What is acne?

Acne is a common skin condition where the pores of your skin become blocked by hair, sebum (an oily substance), bacteria and dead skin cells. Those blockages produce blackheads, whiteheads, nodules and other types of pimples. If you have acne, know you’re not alone. It’s the most common skin condition that people experience. It’s estimated that 80% of people ages 11 to 30 will have at least a mild form of acne, and most people are affected by it at some point in their lives.

Who does acne affect?

Though it mainly affects teenagers and young adults undergoing hormonal changes, many people continue struggling with acne into their 20s, 30s and beyond. Some even develop acne for the first time as adults.

Where does acne most commonly occur?

The most common spots where you might have acne are your face, forehead, chest, shoulders and upper back. Oil glands are all over your body, but those are the places where there are the most. The best way to treat acne depends on how severe it is. Acne can be mild (a few occasional pimples) moderate (inflammatory papules) or severe (nodules and cysts).

What are the different types of acne?

Acne can take several forms. They include:

  • Blackheads: Open bumps on the skin that fill with excess oil and dead skin. They look as if dirt has deposited in the bump, but the dark spots are actually caused by an irregular light reflection off the clogged follicle.
  • Whiteheads: Bumps that remain closed by oil and dead skin.
  • Papules: Small red or pink bumps that become inflamed.
  • Pustules: Pimples containing pus. They look like whiteheads surrounded by red rings. They can cause scarring if picked or scratched.
  • Fungal acne (pityrosporum folliculitis): This type occurs when an excess of yeast develops in the hair follicles. They can become itchy and inflamed.
  • Nodules: Solid pimples that are deep in your skin. They are large and painful.
  • Cysts: Pus-filled pimples. These can cause scars.

All of these forms of acne can affect your self-esteem. It’s best to seek help from your healthcare provider early so they can help determine the best treatment option(s) for you.

What causes acne?

Acne is largely a hormonal condition that’s driven by androgen hormones, which typically become active during the teenage and young adult years. Sensitivity to these hormones — combined with surface bacteria on the skin and fatty acids within oil glands — can result in acne.

Certain things can cause acne and/or make it worse:

  • Fluctuating hormone levels around the time of a woman’s period.
  • Picking at acne sores.
  • Clothing and headgear, like hats and sports helmets.
  • Air pollution and certain weather conditions, especially high humidity.
  • Using oily or greasy personal care products (like heavy lotions, creams or hair pomades and waxes) or working in an area where you routinely come in contact with grease (such as working at a restaurant where there are greasy food surfaces and frying oil).
  • Stress, which increases the hormone cortisol, can also cause acne to flare.
  • Some medications.
  • Genetics.

Does chocolate cause acne?

Some studies have linked particular foods and diets to acne. Skim milk, whey protein and diets high in sugar may contribute to acne flares. Chocolate has not been directly linked to acne.

Why do so many teenagers get acne?

One of the causes of acne is a surge in hormones called androgens (specifically testosterone), which both women and men produce. Those hormones tend to be at their peak during the teen years.

Do certain foods cause acne?

For the most part, hormonal changes in the body drive acne. There is some evidence that skim milk, whey protein and diets high in sugar may cause acne breakouts, although this remains controversial.

Eating a balanced, nutritious diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those rich with vitamin C and beta carotene, helps reduce inflammation. There is also some evidence that eating fish can help.

Can acne cause scars?

Acne does sometimes result in scarring. It happens when the acne penetrates the skin and damages the deeper layers. Inflammation makes the acne pores swell and breakdown occurs in the wall of the pore. Scarring can, of course, be a source of anxiety, which is normal. But before it can be treated, your healthcare provider will determine what type of acne caused the scars.

There are several available treatment options. Chemical peels, dermabrasion, laser resurfacing, microneedling and surgery can all be used to treat acne scars.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/01/2020.

References

  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Questions and Answers about Acne. Accessed 8/31/2020.
  • American Academy of Dermatology. Acne: Overview. Accessed 8/31/2020.
  • Di Landro A, Cazzaniga S, Parazzini F, et al. Family history, body mass index, selected dietary factors, menstrual history, and risk of moderate to severe acne in adolescents and young adults. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2012;67(6):1129–1135. Accessed 8/31/2020.

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