We often think of acne as a problem for teenagers. It makes sense: Acne typically starts, and can feel particularly pernicious, in middle and high school. Unfortunately for those of us who spent adolescence counting down the years until our acne magically cleared up, it’s not quite so simple.
A whopping number of acne sufferers still battle pimples well into their adult years. The American Acne and Rosacea Society (AARS) reports that 90 percent of people in their 20s say that acne affects their overall self-esteem and body image perceptions, and 50 percent do not feel confident in their overall appearance. To make matters worse, most people with acne don’t understand how to stop their breakouts from happening. According to a study done by the AARS, 69 percent of people in their 20s with acne say they are “at a loss” for how to treat the condition, and only 16 percent are “very satisfied” with their acne treatments. The AARS is on a mission to educate patients about acne and provide the best treatments possible. Before you can beat an enemy, you have to understand it. With help from the AARS, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to what acne is and how to beat it.
What is acne?
Acne vulgaris is the medical name for all types of acne. It’s a skin condition that occurs when inflamed oil glands cause pores to become blocked. Acne occurs primarily on the face, chest, and back (and sometimes the scalp line) because this inflammatory response occurs in the hair follicles—which means that anywhere you have hair, from peach fuzz to body hair, there is a potential for acne. The raised, red bump of a pimple called a papule or pustule, is a sign that your pores are clogged and inflamed.
In individuals, acne is caused by a variety of factors. People with oily skin may have skin that overproduces oil, resulting in clogged pores. Others may have hormonal imbalances that contribute to big, painful zits, often on the chin and nose. Your lifestyle can also lead to breakouts—factors like stress, diet, climate, medications, and skin-care products may all be culprits behind blemishes.
What are the different types of acne?
Acne is a catchall term that encompasses the varied kinds of “zits” a patient may experience throughout her lifetime. To find the best individualized treatment, it’s important to learn how to tackle each specific type of breakout. There are two categories of acne: inflammatory and non-inflammatory. Inflammatory acne consists of red, swollen pimples that occur under the skin’s surface; non-inflammatory acne is typically not accompanied by swelling. It includes pimples that break through the skin, like blackheads and whiteheads. From there, acne may break down further into papules, pustules, cysts and nodules.
Papules are inflammatory acne caused by p. acnes bacteria. It’s typified by red, swollen bumps that do not come to a head. Papules are often tender to the touch.
Pustules are papules that do come to a head with white pus at the surface. Picking or popping a pustule can cause scarring or dark spots on the skin, known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Whiteheads are non-inflammatory bumps that form when sebum and dead skin cells cause a pore to clog. The top of the pore is sealed by a small amount of skin revealing a noninflamed white bump. Whiteheads are especially common in the T-zone, or the forehead, noseand around the mouth.
Blackheads are similar non-inflammatory bumps, but these occur in an open pore. This is not dirt, but just the sebum and dead skin cells that oxidize with exposure to air creating a black bump.
Cysts are large bumps that occur under the surface of the skin and are usually tender or painful to the touch. They can be triggered by fluctuations in hormones, which is why they can occur during or around menstruation. Persistent cysts may also be a symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal imbalance that can occur in women.
How do I treat my acne?
Acne sufferers may deal with one of more of these types of acne over the course of a lifetime. Changes in hormones, environmental factors or lifestyle factors can contribute to a shift in the type of acne an individual may experience. Anyone who deals with persistent acne should visit a board-certified dermatologist who can help identify the factors that may be contributing to acne, diagnose the specific type of acne, and create a comprehensive acne treatment plan.
We recommend visiting a doctor to address individual skin concerns, but there are a few best practices that apply to anyone looking for clear skin. First, be sure to wash your face one to two times daily, choosing a cleanser that’s tailored to your skin type. Next, regularly change your towels and pillowcases and wash your makeup sponges and brushes so your skin isn’t coming into regular contact with dirty surfaces. Drink lots of water and pay attention to which foods you were eating prior to a breakout. Most importantly, never pick at your face or pop zits. Picking and popping can spread bacteria and lead to more breakouts down the line, in addition to causing acne scars or dark spots. The best acne routine is the one you determine with your dermatologist, but in the meantime, these simple steps are a great place to start.
To make sure we all have access to acne treatment, the AARS is working to persuade insurers and health care professionals to increase prescription coverage for acne and rosacea patients. Learn more about the fight to treat acne and rosacea and sign your name to support the Declaration to Save Acne here.
The American Acne and Rosacea Society is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public benefit corporation devoted to changing the misunderstanding that acne and rosacea are little more than cosmetic disorders. We strive to provide information about acne and rosacea, promote clinical research, and improve patient care. Learn more at acneandrosacea.org