Everything You Need to Know About Acne

Concerned woman trying to pop a pimple
Everything You Need to Know About Acne
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In the USA alone, 60 million people suffer from acne, with 20% of them being adults.

Yes, acne is often associated with teenagers, but this skin condition can affect just about anyone, no matter your age, gender or race.

Whether you are wondering what to do about your very first flare-up, or are looking for ways to fade old acne scars, this guide will teach you all you need to know about acne.

What is Acne?

Acne is a skin condition that occurs when the skin’s hair follicles become clogged up with oil and dead skin cells. The term refers to the blocked pores, pimples, and cysts that occur when the condition flares up.

There are actually three different stages to acne:

  • Clogged Pores – your skin is constantly shedding its dead skin cells, but these can often end up trapped within the narrow openings of your pores. When this mixes together with the oil that is naturally produced by your skin, it forms a clump and plugs up the pores
  • Bacterial Infiltrationthe P.acnes bacterial strain is naturally found on the skin, but this bacteria ends up feeding off clogged pores, and therefore breeding inside them
  • InflammationIn order to fight the bacteria invading your skin, your body sends out white blood cells. This leads to the skin becoming inflamed, resulting in small bumps, pimples or cysts

While acne can appear anywhere on the skin, it is most commonly found on the face, forehead, chest, shoulders and upper back. This is because these are the areas of the body that contain the most oil glands, and your hair follicles are connected to these glands.

infographic types of acne

What Causes Acne?

There are so many different acne triggers out there, making it difficult to know the exact cause behind yours.

However, there are certain factors that have been linked to an increase in breakouts…

The first is related to your hormones… 

Hormonal fluctuations are the most common cause of acne, and this can occur for a few different reasons. With teenagers, this tends to be due to a hormone called androgen, the levels of which rise in the body as adolescence begins. This causes the oil glands to grow, producing more sebum, resulting in the growth of acne-causing bacteria.

For adult women, hormonal fluctuations commonly occur before the menstrual cycle begins each month. If you have noticed that your breakouts seem to occur around the same time each month, then this could be the cause.

Another common acne trigger is stress, but, once again, this leads back to your hormones.


Well, when you are stressed, your adrenal gland releases cortisol, the stress hormone, which helps your body to deal with the stressful situation. However, each time it does this, your body also releases a small amount of testosterone. This is the male hormone, and it stimulates the oil glands to produce more oil, which then leads to breakouts.

For those who live in a polluted environment, you should be aware of the fact that pollution has also been linked to acne flare-ups. Studies have shown that pollution changes the composition of sebum in the skin, resulting in blocked pores. Pollutants also cause a deficiency in vitamins C and E, both of which are antioxidants that are essential for fighting the damage that pollution causes. 

The way in which you care for your skin could also be triggering your acne flare-ups…

For example, over-cleansing actually dries out the skin, because it strips away your skin’s natural oils. In order to compensate for this, your oil glands amp up their oil production, resulting in skin that is much oilier in the end.

Wondering how often you should be cleansing?

No more than twice a day.

You also need to make sure that you are using the right skin care products for your skin type. Oily, acne-prone skin requires very specific ingredients, so if you are using products that are not designed for your skin type, your skin will not be getting all that it needs.

Do you use spot treatments?

Whether this may contain sulphur, salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, these ingredients are designed to dry out the skin. This is great when used sparingly, as it can help to clear away pimples, but, when overused, they can actually trigger your skin to produce more oil, in the same way that over-cleansing does.

If you frequently wear makeup, this in itself may not aggravate your acne, but failing to properly remove your makeup definitely will. Using unclean makeup brushes will have the same effect, as you are essentially spreading old bacteria all over your face.

Of course, genetics can play a part in causing acne too…

Studies show that those who have a first-degree relative who suffers from acne are four times more likely to suffer from acne themselves

Wondering whether or not your diet is causing your acne?

The jury is still out on this one. While your diet will have a direct effect on your skin, it is still currently unknown exactly how different foods have an impact on acne.

However, what researchers do know is that sugar can be a common acne-causing culprit. When you eat sugar, your insulin levels are raised, and this extra insulin could possibly be boosting your acne-triggering hormones.

When it comes to foods such as chocolate, dairy, caffeine, fried foods and more, this can vary significantly from individual to individual. Large studies are lacking, but an improvement in your diet could potentially help clear away your acne.

causes of acne

Treatments for Acne

The best treatment for your acne will depend on how severe your acne actually is.

For mild acne, there are many over-the-counter remedies that could help. Effective ingredients to look out for include:

  • Benzoyl Peroxide – kills acne-causing bacteria and slows down oil production
  • Salicylic Acid breaks down whiteheads and blackheads while reducing inflammation
  • Retin-A speeds up cell turnover which helps to unblock pores
  • Azelaic Acid slows down bacterial growth and oil production

Many of these over-the-counter products will come in different strengths.

Are you wondering which strength you need?

Begin with the lowest one available, to ensure that the active ingredients do not irritate your skin.  

For those who have moderate to severe acne, you would be best off speaking to a dermatologist, as they will be able to prescribe a stronger cream for you, and may even recommend topical antibiotics. Oral antibiotics can also help, especially for reducing inflammation and reducing bacterial growth, but the strain of acne-causing bacteria will quickly become resistant to this, meaning it is not a good long-term solution. 

Oral contraceptives are also often prescribed for acne, because they help to regulate hormones, preventing fluctuations. This tends to be a longer-term treatment plan, but if you smoke, have a history of migraines, or are over 35 years old, this may not be viable for you and you will need to speak to a doctor for more information.

Would you prefer trying a more natural treatment option first?

If so, tea tree oil is the way to go. However, it should only be used as a spot treatment, and you will need to do a patch test first to see how your skin responds to it. This then means that you can decide whether to use it diluted or undiluted, both of which are safe, so long as your skin can handle it. 

Treatments for Acne Scars

One of the major downsides to acne is that even once you have cleared your pimples away, you could still be left with unflattering scars on your skin.

woman with acne scars

But what exactly causes these scars?

They occur when your skin is damaged, whether this may be from an acne spot bursting or from your picking at a pimple. In order to heal the skin, your body produces extra collagen, increasing this with the more damage that is caused. Since picking at spots leads to subsequent damage, collagen ends up being over-produced, making your scars more obvious.

So, what can you do about them?

It takes about six months or so for scars to begin lightening naturally on their own, but there are ways in which you can help to speed up the process:

  • Exfoliation is extremely effective, as this brings the darker skin cells up to the surface of your skin 
  • Retinoids encourage your skin cells to divide quicker, therefore pushing out the cells that have a darker color sooner
  • Chemical peels, such as with glycolic acid, promotes cell turnover and helps to even out the skin tone
  • Kojic acid, soy and licorice are three natural ingredients that brighten the skin and help with discoloration
  • Sunscreen is essential if you are trying to fade your scars, as UV rays will only darken them
  • Laser treatment can improve the appearance of scars by around 30%, sometimes more 

For maximum benefits, you would be best off trying a variety of different treatments, although you do need to ensure that the ones you choose are all safe to be used alongside each other

When trying to treat acne scars, you need to ensure that you really are dealing with scars, and not just marks. Acne marks are a result of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, while scars are deeper indentations.

Preventing Acne Flare-Ups

There are many ways in which you can prevent acne flare-ups, but if you can figure out the cause of your acne, then this is your best chance.

If your acne is primarily caused by hormones, then you may need to speak to a dermatologist about this, as you will likely need a prescription product.

In terms of stress, your best bet would be to reduce the amount of stress in your life.

Easier said than done?

There are actually many effective methods to lowering stress levels, you just need to find the ones that work for you. Whether this means meditating for 15 minutes or doing some physical activity, take some time to explore common stress relievers.

Speaking of physical activity…

You need to make sure that you are wearing loose clothes when working out, and always shower once you are done, or wash your face at the very least. This prevents all of the dirt, bacteria, oil and dead skin cells that were already on the surface of your skin from mixing in with the sweat. If this happens, they will form a clump, and end up blocking your pores. Even if you do not have time to shower, wipe your body down with some facial wipes to clear away any sweat.

When it comes to pollution, this can be quite tricky…

For those who live in a city, there is not much that you can do to avoid pollution, but there are things that you can do to prevent pollution from having such a significant effect on your skin.

The first is by wearing sunscreen.

Wondering how this makes a difference to pollution?

Because the sun’s UV rays actually increase the effect that pollution has on your skin, so wearing sunscreen helps to reduce and prevent this. It also gives your skin an extra layer, and this helps to prevent pollutants from actually sticking to your skin.

Regular cleansing is also essential, as you need to physically remove all the pollutants from your skin before they can settle in to your pores.

There are other ways in which you can adjust your skin care routine to prevent acne flare-ups…

Take a look at the ingredients in the skin care products you use. There are likely to be quite a few that exacerbate, rather than prevent, acne. Here are some ingredients to avoid:

When purchasing skin care products, make sure that you opt for noncomedogenic products, because this means that it has been formulated in a way that will not clog up your pores.

There is no denying that acne can be so frustrating to deal with, but having a better understanding of this condition will make the task much easier. There are so many different treatment options out there, so even if a couple of them have not worked for you, do not give up, as you will likely soon find one that will help clear your acne.

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