What Exactly Is Acne (and How Do You Treat It)?

Skin Symptoms & Concerns

What Exactly Is Acne (and How Do You Treat It)?

acne scars (RA)

Acne sounds like a teenage problem—like something you need to deal with at the same time when you’re stressing over algebra homework and getting your driver’s license.

But the truth? You’ve found that you didn’t leave acne in your past like you did with your braces and your school locker combination. Nope, somehow you’re still dealing with frustrating breakouts in adulthood.

You aren’t alone. While it certainly is common during puberty, people of all ages can get acne. It comes in many shapes and forms including pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, cysts, and more.

Acne is actually the most common skin condition in the United States, affecting an estimated 50 million Americans each year. What exactly is it and, even more importantly, how can you deal with it? We have the answers you need right here.

A lot of people have acne, but what exactly is it?

So, what is acne? It’s commonly thought of as a skin condition that leads to pimples and bumps, but let’s get a little more specific than that.

As Johns Hopkins Medicine explains, acne is actually related to your hair follicles and your oil glands (known as sebaceous glands).

Your oil glands are there to secrete oils and moisten your skin. Normally, this oil travels through the hair follicles to the skin’s surface. But, in someone with acne, that doesn’t happen correctly.

Instead, skin cells block the follicles. That traps the oil (known as sebum) and bacteria starts to grow inside the plugged-up hair follicles. That’s what leads to the pimples and clogged pores that are commonly seen with acne.

What causes acne?

We’ve already covered what’s happening anatomically that causes acne—oil and bacteria get trapped in your hair follicles. But why does this only happen to certain people?

There isn’t one default cause of acne. However, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, there are a number of reasons why your hair follicles and oil glands seem to work against you:

  • Family history: Some research suggests that you’re more likely to develop acne (particularly more severe, inflammatory acne) if a close relative had it.
  • Hormones: Rapidly changing hormone levels are thought to contribute to acne, which is why it’s often prevalent in teenage years, during pregnancy, and during a menstrual cycle.
  • Lifestyle choices: While research is limited, some experts think that too little sleep, too much stress, certain foods, and even oily makeup, skincare, and hair care products can worsen acne.

What are the different types of acne?

When you think of acne, you probably picture the angry, red pimples that might’ve sprouted up on your face during puberty.

However, the American Skin Association shares that there are actually several different types of acne—all that cause different types of pimples.

Generally, these are broken into two different categories: non-inflammatory acne and inflammatory acne.

  • Non-inflammatory acne (Comedonal acne): Considered to be more mild, non-inflammatory acne is characterized by small whiteheads or blackheads (known as comedones) that appear on the skin.
  • Inflammatory acne: With inflammatory acne, those comedones escalate into red or tender bumps, which are called papules or pus-filled bumps called pustules. Those bumps can continue to become larger and deeper and lead to:
    • Nodular acne: Lesions become larger and even more tender. They’re then referred to as nodules.
    • Nodulocystic acne: Along with nodules, people also have deep, fluid-filled cysts on the skin. You might also hear this simply called “cystic acne.”

While both types of acne can obviously be a nuisance, it’s the inflammatory acne that can become quite uncomfortable and even leave visible scars and marks.

How do I know what type of acne I have?

As you read the above descriptions, you might have readily picked out what type of acne you have. But if not, here’s a brief explainer of what each type typically looks like—so you can get a better idea of what you’re dealing with:

  • Non-inflammatory acne (Comedonal acne): You’ll see small white dots (whiteheads) or small black dots (blackheads) on your skin.
  • Inflammatory acne: You’ll see raised red pimples (papules) or pus-filled bumps that have a white or yellow center (pustules).
  • Nodular acne: You’ll see large lesions. These aren’t filled with pus but are typically painful.
  • Cystic acne: You’ll see large lesions. These are filled with a liquid or pus and also feel quite deep and painful.

How do I get rid of my acne quickly?

Research shows that many people who struggle with acne also deal with low self-esteem. Acne can be hard to hide, and it can also make you feel unclean—as if poor hygiene is what’s causing your skin to break out.

That’s not actually true. Anybody can develop acne, regardless of their hygiene practices and skincare routines. Even so, the more important question you want an answer to is this: How can you get rid of your acne?

The good news is that there are all sorts of treatment options out there, and the ones you use will depend on the type of acne you have and how severe it is. The Mayo Clinic breaks treatment options down into three separate categories:

  • Topical medications: These solutions come in the form of creams, gels, and lotions and are applied directly to the skin. Common topical medications for acne include retinoids to prevent plugging of hair follicles, and topical antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide, or salicylic acid to kill excess skin bacteria.
  • Oral medications: For more moderate or severe cases of acne, doctors might prescribe oral medications to help control breakouts. Common ones include antibiotics to reduce bacteria or even oral contraceptives or anti-androgen agents that help to block the effects of hormones on the oil glands.
  • Procedural treatments: Finally, sometimes doctors recommend combining certain therapies with medications. Common ones include light therapy, chemical peels, drainage and extraction of pimples, and steroid injections into nodules or cysts.

Keep in mind that there isn’t one “best” acne treatment. You might have to do some trial and error to find the option that’s the right fit for you and the type of acne you’re dealing with.

How can I prevent acne from happening in the first place?

There are options for dealing with acne breakouts when they happen. But, is there a way you can stop them from ever showing up in the first place?

Not exactly. Especially since there are so many potential underlying root causes—from genetics to hormones—there isn’t a surefire way to stop acne in its tracks.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends a few skin care habits to help people manage their acne, or at least avoid making it worse:

  • Wash your face with a gentle cleanser twice per day and after sweating, and then rinse with lukewarm water.
  • Shampoo your hair regularly, especially if you have oily hair. That will keep excess oil (which can become trapped in your skin) to a minimum.
  • Be mindful of not touching your face frequently, as that contact can cause more bacteria and acne flare-ups.
  • Avoid picking, popping, or squeezing your pimples (we know, that’s easier said than done). As tempting as it is, it can increase your chance of getting acne scars.
  • Avoid products that might irritate your skin like astringents, exfoliants, and toners as well as washcloths and mesh sponges.
  • Stay out of the sun and tanning beds. Some acne medications make skin very sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light.

Again, the above aren’t a guarantee that you’ll never deal with a pimple again—but they certainly don’t hurt.

Think acne is just for teenagers? Think again

It might seem strange to think that you could have acne at the same time as you have no curfew, a mortgage, and a college degree, but it’s true. While acne is common among teenagers, it can happen in adulthood too.

Here’s the good news: No matter your age, you don’t have to resign yourself to constant pimples and breakouts—and it all starts with finding the right treatment plan for you.

Article Reviewed By

Dr. Peter Young, MD, Facet Medical Director and Board-Certified Dermatologist

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