Most of us have experienced acne at some point in life. Whether that’s in teenage years, adulthood or beyond — time does not make the issue feel any better. The annoying red bumps, painful cysts, scarring and sensitivity is not fun and can really put a damper on your day or self-esteem in general.
Since acne is so common, there’s a lot of information out there about why it happens, how to treat it and what products you should use. To cut through the noise and get some clarity on the issue, I asked Dr. Caren Campbell, a board-certified dermatologist, for the rundown on why acne happens, and what you can do about it. Keep reading to find out more about the causes of acne, and what you can do to treat and prevent it.
What is acne and what causes it?
Acne is a skin condition that causes whiteheads, blackheads, pimples or cysts to form on the skin. This commonly happens on the face, but it can occur on other places on your body like your back or chest.
Even though acne can be caused by several factors, the most common cause is hormones. “The driving force behind most acne is androgen hormones (aka testosterone) which drives oil production. This is why acne starts at adolescence with puberty. The increased oil on the skin creates a hospitable environment for the acne-causing bacteria to overgrow,” Campbell says.
Another contributing factor to acne is clogged pores. “Dead skin cells also clog the pore, and other skincare products we put on the skin that are comedogenic (pore-clogging), and then oil, dead skin cells, product and acne bacteria are all in the pore. The body doesn’t like this collection of skin cells, oil and bacteria and sends inflammatory cells (white blood cells) to the site, causing painful, pus-filled lesions — cystic acne,” Campbell says.
Adhering to a basic skincare routine can help prevent it, but because acne is a multifaceted issue, skincare alone often is not enough to solve the issue — especially if it’s severe. If your acne is difficult to treat or comes back time and time again, it may also be worth looking into your diet.
Processed foods, fried foods and foods with high amounts of sugar can contribute to underlying inflammation, which can trigger acne. Studies show that diets with a high glycemic load, or diets that include a lot of starch and sugar are linked to acne. Studies on the relationship between dairy consumption and acne have pointed to dairy as a potential cause. But, as this study points out, the research can’t distinguish whether it is due to the dairy itself or the hormones in milk.
The best way to know if food is involved is to work with a registered dietician or nutritionist who can help guide you on which foods could be the culprit or help you do an elimination diet.
Common acne treatments
Treatments for acne will vary based on the severity and the cause. Topical treatments, which you can get over the counter or through a dermatologist are one way to treat acne. Look for products with benzoyl peroxide, since it can help the skin topically.
“Benzoyl peroxide helps kill acne-causing bacteria and unclog the pore. Differin makes a and that is a great place to start for an anti-acne routine,” Campbell says.
Another topical chemical that can help is retinoid or vitamin A. “Treatments for acne are aimed at addressing the underlying cause, and retinoids are the most effective at addressing most of the underlying causes with the exception of the hormonal component. Retinoids remove the top layer of dead skin cells, dry up the oil, kill that acne-causing bacteria and are anti-inflammatory,” Campbell says.
But if the true root cause is hormone or diet related, topical treatments may not help. If you suspect hormones are to blame, a dermatologist may suggest a specific type of birth control to lower hormones that may be causing acne. You can also look into natural ways to balance hormones, like through diet, getting enough sleep, exercise and other lifestyle changes that a professional like a dietician or health coach can help you with.
“Hormonal issues can be addressed with birth control pills as they bind free testosterone in the blood and lower the hormones causing the oil production, or other medications like spironolactone can be helpful,” Campbell says. Spironolactone is a diuretic that is also known to lower testosterone, which can help treat acne in women.
According to Campbell, drinking three cups of spearmint tea a day is known to have anti-androgen effects, which is an easy and natural treatment to try — but you should always talk to a doctor first before you start a new treatment.
What can you do to prevent it
Eating healthy, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and are great places to start when it comes to acne and getting good skin. Since acne is linked to inflammation and hormones, taking a total body approach is more likely to help than focusing on specific skincare products that can only do so much.
That said, maintaining a good skincare regimen is recommended by dermatologists. You don’t need to buy expensive products to do that either. A simple cleanser, moisturizer and a targeted serum (like one with acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid) can go a long way. Don’t forget to wash your face, especially before bed to prevent clogged pores and a buildup of oil.
Always remove your makeup, and cleanse after you go to the gym, too. Sweating at the gym and leaving without cleansing (even if it’s just for an hour or so) is a recipe for clogged pores fast. You don’t want all the dirt, bacteria, sweat and oil to hang out on your skin for too long.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.