The Ultimate Guide to Acne: Causes, Prevention and Treatment

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It’s embarrassing, it’s painful and it’s probably affecting your confidence in a big way. But what is acne, why do we get it and how can we cure it?

We know you’ve probably landed on this page because you’re fighting battles with your acne on a daily basis, so we’ve taken a little stress out of the process and put together this A-Z guide on all things acne. Read on to see what can be done about your skin condition.

What is acne?

Acne (acne vulgaris) is an extremely common skin condition that generally develops in around 3 out of 4 people during puberty and can continue throughout their life but usually reduces in severity after puberty.

It’s caused when a heightened production of the male hormone, testosterone, is experienced during puberty. Testosterone stimulates the oil production in your skin, called sebum, which leads to more pores and hair follicles being blocked which results in pimples, whiteheads, blackheads and blind pimples. It can range from mild to high severity and can leave permanent scarring, affect your confidence and be extremely uncomfortable.

Many other things can have an effect on your acne including:

  • Stress
  • Pregnancy
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Being overweight
  • Bad diet
  • Not enough exercise
  • Some medications
  • Hormonal changes/menstruation

When people say they have ‘acne’, they could be referring to many different things. It’s important to know where the severity of your acne places it on the charts of this skin condition because not all acne is made equal. Here’s a quick list of all the types of spots you can get from acne:

  • Blackheads – Small pores that are blocked, the dark colour is because the pore is open and reacting with the air by oxidizing
  • Whiteheads – Small, hard bumps with white in the centre of them
  • Pustules – Your classic pimples, red spots with lots of pus inside them
  • Nodules – What’s referred to as a ‘blind pimple’, hard, very red and painful bumps under your skin that cannot be squeezed

When someone has a few pimples, whiteheads or blackheads, this is less commonly referred to as acne – it is described in the medical world as non-inflammatory, mild acne and will most likely only be a few spots that develop and then disappear quickly, as specified in this medical publication.

Moderate acne will be characterized by more pimples that are generally quite inflamed and filled with pus. Then you have severe acne, and this is the one where you’ll have an abundance of pustules and nodules that are red, angry and painful. These acne spots, even when they’re not squeezed or picked at, can result in scarring or a change in the pigment of your skin in that area.

If you’re unsure what kind of acne you have, it’s best to go to the doctor for a proper diagnosis. Your doctor will also be able to take a look at your lifestyle and let you know if there’s anything you could change to lessen the severity of your pustules before you try a medical treatment.

Types of acne

Acne generally refers to spots and bumps that are most commonly on the face, back, shoulders and chest, but it isn’t unusual to have localized acne that’s severe in just one of those places. Here’s a few more types of acne you can get:

Face acne

When people think of acne, they think of acne on your face. This kind of acne is the hardest to ignore and the most detrimental to your self esteem. It’s also a bit more difficult to treat because if you have a bad reaction to the treatment, everyone is going to know. The skin on the face is extremely sensitive, especially around the eyes, so if you have this kind of acne you’re going to have to use a treatment that’s more on the gentler side of the spectrum.

Back/shoulder acne

This is a very common form of acne, characterized by pimples, blackheads and blind pimples that can range from just a few spots to covering your back. This kind of acne is generally more concentrated on the upper back and shoulders but can extend even down so far as your buttocks and is most commonly caused by sweating.

Chest acne

Another very common form of acne that will mostly be concentrated on the upper chest and is again, caused primarily by sweat but also foods with a high sugar content. This acne is more visible than back acne and therefore must be treated quickly and gently as the skin on the chest is more delicate than on the back.

Cystic acne

This kind of acne is serious and painful, it usually develops around your teens or early 20’s but, similar to normal acne, anyone of any age can get this skin condition. Cystic acne is caused by all the normal acne culprits but results in large, swollen, red bumps that are deep in the skin and filled with pus. If one of these pustules burst the infection can spread and you may get more breakouts. As it’s so severe, it’s often treated with medications like the birth control pill, antibiotics and harsh but effective acne pills like Isotretinoin (Accutane, Claravis, Absorica, etc.).

Baby acne

This is actually quite a common form of acne that affects babies and can also be called ‘milk rash’ or ‘newborn acne’. Baby acne is harmless as it doesn’t cause any discomfort to the infant or have any long lasting effects – it generally clears up in a couple weeks.

It is said to be caused when the mother’s hormones are transferred to the baby in the last few weeks of pregnancy which causes the oil glands to become overstimulated. Baby acne will be bumpy and the same colour as the baby’s skin or a slightly pinkish colour, usually no treatment is needed as it will go away on its own.

How to get rid of acne

There are a few ways of getting rid of acne, at the moment there are many, many creams, washes, spot treatments, lotions and more available on the market to help assist with acne treatment. Here’s a few of your broader options broken down:

Acne cream/face wash

There are two types of acne creams and you will need to determine which is more appropriate by the severity of your acne. If you have mild to moderate acne an over the counter cream, gel, face wash or lotion can be used to see if this will work well with your skin. Look for ingredients such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid and retin-a as these will all help target your breakouts.

If you’ve got severe or cystic acne, get your doctor to prescribe you a cream. Over the counter creams aren’t likely to be effective enough for your condition, always use prescription acne medications exactly how directed on the label and by your doctor as they can cause some serious side effects.

Isotretinoin

As mentioned above, if you have moderate to severe acne, it’s best to consult a doctor or dermatologist about the best options for you as there are many acne medications that only a doctor can prescribe. This medication is an oral retinoid (vitamin A derivative that increases cell turnover) that is very strong and generally only used as a last resort on severe acne. Side effects include mood swings, dry skin and lips, nosebleeds and more.

Contraceptives

Women can take the oral contraceptive pill as a long-term acne treatment. The pill will suppress the hormones and glands producing the excess sebum that is clogging your pores and creating your acne. This should only be used with a recommendation from your doctor or gynecologist.

Antibiotics

If you have moderate to severe acne, you can be prescribed an oral antibiotic for up to 6 months to combat bacterial growth and inflammation. This article suggests that antibiotics are generally used in conjunction with a topical treatment and your dose of antibiotics should gradually decrease until you are only using the topical treatment but still seeing the same positive effects.

Natural remedies for acne

If you’re looking for a more natural route that will be gentler on your skin but still produce some great results, you’ve got a tonne of options available to you. We’ve detailed the best natural remedies for acne below and how to use each to rid your skin of those angry pustules:

Witch hazel

This is a topical astringent that comes from the bark and leaves of a North American shrub, scientifically named Hamamelis virginiana. It is known to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory super powers and whilst there aren’t any studies that show it’s specific effect on acne, there are studies showing how efficient it is at combating bacteria and inflammation and encouraging healing.

To use: Grab a cotton ball and pour some witch hazel on it before wiping it all over your face every morning and night. It will work to dry out your acne and shrink your spots, for this reason, witch hazel is best used on oilier skin.

Apple cider vinegar

Everyone has heard of apple cider vinegar by now, it’s known to cure and help with a myriad of health issues and it’s magical properties definitely include fighting acne. This vinegar is made from fermenting apple cider and contains many organic acids that work as an astringent and a pH balancer to prevent bacteria from growing on your skin.

To use: Mix 3 parts warm water with one part apple cider vinegar and, using a cotton ball, dab it directly onto your acne. Leave this on overnight, wash thoroughly in the morning and make sure to use a good quality moisturiser to put the moisture back into your skin. Use this 2-3 times a week depending on the severity of your acne.

Essential oils

We’ve listed the top essential oils for acne; to use, you can simply mix a few drops of your chosen oil with some coconut or jojoba oil, then dab the mixture all over your face morning and night, massage it in and let it dry.

  • Tea tree oil – With antifungal properties, many acne treatment products contain tea tree oil, but you can cut straight to the chase and use it in its pure form without all the added chemicals.
  • Lavender oil – Lavender oil is known to prevent the growth of bacteria and may also help to alleviate stress, which is a main factor for acne production.
  • Peppermint oil – This essential oil is said to fight off several specifically acne-causing strains of bacteria, and it’ll leave you feeling minty-fresh!
  • Rosemary oil – Rosemary will reduce oil in your skin whilst calming the inflammation that acne causes. It will also improve your circulation which will promote your skin’s quicker healing and overall better complexion.

Coconut oil

Honestly, is there anything that coconut oil can’t do? Not only will coconut oil moisturize your skin, but it’s anti-microbial properties will attack acne when applied directly to the skin. The fatty acids in coconut oil will kill off the bacteria and work to reduce inflammation. If you’re not prone to oily skin, use this as your moisturizer day and night to help remedy your mild acne.

What are acne scars?

Acne scars are marks and indentations in the skin that are caused when acne pimples or cysts burst and the skin doesn’t produce enough collagen to fill them in. They are most commonly experienced with severe and cystic acne. It’s important to note that we are not talking about the fresh red or brown marks you experience straight after a pimple bursts, as these will most likely heal on their own.

There are a few different classifications of acne scars, most people will generally have a combination of scar types:

  • Boxcar – Depressed, broad, box shaped scars
  • Ice pick – Deep, depressed holes in the skin that look like they could have been made with an ice pick
  • Rolling – Scars with smooth edges, depressed and can look like miniscule hills and valleys
  • Keloid – Raised, red or pink scars that may be actively inflamed

How to get rid of acne scars

Before you start any kind of acne scar treatment, make sure to see a dermatologist and have them assess your skin. Discuss your options and ideas with them and let them recommend the best treatment for you. Here are some of the most common options for treating acne scars:

  • Topical retinoids (creams) to speed up cell regeneration and restore correct pigmentation to the skin.
  • Lactic acid peels, serums and lotions to improve pigmentation and texture of skin.
  • Dermatologists can offer chemical peels, dermabrasion, fillers, microneedling and more to professionally enhance collagen production to plump out your skin and reduce the appearance of scars.
  • Natural remedies like aloe vera, coconut oil, honey, baking soda and more. If you’re interested in these kinds of natural options, do some research and find a combination that works best for you. Will be most effective on mild scarring.

Remember that prevention is key, don’t pop your pimples – as tempting as it may be at the time. And if you do, don’t scratch or pick at the scabs that form afterwards as this will severely increase your chances of getting acne scars.

The Ultimate Guide to Acne: Causes, Prevention and Treatment
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