Zits. Pimples. Blemishes. No matter what you call them, acne can be distressing and annoyingly persistent. Acne lesions heal slowly, and when one begins to resolve, others seem to crop up. This ongoing battle and long-lasting cycle is both wearisome and frustrating.
Hormones likely play a role in the development of acne, making the condition most common in teenagers. But people of all ages can get acne. Some adult women experience mild to moderate acne due to hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, their menstrual cycles, or starting or stopping birth control pills.
Teenage and adult acne can take months or years to treat successfully. Depending on its severity, acne can cause emotional distress and lead to scarring of the skin.
The good news is that effective treatments are available. Acne treatment for mild cases usually involves self-care measures, such as washing your skin daily with a gentle cleanser and using an over-the-counter acne cream. Acne treatment for severe cases usually includes one or more prescription medications. Once acne is under control, prevention strategies can help keep your skin clear of breakouts.
Once your acne improves or clears, you may need to continue your acne medication or other treatment to prevent new acne breakouts. In some cases, you might need to use a topical medication on acne-prone areas, continue taking oral contraceptives or attend ongoing light therapy sessions to keep your skin clear. Talk to your doctor about how you can prevent new eruptions.
You can also prevent new acne breakouts with self-care measures, such as washing your skin with a gentle cleanser and avoiding touching or picking at the problem areas. Other acne prevention tips include:
- Wash acne-prone areas only twice a day. Washing removes excess oil and dead skin cells. But too much washing can irritate the skin. Wash areas daily with a gentle cleanser and use oil-free, water-based skin-care products.
- Use an over-the-counter acne cream or gel to help dry excess oil. Look for products containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid as the active ingredient.
- Avoid heavy foundation makeup. Choose powder cosmetics over cream products because they’re less irritating.
- Remove makeup before going to bed. Going to sleep with cosmetics on your skin can clog tiny openings of the hair follicles (pores). Also, be sure to throw out old makeup and clean your cosmetic brushes and applicators regularly with soapy water.
- Wear loosefitting clothing. Tightfitting clothing traps heat and moisture and can irritate your skin. Also, whenever possible, avoid tightfitting straps, backpacks, helmets or sports equipment to prevent friction against your skin.
- Shower after exercising or doing strenuous work. Oil and sweat on your skin can trap dirt and bacteria.
Acne typically appears on your face, neck, chest, back and shoulders, which are the areas of your skin with the largest number of functional oil glands. Acne can take the following forms:
- Comedones (whiteheads and blackheads). Comedones (kom-uh-DO-neze) are created when the openings of hair follicles become clogged and blocked with oil secretions, dead skin cells and sometimes bacteria. When comedones are open at the skin surface they’re called blackheads because of the dark appearance of the plugs in the hair follicles. When comedones are closed, they’re called whiteheads — slightly raised, skin-colored bumps.
- Papules. These are small raised bumps that signal inflammation or infection in the hair follicles. Papules may be red and tender.
- Pustules. Similar to papules, pustules are red, tender bumps with white pus at their tips.
- Nodules. These are large, solid, painful lumps beneath the surface of the skin. They’re formed by the buildup of secretions deep within hair follicles.
- Cysts. These are painful, pus-filled lumps beneath the surface of the skin. These boil-like infections can cause scars.
Causes of Acne
Three factors contribute to the formation of acne:
- Overproduction of oil (sebum)
- Irregular shedding of dead skin cells resulting in irritation of the hair follicles of your skin
- Buildup of bacteria
Acne occurs when the hair follicles become plugged with oil and dead skin cells. Each follicle is connected to sebaceous glands. These glands secrete an oily substance known as sebum to lubricate your hair and skin. Sebum normally travels up along the hair shafts and then out through the opening of the hair follicle onto the surface of your skin. When your body produces an excess amount of sebum and dead skin cells, the two can build up in the hair follicle and form together as a soft plug.
This plug may cause the follicle wall to bulge and produce a whitehead. Or, the plug may be open to the surface and may darken, causing a blackhead. Pimples are raised red spots with a white center that develop when blocked hair follicles become inflamed or infected. Blockages and inflammation that develop deep inside hair follicles produce lumps beneath the surface of your skin called cysts. Other pores in your skin, which are the openings of the sweat glands onto your skin, aren’t normally involved in acne.
It’s not known what causes the increased production of sebum that leads to acne. But a number of factors — including hormones, bacteria, certain medications and heredity — play a role.
Contrary to what some people think, foods have little effect on acne. Acne also isn’t caused by dirt. In fact, scrubbing the skin too hard or cleansing with harsh soaps or chemicals irritates the skin and can make acne worse.
Hormonal changes in your body can provoke or aggravate acne. Such changes are common in:
- Teenagers, both in boys and girls
- Women and girls, two to seven days before their periods
- Pregnant women
- People using certain medications, including cortisone
Other risk factors include:
- Direct skin exposure to greasy or oily substances, or to certain cosmetics
- A family history of acne — if your parents had acne, you’re likely to develop it too
- Friction or pressure on your skin caused by items such as telephones or cell phones, helmets, tight collars and backpacks.
Acne treatments work by reducing oil production, speeding up skin cell turnover, fighting bacterial infection, reducing the inflammation or doing all four. With most prescription acne treatments, you may not see results for four to eight weeks, and your skin may get worse before it gets better.
Your doctor or dermatologist may recommend a prescription medication you apply to your skin (topical medication) or take by mouth (oral medication). Oral prescription medications for acne should not be used during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester.
Types of acne treatments include:
- Topical treatments. Acne lotions may dry up the oil, kill bacteria and promote sloughing of dead skin cells. Over-the-counter lotions are generally mild and contain benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, resorcinol, salicylic acid or lactic acid as their active ingredient. These products can be helpful for very mild acne. If your acne doesn’t respond to these treatments, you may want to see a doctor or dermatologist to get a stronger prescription lotion. Tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, Renova) and adapalene (Differin) are examples of topical prescription products derived from vitamin A. They work by promoting cell turnover and preventing plugging of the hair follicles. A number of topical antibiotics also are available. They work by killing excess skin bacteria. Often, a combination of such products is required to achieve optimal results.
- Antibiotics. For moderate to severe acne, prescription oral antibiotics may be needed to reduce bacteria and fight inflammation. You may need to take these antibiotics for months, and you may need to use them in combination with topical products.
- Isotretinoin. For deep cysts, antibiotics may not be enough. Isotretinoin (Accutane) is a powerful medication available for scarring cystic acne or acne that doesn’t respond to other treatments. This medicine is reserved for the most severe forms of acne. It’s very effective, but people who take it need close monitoring by a dermatologist because of the possibility of severe side effects. Isotretinoin is associated with severe birth defects, so it can’t be taken by pregnant women or women who may become pregnant during the course of treatment or within several weeks of concluding treatment. In fact, the drug carries such serious potential side effects that women of reproductive age must participate in a Food and Drug Administration-approved monitoring program to receive a prescription for the drug. In addition, isotretinoin may increase the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood and may increase liver enzyme levels. Although cause and effect hasn’t been proved, studies have reported the development of inflammatory bowel disease with isotretinoin use.
- Oral contraceptives. Oral contraceptives, including a combination of norgestimate and ethinyl estradiol (Ortho-Cyclen, Ortho Tri-Cyclen), have been shown to improve acne in women. However, oral contraceptives may cause other side effects that you’ll want to discuss with your doctor.
- Laser and light therapy. Laser- and light-based therapies reach the deeper layers of skin without harming the skin’s surface. Laser treatment is thought to damage the oil (sebaceous) glands, causing them to produce less oil. Light therapy targets the bacterium that causes acne inflammation. These therapies can also improve skin texture and lessen the appearance of scars, so they may be good treatment choices for people with both active acne and acne scars.
- Cosmetic procedures. Chemical peels and microdermabrasion may be helpful in controlling acne. These cosmetic procedures — which have traditionally been used to lessen the appearance of fine lines, sun damage and minor facial scars — are most effective when used in combination with other acne treatments.
Acne scar treatment
Doctors may be able to use certain procedures to diminish scars left by acne. These include fillers, dermabrasion, intense light therapy and laser resurfacing.
- Soft tissue fillers. Collagen or fat can be injected under the skin and into scars to fill out or stretch the skin, making the scars less noticeable. Results from this acne scar treatment are temporary, so you’d need to repeat the injections periodically.
- Dermabrasion. Usually reserved for more severe scarring, dermabrasion involves removing the top layer of skin with a rapidly rotating wire brush. Surface scars may be completely removed and deeper acne scars may appear less noticeable. Dermabrasion may cause pigmentation changes for people with darker skin.
- Microdermabrasion. This newer acne scar treatment involves a hand-held device that blows crystals onto skin. These crystals gently abrade or “polish” the skin’s surface. Then, a vacuum tube removes the crystals and skin cells. Because just the surface cells are removed, the skin isn’t damaged. However, results are subtle and scars may still be noticeable, even after several sessions.
- Laser, light source and radiofrequency treatments. In laser resurfacing, a laser beam destroys the outer layer of skin (epidermis) and heats the underlying skin (dermis). As the wound heals, new skin forms. Less intense lasers (nonablative lasers), pulsed light sources and radiofrequency devices don’t injure the epidermis. These treatments heat the dermis and cause new skin formation. After several treatments, acne scars may appear less noticeable. This means shorter recovery times, but treatment typically needs to be repeated more often and results are subtle.
- Skin surgery. A minor procedure (punch excision) cuts out individual acne scars. Stitches or a skin graft repairs the hole left at the scar site.
You can avoid or control most acne with good basic skin care and the following self-care techniques:
- Wash problem areas with a gentle cleanser. Products such as facial scrubs, astringents and masks generally aren’t recommended because they tend to irritate skin, which can worsen acne. Excessive washing and scrubbing also can irritate skin. If you tend to develop acne around your hairline, shampoo your hair frequently.
- Try over-the-counter acne lotion to dry excess oil and promote peeling. Look for products containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid as the active ingredient.
- Avoid irritants. You may want to avoid oily or greasy cosmetics, sunscreens, hair-styling products or acne concealers. Use products labeled “water-based” or “noncomedogenic.” For some people, the sun worsens acne. Additionally, some acne medications can make you more susceptible to the sun’s rays. Check with your doctor to see if your medication is one of these, and if so, stay out of the sun as much as possible and anytime you have to be in the sun, use sunscreen that doesn’t clog your pores.
- Watch what touches your face. Keep your hair clean and off your face. Also avoid resting your hands or objects such as telephone receivers on your face. Tight clothing or hats also can pose a problem, especially if you’ll be sweating. Sweat, dirt and oils can contribute to acne.
- Don’t pick or squeeze blemishes. Picking or squeezing can cause infection or scarring. Most acne will clear up without this kind of intervention. If you need aggressive treatment, see your doctor or dermatologist.