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Understanding the Causes of Acne and How You Can Treat it Effectively

Whether you have one red spot right in the middle of your nose or blackheads and bumps across your face, acne can be a frustrating (and sometimes painful) condition.

But no matter how severe your case might be, there’s one thing all people can agree on: they want their acne gone!

Understanding how to treat acne starts with understanding that it’s a medical condition with several treatment options. Whether you wind up using over-the-counter solutions or prescription medications, pairing your treatment with good skin care and hygiene regimen will help you get the results you’re after.

So, let’s cut to the chase: what is acne? What’s it all about? And, most importantly, what can you do about it?

What Causes Acne? Who Can Get It?

Acne is caused by a mild bacterial infection that occurs when dead skin cells and oil from our skin (sebum) get trapped in our pores. It’s the same process that causes pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads.

But contrary to popular belief, acne doesn’t always present as pimples, whiteheads, or blackheads. Scarring and oily skin are common, too, but people with acne might also experience simple bumps on their skin.

And while most people think of acne as a teenage issue, the fact of the matter is it can affect people well into their forties as well, though this is less common. Yes, that’s right, escaping puberty doesn’t mean you’ve escaped acne and pimples!

What Types of Acne Are There?

Acne’s incredibly common and is generally split into two types: non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne. These are then broken down into different subtypes that may require a different course of treatment to allow the acne to heal and to reduce the chance of recurrence.

Treatments range from simple daily cleaning regimens with a gentle cleanser to out-patient medical procedures and skin surfacing treatments such as laser treatments or skin peels.

Let’s take a closer look at common ways acne manifests and what can be done to treat it:

  • Blackheads: These appear as the pore becomes clogged and widens. The dead skin trapped in the pore darkens when it is exposed to the air giving it a black appearance. Washing twice a day with a gentle cleanser and soft cloth will clear up blackheads and prevent recurrences.
  • Whiteheads: These are basically the same as blackheads, but the pore remains closed, resulting in a white or pink bump on the surface. Whiteheads don’t typically hurt. Washing regularly will treat and prevent them from coming back.
  • Papules: When a whitehead or blackhead starts to react with bacteria, the infection can affect surrounding skin cells and create a red bump under the skin that is tender to the touch. There is no visible “opening” or head like on blackheads and whiteheads. These will commonly diminish over a few days with regular washing. The use of over-the-counter treatments like benzoyl peroxide can help reduce their appearance and speed up healing.
  • Pustules: More commonly referred to as pimples, these occur when a whitehead or blackhead reacts with bacteria. The pore becomes inflamed and pus rises to the surface creating the signature blemished appearance of a pimple. Treat them with a topical solution like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to reduce sebum production and dry up the pimple.
  • Nodules: If you squeeze and manipulate a pustule, the bacteria can enter the surrounding tissues, creating even more inflammation, soreness, and a large collection of pus under the skin. The lump can be sizable. If you have pustules and nodules over a large section of skin, you should see a skincare expert for treatment, which can include antibiotics and steroidal medication.
  • Cysts: Cysts form in the deep layers of skin and will continue to fester and grow if left untreated. Cystic acne treatment is handled in a doctor’s office and may include extracting infected pus, steroidal medication, antibiotics, and a prescription of dapsone or retinol to reduce the chance of recurrence.

Some individuals may experience a decrease in acne with the use of some contraceptives or use of anti-androgen treatments.

Laser treatments can minimize the appearance of dark spots and scarring caused by severe acne but are not treatments for the acne itself. Chemical peels can also help lower sebum production for a period, with regular treatment helping you gain total control over acne outbreaks.

Acne Do’s and Don’ts:

Follow these simple steps to help control acne:

  • Wash twice a day using a mild cleanser and soft cloth
  • Use OTC products including salicylic acid, sulphur, azelaic acid, or benzoyl peroxide to reduce and control oil production
  • Use a non-comedogenic moisturizer and sunblock daily
  • For severe cases of acne, consult your physician or dermatologist


  • Using harsh facial scrubs or washing more than twice a day
  • Squeezing, poking, or puncturing pimples
  • Applying acne medication to open sores or infected pimples
  • Stopping the use of your medication before it is recommended–the acne can come back or become more severe. Give it a chance to work.

Popular Acne Myths

Sometimes it is better to listen to the professionals rather than your friends or old aunt who loves to spout age-old myths. Let’s bust some of the more popular misleading concepts regarding acne.

  • Sunshine will Clear Your Acne:  Getting a suntan does nothing to slow the production of sebum–the oil that is associated with acne. It may dry your skin and exposes to you an increased risk of getting skin cancer, though.
  • Junk Food Makes It Worse: No research has made a concrete connection between greasy food and the appearance of acne. They do still contribute to obesity and heart disease, though!
  • Zits are Contagious: You cannot get pimples by touching your friend who has some whiteheads—maybe they were thinking about chicken pox?
  • You’re Not Washing Enough: Acne is caused by the overproduction of sebum; washing cannot change bodily function. Scrubbing harder won’t help with acne breakouts, after all, and may leave your skin rougher and worse than before. You’re probably already washing thoroughly to handle your acne, and while certain techniques might help in this regard, it’s not like washing is going to magically cure your acne.

Your dermatologist or skin care professional will give you straight answers every time with facts backed up by scientific research and results.

What to do When You Have Acne Scars

So, you’ve finally gotten your acne under control—congratulations!

While the condition might’ve been dealt with, you may be wondering what you can do about pitting, scars, and discoloration? More severe blemishes can leave frustrating evidence on your now-clear skin.

The good news is that you can reduce the appearance of scarring with products that contain tretinoin or alpha hydroxy acid. Chemical peels can also help to shed the surface layers of skin and reveal fresh, healthy skin beneath.

For more severe scarring, microdermabrasion can remove particularly damaged skin cells to accelerate your recovery. It is important that you wait until your acne is fully healed before using any product designed to reduce scarring.

When to See a Dermatologist for Acne

Should you go see a dermatologist for acne problems? It never hurts!

Acne is a big hindrance to self-esteem and can cause people to become socially withdrawn. For that reason alone, it’s worth a trip to a skincare expert. You deserve to feel comfortable in your own skin, after all.

Depending on the severity of your acne, dermatologists may recommend certain treatments or prescribe medication.

It’s all about finding solutions to your skin issues that will leave you feeling amazing, after all. Contact us today to learn more about our acne treatment options!