What is Acne and How You Can Treat It?

Acne is a skin condition that occurs when your hair follicles become plugged with oil and dead skin cells. It often causes whiteheads, blackheads or pimples, and usually appears on the face, forehead, chest, upper back and shoulders. Acne is more common during teenage years, though this is a skin condition that can affect all age groups and with varying levels of severity. 

Acne typically appears on the face, forehead, chest, upper back and shoulders because these areas have the most oil (sebaceous) glands. Hair follicles are connected to oil glands, and they don’t always play nice with one another.


When the hair follicle wall bulges it produces a whitehead. When this happens closer to the skin’s surface typically the colour will darken, causing a blackhead. A blackhead may look like dirt stuck in pores, but really the pore is congested with dead skin cells and oil.  The combination of these two elements will turn brown to black when exposed to the air.


Pimples look like raised red spots with a white center. Pimples develop when blocked hair follicles become inflamed or infected with bacteria. Blockages and inflammation that develop deeper inside the hair follicles produce cyst-like lumps under the skin’s surface. Other pores in your skin, such as sweat glands, aren't usually involved in acne.

What Are the Causes?

Acne has a number of causes, types and treatment methods. Some of the most common causes are excess oil production in your skin, and hair follicles getting clogged up by dead skin cells and oil. Bacteria on the skin are also a common culprit.


Women often experience flare ups of acne about one week prior to their menstrual cycle.  Contraceptives have been shown to help with this, and the occurrences of flare ups linked to the menstrual cycle often are resolved with the use of contraceptives. 


In older adults, a sudden onset of severe acne should be paid attention to. This can signal an underlying disease that requires medical attention – in this type of circumstance, see a medical health professional such as your doctor or dermatologist right away. 

How Can It Be Treated?

There are several effective treatments for acne, but this is a skin condition that can be very persistent. Pimples and bumps are slow to heal, and when one begins to go away others seem to come take their place. If you have issues with acne, the earlier in life that you start treating it minimizes the risk of scarring your skin. 


Acne can cause stress and have negative effects on your emotional well-being.  With minor flare ups, usually self-care remedies can clear your blemishes up. However if your acne is persistent, it is best to see your doctor who can prescribe stronger medications to treat this skin condition. Dermatologists are the most specialized in treating skin conditions such as acne, often general practitioners will refer patients to a dermatologist for this reason, as they are best at determining the most effective treatment for your skin type and the kind of acne you suffer from. 


Prescription-strength acne treatments can include topical formulations, such as antibiotics, retinoids (vitamin A derivatives), benzoyl peroxide, anti-inflammatory medications (eg. dapsone and azelaic acid) and their fixed dose combinations. Oral (systemic) medication can include antibiotics, retinoids or hormonal agents (i.e. birth control pills, spironolactone).

Factors That Can Worsen Acne
  • Hormones

  • Certain Medications

  • Diet

  • Stress


Teenagers experience more acne in their skin due to the buildup of androgens. Androgens are hormones that increase during puberty, and cause the sebaceous glands to enlarge and make more sebum. Hormonal changes during pregnancy and prior to menstruation cycles are also influenced by hormones that can cause acne flare-ups. Examples of prescribed medications that can lead to acne include drugs containing corticosteroids, testosterone or lithium. 


When it comes to diet, studies indicate that certain dietary factors, including skim milk and carbohydrate-rich foods — such as bread, bagels and chips — can worsen acne. Chocolate has also long been suspected as a trigger for acne, however further research is needed in this area to determine whether people with acne would benefit from following specific dietary restrictions.


If you’re like most Americans, you like to eat plenty of high-glycemic foods and beverages, which can quickly raise your blood sugar.  Findings from small studies suggest that following a low-glycemic diet may reduce the amount of acne you have. Low-glycemic foods include most fresh vegetables, some fresh fruits, beans, and steel-cut oats.


Ever had a really bad week and noticed your skin condition worsening? Stress has also been linked to making acne conditions worsen.



There are a few myths about what causes acne. These factors, although commonly believed to have an effect on acne conditions in reality have little to no effect:


  • Eating greasy food

  • Poor hygiene

  • Cosmetics


Eating greasy food will not make your acne worse, or lead to you having acne. However, working in a greasy area such as an industrial kitchen with fryers can have an effect due to oil sticking to the skin and blocking hair follicles. Diet definitely has an effect overall on the presence of acne on your skin, however eating one greasy burger is not going to set off an acne flare. 


When it comes to hygiene, remember that acne is not caused by dirty skin. In fact if you are scrubbing your skin too hard or cleansing with harsh chemicals this can worsen your acne and the overall condition of your skin. 


Use of cosmetics should not be avoided if you have acne either – cosmetics don’t necessarily worsen acne, especially if you are using oil-free makeup that that doesn't clog pores (noncomedogenics). However, you do want to choose your cosmetics carefully, and pay attention to how your skin reacts to different types of cosmetics. Some cosmetics can lead to a type of acne called acne cosmetica – for example if you notice tiny bumps around your lips this could be from a type of lipstick or lip balm that isn’t interacting well with your skin. 


Remember to remove your makeup at night and cleanse your skin regularly, and you will prevent your pores being blocked. Non-oily cosmetics don't interfere with the effectiveness of acne drugs either, so don’t throw away your foundation just yet!

Fact or Fiction - Myths About Acne
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