At one point or the other, everyone will have to deal with acne. It’s incredibly common, and only 1% of people will never get it. Acne usually starts popping up (pardon the pun) around puberty, and for some people never really goes away. You could be dealing with simple blackheads, or you might have painful cysts that leave scars behind.
So what types of acne are there and what causes them? Can you just treat them at home with skincare products, or should you be taking additional medication? When should you pay a visit to your dermatologist? Today, we’ll do our best to answer any questions you might have about this skin condition.
Before we begin, a little disclaimer: I am NOT a medical professional, nor a skin expert. I am simply a skincare lover that’s read tons of articles on this topic. This information is all based on my own personal research. If you have severe acne issues, I recommend you see a professional to get the best advice. Again, this is just an informative article, and should NOT be used to make a medical diagnosis.
Well, mostly hormones. To be fair, there really is no definitive answer to this question, since scientists are not sure what exactly causes you to break out. However, hormones have been pegged to be one of the biggest causes of acne. Genetics also play a part. If your parents had lots of acne, chances are you do too.
Most people start getting acne in puberty, when androgen levels (for example, testosterone) tend to go a bit wild. You could start seeing pimples pop up when your teenage years begin, around the age of 12, but it’s usually at its worst between the ages of 14 and 16. At around 19 years old, you should start to see acne clear up, but some people have it all their lives. Again, genetics.
Men usually get more acne and more severe types, since they have higher levels of androgens in their bodies. However, women also have androgens in their bodies, and any woman reading this will know how much their menstrual cycle can influence acne levels.
The reason hormones play such a big part in the acne debate is the fact that higher hormone levels increase sebum production. These increased sebum levels, combined with dead skin cells and bacteria can clog your pores, leading to a buildup of gunk and debris. This buildup causes redness, irritation and ultimately, pimples.
Acne isn’t limited to the face either! If you have facial acne, you have a 50% chance of developing bacne (back acne), but acne can also be found on your neck, arms, shoulders and chest.
What Does Not Cause Acne?
I have to admit I was guilty of believing a lot of the acne myths out there. I decided to do some research and found out that a lot of theories on acne causes out there are simply unfounded or false. Here are some common misconceptions on the causes of acne:
Eating fatty foods does not cause acne. It has no relation to your sebum levels. However, if you work in a kitchen or restaurant where oil is flying into your face all day, you might want to take extra care cleaning your face at night. Chocolate also does not cause acne. What might cause breakouts, and note the use of the word ‘might’, is sugar.
Sugar can lead to a spike in insulin levels, which for some people might increase pore clogging. However, scientific research on this topic is severely lacking, so you might just want to cut sugar out of your diet for a while and see for yourself if it clears up your skin.
Dirty skin also does not cause acne. The cause of acne is clogged pores, not dirty skin. Going in with tons of products to achieve that squeaky clean feeling will not prevent breakouts. In fact, they might make them worse.
The last big myth: make-up does not cause acne. If you do not clean off said make up properly, that will cause acne. Even if you’re very tired, even if you came home at 6 a.m., clean it off! If you don’t, you’ll be clogging your pores and will see the pimples appear soon after.
There are 6 main types of acne, all with different characteristics, level of severity and prevalence. Some types will barely bother you and will be easily treated with a good face wash, whilst others might need the intervention of a dermatologist.
Blackheads are characterized by looking like a black dot on your face. They are open clogged pores, also called open comedones. These blackheads are caused by dead skin cells being mixed with sebum, bacteria and dirt to form a white/yellowish looking mixture.
When your pore is open, i.e. not covered by a layer of skin, and this mixture is exposed to the air, it will oxidize and turn black, causing the appearance of the black dot on your face. Blackheads are most common on your nose, since pores there tend to be a bit bigger and your nose contains more oil glands than the rest of your face.
Whiteheads are the same thing as blackheads, but they have a very thin layer of skin covering them, preventing the oxidization process and preserving the white colour of the oil/dirt mixture. These whiteheads are also called closed comedones for obvious reasons.
You’ll find this type of acne mostly on your forehead, cheeks, and under eye area.
The most common and well-known type of acne: pimples. Papules are the small red bumps that you get on your face. They can be a bit sensitive to the touch, but should not be painful. They should also not have a white dot visible in the middle of them. If they do, they are pustules, not papules.
The big brother of papules. These bumps tend to be a bit bigger than pimples, and will most often have a white dot in the middle of them. This is caused by the pustule being filled with, you guessed it, pus. This pus is produced by your body in an attempt to get rid of the pimple by itself. Pustules can be a bit more sensitive to the touch, and might even be slightly painful.
Nodules are a severe form of acne and might need a doctor’s intervention. These bumps feel hard, solid and are often quite painful. They lie deep within the skin, and you will always feel a nodule coming, before you actually see it appear. They are very likely to cause scarring and permanent damage to your skin if they go untreated, so I recommend seeing a professional if you have this type of acne.
This acne type is almost like nodules, but instead of a hard and solid core, cystic acne is filled with pus and extremely painful when touched. This is the most uncommon and severe type of acne, and can leave horrible scars. To treat cystic acne, you’ll need specialized products that will clear up your skin and prevent permanent damage. If you have this type of acne, go see a dermatologist asap!
There are tons of over-the-counter medications, lotions and creams that will help clear up acne-riddled skin, and for mild acne you could always see a pharmacist to ask for some recommendations. However, if you are dealing with severe acne, or are really bothered by your breakouts, it might be worthwhile seeing a doctor or a dermatologist.
If you have nodules or cystic acne, you should be seeing a professional for sure, since scarring is so common and can have lifelong consequences. If you normally never have acne, but suddenly break out heavily, also go to a doctor to see if you don’t have an underlying condition.
Lastly, I want to talk about your mental state. Let’s face it, especially in teenage years but later on too, acne can be a cause for insecurity, embarrassment or unhappiness. You might be anxious or avoid public situations because you don’t want people to see your breakouts.
Fun fact: Studies show that 88% of people think others stare at their acne, whilst just 9% actually do. Nevertheless, if you really struggle mentally because of your acne, go see a professional, they can help clear up your skin and improve happiness.
If you do end up taking medication or prescription products, be patient before you decide they don’t work! It can take up to 3 months for them to show their full effects.
How To Treat Acne At Home
Rule number 1: Don’t make acne angry. If you irritate it, it will only increase sebum production and get worse. Use gentle, enzyme based products, and use a water-based cleanser morning and night. Exfoliate your skin twice a week to remove dead skin cells.
Use products with light textures like gel or lotion, and look for oil-free moisturizers. Also, search for products that are proven to be non-comedogenic (non-clogging). There are tons of product lines out there for acne-prone skin, so make sure to have a look at those too.
Salicylic acid (BHA) is a fantastic weapon in the fight against acne and should be included in your daily routine, as well as benzoyl peroxide. Both of these ingredients soothe skin, but cleanse deeply into your pores at the same time. Clay masks are another great purifying ingredient, and will help strip away any excess oil.
Lastly, use sunscreen! If you do end up with any scarring, you want to make sure sun damage doesn’t make it worse. Use a product that is at least SPF30 and use it every single day without fail. You might want to read my post on sun care for more information on the importance of daily sun protection.
How Not To Treat Acne At Home
Again, do not make acne angry. Don’t use harsh products that will only strip away your natural oil and protective barriers. You might be tempted to go in with the big guns, but it will only be counterproductive.
Do not use alcohol on your face. It will not dry out acne, but will dry out your skin, leading to sensitivity and dryness. Also do not use any home remedies like toothpaste, perfume, aspirin or nail polish remover. They will not work, and they will irritate your skin, making things worse.
Lastly, whatever you do, do not squeeze pimples. I cannot stress this enough, and I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it. If you know how, it can help, but most people pop pimples the wrong way, breaking skin and irritating it, or they use dirty hands, adding more bacteria to the mix. Just don’t do it, it’s not worth it.
My Treatment Recommendations
Personally, I have two brands that I really love for their anti-acne properties. Both of these brands have gentle but effective products, and contain ingredients that will soothe and clear your skin up. They are both at different price points, so depending on your budget, you might choose one or the other, but they are both fantastic options.
The first option is Paula’s Choice. I’ve talked about this brand before, and the reason why I love this kit in particular is that it contains just three products, but will make a huge difference to your skin.
Paula’s Choice is developed by dermatologists and focuses heavily on implementing scientific research into their products. This kit contains a cleanser, exfoliator and moisturizer, all developed for mild to moderate acne. If you have more severe acne, they also have a stronger version of this kit.
My second recommendation is this Mario Badescu kit. It’s one of their overall best-sellers and the brand itself is used by lots of celebrities like Jennifer Aniston. The kit offers 5 products, all with specific benefits for acne-prone skin, and the combination of these products will offer lots of acne-clearing benefits.
It’s also very affordable and thus definitely worth a try! I personally love the Mario Badescu kit, and their Drying Lotion is famous as a spot treatment.
Either of these kits will provide significant benefits for mild to moderate acne, but remember to go see a specialist if you need some more heavy-duty products.
Bringing It All Together
Acne is an extremely common skin condition and a lot of people will have to deal with it at some point in their lives. It is usually the worst during puberty, but could be a lifelong issue. Depending on the severity and how much your acne influences your life, you might want to go for over-the-counter medication or prescription lotions to treat breakout.
In severe cases like cystic acne, or if over-the-counter products don’t work, I recommend seeing your doctor or a dermatologist for expert advice.
If you do use skincare products to target acne, remember to use gentle products, and try to include salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide in your routine. Avoid harsh ingredients that will only irritate your skin and make your acne worse. Remember, don’t make acne angry.
Lastly, keep in mind to treat breakouts gently but effectively and be patient. It might take a while for your face to fully clear up, but with the right products, acne can be treated quite effectively!
Do you struggle with acne? How do you treat it? Let me know in the comments!