Acne is much more common than most people might think and what causes acne, particularly adult acne, is more complex than simply your face being dirty.
According to research from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in North Carolina, 4 out of 5 of us have experienced a form of acne at some point. There is no known prevention, nor is there a complete cure, but there are acne treatment options that can help get rid of acne and acne scars.
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Below we explain what causes acne, what to do to lessen the impact and which ingredients to look out for when buying skincare and makeup that can help get rid of acne.
Your skin contains hair follicles which produce an oily substance called sebum. It’s the stuff that makes your skin oily or hair greasy and is necessary – in appropriate amounts – to keep both moisturised. It’s only when too much is produced (or too little) that people start running into problems.
These follicles are found at the opening of pores, so it’s easy for these pores to become clogged up, with dead skin cells, dirt, and particularly bacteria, and this is what causes blackheads, whiteheads and other kinds of spots. Clogged pores are one of the main causes of acne – or at least, it makes acne worse.
Technically, there isn’t a difference between spots and acne and defining exactly what acne is, is a little tricky. Certain strains of bacteria, like Propionibacterium acnes, are known to cause acne in some people, but not others. These bacteria become trapped in the skin and cause inflammation, which is why some people with acne have painful or hot skin to the touch.
There are then six types of spots that can be symptoms of acne; blackheads whiteheads, papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. They can appear on the face, back or chest, but the face is the most common.
Acne happens mostly during puberty because of changing hormone levels, but some people can be genetically predisposed to having acne too. Certain hormones can cause the glands in your skin to produce more sebum than usual, and this is why some women get breakouts around the time of their period, or during pregnancy.
What’s more, if your parents have/had acne, it increases your chances of getting it, and around 3% of people over 35 have acne.
Because acne is related to excess sebum, using products that remove this oily substance and unclog pores can help. Any makeup or skincare products aimed at oily skin will likely have a positive effect on acne-prone skin.
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It’s important to keep moisturising your skin, even if you think adding more products or oil will make things worse. Also, remember to exfoliate the skin and to use products that are non-comedogenic. We explain more about this in our explainer on the truth about the acids you’re putting on your skin.
According to the NHS, products with a low concentration of benzoyl peroxide may be recommended by a pharmacist, but as the word ‘peroxide’ would suggest, this does contain bleach which can be harsh.
People with severe acne might need help from a doctor. They can be treated using antibiotics, hormone regulators or a drug called isoretinoin. But these don’t work for everyone and should only be taken after seeking medical advice, and ideally after you’ve attempted to relieve the symptoms cosmetically.
What not to do
Although it might be tempting to squeeze the spots or clean your skin frequently to stop acne, doing both can actually make it worse. Washing more than twice a day can irritate your skin, while using too hot or too cold water can do the same.
Wash using a mild cleanser with lukewarm water and go for non-comedogenic makeup products.
Is there an acne cure?
While there is no known cure for acne (yet), a paper published in 2018 showed the first steps towards creating a vaccine against acne.
For the first time, the team was able to show a reduction in inflammation using a vaccine. “Once validated by a large-scale clinical trial, the potential impact of our findings is huge for the hundreds of millions of individuals suffering from acne vulgaris,” Chun-Ming Huang, from the University of California, San Diego, said at the time.This site contains affiliate links to recommended products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. We will not recommend anything we don't believe in and we are not paid by brands to include specific products unless explicitly stated.