of alcohol and organic acids and are used in skincare as emollients and conditioning agents. Different combinations of alcohol and fatty acids can aid in the growth of Malassezia. Avoid all esters and polysorbates besides those which are made of caprylic or capric acid to be safe. Esters can be easily spotted in ingredient lists as they have the suffix ‘ate’ at the end. Common fatty esters include Glyceryl Stearate, Isopropyl Myristate, and Isopropyl Palmitate.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is very often praised as a magical anti-acne treatment while in reality, it is one of the last things I would dare to put on my face. Not only is it highly comedogenic (pore-clogging), almost 50% of coconut oil is composed of Lauric Acid, a fatty acid that Malassezia loves to feed on! Both those with regular and fungal acne should steer far away from this trouble maker!

Fermented ingredients

No, we are not talking about kimchi today. Fermented ingredients are a staple in Kbeauty, and the most frequently found ferment is Galactomyces. Galactomyces ferment filtrate is the liquid that comes from the fermentation process of brewing sake and is known to strengthen the moisture barrier and minimize skin troubles. Although that may sound good, Galactomyces is a type of fungus that happily feeds Malassezia. Saccharomyces, another type of fungi, that steadily gets more popular in Korean skincare may also cause your skin problems. Lactic acid-producing bacteria like Lactobacillus are safe to use.

Skin conditions associated with Malassezia

Unfortunately, the yeast of Malassezia has been linked with many other skin conditions most commonly including eczema (atopic dermatitis), psoriasis, Tinea Versicolor, and dandruff.

Because of the overlap between these conditions most treatments for fungal acne can be beneficial in minimizing the conditions above as well. Reoccurrence of these skin conditions is very common which is why we suggest setting up a periodic check with your dermatologist even after all your conditions have settled. Additionally, suddenly switching your skincare routine to products that are unsafe for FA is not recommended.

Best Kbeauty products for Fungal Acne

Feel discouraged and not sure what to use? We have compiled this list of FA-safe products that have been checked and tested by our panel. No need for ingredient list inspection anymore! We have highlighted some of our favourites here below:

We hope this guide helped you, feel free to leave any questions, product suggestions, or other remarks in the comment section below.

Lots of love Team Ichigo

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