Causes & treatments of acne

Learn more about acne & the treatment options available

What is acne?

Acne, or acne vulgaris, is a very common skin condition that affects many people at some point in their lives. It often develops during teenage years, but can be present well into adulthood, and tends to affect the face, neck, chest, back and shoulders.

Types of acne

Acne can present itself in a number of different forms. These include:

Blackheads – these are hair follicles (or pores) that are clogged with a mix of dead skin cells and oil, and they usually appear on the nose, chin and forehead. It may look as if dirt is clogging the pore, but this is actually the pigmentation of the inner lining of the hair follicle making it appear dark in colour.

Whiteheads – as the name suggests, these have a small white head but are closed off, so they won’t empty when squeezed. Whiteheads and blackheads are types of non-inflammatory acne.

Papules – small to medium in size, these spots are red and round and may feel tender or sore.

Pustules – similar to papules, these have a white centre filled with pus.

Nodules nodular acne appears as large bumps under the surface of the skin. They can be very stubborn and painful.

Cysts – cystic acne is the most severe type of the condition. It occurs when cysts form deep under the skin because of bacteria, oil and dry skin cells that get trapped in pores.

Acne can be categorised as mild, moderate or severe.

What causes acne?

Acne occurs when glands near the surface of the skin produce too much sebum, which is a type of oil designed to lubricate the skin and stop it from drying out. This excess sebum then builds up along with dead skin cells and plugs the pores. Once blocked, pores can become infected, resulting in acne.

There are a number of things that can impact the skin’s production of sebum. One of the most common is changes in hormone levels. It’s thought that the increase in testosterone during puberty is associated with acne in teenagers. Similarly, adult women may experience acne around their period or during pregnancy due to fluctuating hormone levels. Acne may also be caused as a result of other conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, and certain medications.

It’s often believed that acne occurs as a result of poor hygiene, but this is untrue. Cleansing won’t cure acne, and in fact washing your skin too much can sometimes makes it worse.

Acne treatment

For mild acne, there are many over-the-counter treatments available in the form of creams and gels that can be used to help treat it.

There are also some treatments that work by applying light to the skin in an attempt to improve symptoms. Shop our range of acne light treatment tools here.

Topical treatments gels and creams will often contain benzoyl peroxide, which helps to kill bacteria and reduce inflammation. It should be applied 20 minutes after washing, and to the whole affected area, not just the individual spots. It can cause your skin to become irritated and dry, so should be used sparingly.

Oral antibiotics –​​​​​​​ These are often used together with a gel or cream for best effect and can be prescribed by an online clinic or your GP. It can take several weeks to see any improvement.

If your symptoms don’t seem to improve with prescription treatment, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist.

Self-care for acne

There are a few things you can do in day-to-day life to help manage your symptoms, and to help prevent any more breakouts:

• Use a mild soap and warm water to wash your face

• While it’s a good idea to let your skin breathe, it’s natural for some people to want to conceal spots and blemishes with make-up. If you do want to wear make-up, try to choose products that are oil-free and non-comedogenic, meaning they won’t clog your pores. It’s important to make sure you remove your make-up completely at night before you go to sleep

• Shower after any exercise or strenuous activity, as sweat left on the skin can lead to breakouts

• Be mindful of what products you use on your hair; oils, gels and serums can transfer onto your skin and clog your pores. Use a gentle shampoo and conditioner that’s unlikely to irritate your skin, and tie your hair back if it falls onto your face

How to help reduce acne scars

Severe types of acne can sometimes result in scarring. It happens when the skin is damaged after a spot bursts or is squeezed.

Most treatment to help reduce the appearance of acne scars is considered cosmetic surgery and isn’t available on the NHS, but procedures include dermabrasion and laser treatment. To help prevent scarring, try to avoid squeezing or picking at any existing spots.