What Is Acne? And Ways To Treat Acne

Acne is a very common skin condition, affecting 9.4% of the global population. Varying from mild breakouts to sore cysts, it can cause you to feel self-conscious every time you look in the mirror—and even scar the skin.

But what exactly is acne and how do you treat it?

We aim to answer all your questions in this ultimate guide to acne.

What is Acne?

First things first, let’s explore what acne is and what causes it.

Simply put, acne consists of spots on your face, back and chest. Your skin may be oily—and sometimes even hot or painful to touch.

In the United States alone, acne affects between 40 million and 50 million individuals. Even though teenagers mostly make up these numbers, you may also get acne as a child or adult.

In fact, one study found facial acne in 54% of women and 40% of men older than 25 years.

The Causes of Acne

Acne occurs when the small holes in your skin attached to your hair follicles, known as pores, become clogged. This could be down to a number of reasons. That said, here are some of the most common contributors.

1. Excess Production of Oil: Your sebaceous glands are attached to the hair follicles. They’re responsible for lubricating the hair and skin to prevent it from drying out by producing an oil called sebum. Acne is caused when your glands start to make too much sebum and mix with dead skin cells, forming a plug in the follicle.

2. Bacteria: Harmless bacteria that live on the skin can contaminate and infect clogged pores, which can then result in acne.

3. Hormonal changes: Androgens are hormones that accelerate in girls and boys during puberty. They cause the sebaceous glands to grow in size and produce more sebum. Women can also experience hormone changes during midlife, leading to further breakouts.

Is acne a sign of pregnancy? According to Medical News Today, many women may experience acne as an early indicator of being pregnant. Others may already have acne but it could get worse as the pregnancy goes on.

Other factors that may trigger or worsen acne are:

  • Ingrown hairs
  • Inflammation
  • Stress
  • Particular medications
  • Diet

Further study is needed to determine whether those with acne would benefit from specific dietary restrictions. Having said that, some research suggests that consuming carbohydrate-rich foods (like bread, chips, and bagels) can worsen acne.

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Alongside what you eat, you may be wondering “is my face wash causing acne?” Well, the truth is, some skincare, makeup and hair care products may have certain ingredients that don’t suit your skin. Consequently, using them can result in acne.

If you try a new product and immediately notice new breakouts, stop using it as soon as possible.

Likewise, you may be wondering “can Vaseline cause acne”? Simply put, petroleum jelly is non-comedogenic, as first reported in The Journal of Cosmetic Science.

A “non-comedogenic” substance means that it won’t clog pores or cause acne. Even so, applying petroleum jelly can trap bacteria within your complexion, worsening any current breakouts.

The Types of Acne

There are two types of acne: noninflammatory and inflammatory. Let’s address both of them.

Noninflammatory Acne

Blackheads and whiteheads fall under the noninflammatory acne category.

What are blackheads (or open comedones)? These occur when a pore is clogged by a combination of sebum and dead skin cells. Although, the top of the pore stays open, which is why you can see a dark color on the surface.

A blackhead can look like dirt is stuck in the pores. In truth, the pore becomes congested with bacteria and oil, which then turns brown as it’s exposed to the air.

Whiteheads, on the other hand, are known as closed comedones. They form in the same way as blackheads because of sebum and dead skin cells. However, the key difference is that the top of the pore closes up and protrudes, causing the white, bumpy appearance.

Inflammatory Acne

Red and swollen pimples are referred to as inflammatory acne. 

Just like noninflammatory acne, sebum and dead skin cells can play a part in inflammatory acne. That said, bacteria known as Propionibacterium acnes (or P. acnes for short) can also clog your pores.

This results in the following acne spots that are painful and can linger.

  • Papules: These occur when the walls surrounding your pores are severely inflamed and begin to break down. The skin around these pores is pink, hard, and tender to touch.
  • Pustules: These form in the same way as papules, but pustules are filled with pus. They’re red in color with yellow or white heads on top.
  • Nodules: These occur when clogged pores become more irritated and enlarged. They are deeper underneath the skin compared to papules and pustules.
  • Cysts: This is the largest form of acne that usually results from a severe infection. Cysts consist of red or white bumps that are painful to touch. They’re further below the surface than nodules and the most likely type of acne to scar.

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Speaking of, keep in mind that picking or popping inflammatory acne can lead to permanent scarring.

Key Ways to Treat Acne

Coping with acne can be challenging, especially when it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Even though it’s tempting to sob into your pillow every night (hey, we’ve all been there), try these treatment options instead.

1. Make Small Lifestyle Changes

Firstly, we cannot stress enough the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, i.e., eating the right foods, drinking plenty of water, and sleeping for at least eight hours per day.

Take the latter, for example. Did you know that increased sleep quality and duration can ease acne and other skin disorders?

Your body needs time to rest and your acne needs time to heal. Therefore, by committing to early nights and a consistent sleeping schedule, you can improve the appearance of your skin.

Likewise, eating and drinking clean can significantly affect acne. One study found that people were more likely to experience breakouts by consuming:

  • High-fat foods (such as milk and meat)
  • Sugary foods and beverages
  • A combination of high-fat and high-sugar foods

Plus, drinking more water can reduce inflammation and improve immune function. This can help to protect your skin against the bacteria that contributes to acne.

2. Create a Suitable Skincare Routine

As well as taking care of your body, you need to take care of your skin.

Acne-prone skin is sensitive, so be sure to follow these rules:

  • Wash your face twice a day when you get up and before you go to sleep
  • Wash your face after sweating
  • Don’t overwash your face because this can make acne worse

Even if your skin feels greasy or dirty, avoid scrubbing too hard when you’re washing it because this can cause irritation and worsen acne.

Speaking of keeping clean, wash anything that may touch your acne-prone skin, from pillowcases and towels to hats and scarves.

Why? Well, dead skin cells, dirt and bacteria will build up on these surfaces, which can clog your pores.

Finally, if you're looking to take your skincare routine to the next level, use a silicone facial cleansing massager to maximize the efficiency of your skincare products and clean deeper than you can with hands or washcloths. 

3. Use the Right Skincare Products

Every body is different and there’s no magic cure for acne. That said, all cases can benefit from using the following products:

  • Mild cleansing bars or liquid, which will keep the skin clean and minimize any sensitivity
  • Exfoliating cleansers and masks, which may contain salicylic, glycolic or alpha hydroxy acids that work as a mild peeling agent to remove the outer layer of skin and gently open pores
  • Retinol, which is a derivative of vitamin A that can help unclog pores, reduce oiliness, and promote skin peeling

It’s possible to buy products that contain acne-fighting ingredients over the counter from a pharmacy or online store.

Benzoyl peroxide is particularly effective against the P. acnes bacteria. You can get it in the form of an OTC cleanser or toner. 

In fact, antibacterial pads containing benzoyl peroxide have the added benefit of helping to wipe away oil. Masks containing sulfur and resorcinol also do a similar job.

The only downside to benzoyl peroxide is that it causes red and scaly skin in some people. In addition to this, it has the ability to bleach fabrics and materials that it comes into contact with.

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How to Treat Acne with Dry Skin

Acne-fighting products, in general, are known to cause dryness. This is especially tough for those suffering from acne with dry skin.

The best acne dry skin products that are over the counter consist of lotions, creams, or ointments. These are often more emollient and less drying.

Avoid a harsh, stripping cleanser in the form of foam. Non-foaming options work better as an acne dry skin cleanser that leaves your skin feeling and looking clean but not overly dry.

Even though it may be tempting to go with a moisturizer for acne and dry skin, avoid those that are labeled ‘acne dry skin moisturizer.’ 

Look for an oil-free, non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic brand. Don’t choose an acne prone dry skin moisturizer that contains strong ingredients that will actually dry the pores out further.

Like with any acne product, try one acne dry skin treatment and give it at least 4 weeks to notice an improvement. Trying too many treatments at once can stress out your skin and make acne worse.

4. Get a Facial with Extraction

Getting a regular facial can help with acne breakouts, depending on the type you have and how severe it is.

Generally speaking, facials are suitable for mild, noninflammatory breakouts. They are especially helpful for removing whiteheads and blackheads.

How? Well, during the facial, estheticians can perform what’s called an extraction. This is where they can do three things:

  • Clear closed comedones (the flesh-colored bumps that never come to a head)
  • Eliminate whiteheads and blackheads
  • Give your skin a fresher foundation to allow increased absorption of skincare products

Oh, and you’ll need to have a facial done every 4-6 weeks to get results, given that your skin continually evolves.

5. Visit a Dermatologist

If you feel like you’ve tried every acne treatment possible but your breakouts still won’t shift, it might be time to visit a dermatologist.

Blackheads and whiteheads can usually be cleared up with the over-the-counter products we talked about earlier. If they don’t respond to these, your dermatologist may suggest topical retinoids. 

Adapalene gel is a type of retinoid that is now available over the counter.

Pustules and papules can also respond to retinoids, whether they’re prescribed or over-the-counter products.

For more severe forms of acne, such as nodules and cysts, your dermatologist may prescribe oral medication, antibiotics, or contraceptive pills.

  • Isotretinoin (Sotret) is made from a derivative of vitamin A and works by decreasing the oil gland size within the pores. Most courses last for 4-6 months.
  • Some antibiotics for acne-prone skin consist of erythromycin, tetracycline, and clindamycin. Typical courses last 3-6 months.
  • Contraceptive pills can be effective for females who have acne. It usually takes at least 3 months to see the benefits.

Essentially, your dermatologist will take a look at your particular case of acne and offer recommendations based on what will work best for you.

If you’re experiencing post-acne scarring, the use of a facial cleansing massager can increase blood circulation and collagen production leading to a faster skin turnover rate. In addition, there are some techniques available that can improve the skin’s appearance. Other techniques include:

  • Light therapy
  • Laser resurfacing
  • Steroid injections
  • Microneedling
  • Subcision

Sometimes you may experience changes in skin pigmentation, which can stick around long after acne has been treated. In this case, your dermatologist may suggest skin camouflage to disguise these changes.

The Takeaway

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Acne can appear on your face, forehead, chest, upper back and shoulders at any age. It can vary in severity and cause emotional distress.

Having said that, the good news is that all forms of acne, from blackheads to whiteheads, pustules to papules, nodules to cysts, are treatable.

(Hang in there!)