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What is Acne

One of the most common skin conditions that people encounter in their lives is acne. Although this pesky skin condition is typically associated with adolescents, teens, and young adults, it is a condition that can affect anyone from babies to seniors. While some people have a skin type that is more prone to breakouts, others may experience the isolated occurrence of a pimple much less frequently. And just like acne can show up across skin types, ages, and even location on the body, it can also look much different depending on the person affected. As a such a broad condition, it might seem impossible to really understand what acne is and how to treat it, but that’s where we come in. Understanding what is acne and how your skin is affected by it is the first step to determining a treatment that can work to improve it.

Understanding Acne

Although many people define acne as the irritating red bumps that can appear on the skin, the beginnings of an acne blemish start well before you can actually see it. The true start of an acne blemish begins deep within the skin’s pores. Many people think pores are only located on the face but on average, a person can have as many as five million pores covering their body from head to toe. The majority of these pores are tiny and don’t cause any troubling skin concerns, however, there is a small percentage of pores that are responsible for acne breakouts. When a pore gets filled with dirt, oil, or other impurities that aren’t cleared away, that pore becomes clogged. And at the start of every acne breakout, you will find a clogged pore.

Once the pore is clogged, the long acne cycle begins. From there, the clogged pore continues to produce oil as normal causing a greater buildup within the pore. Sometimes you can see this buildup in the form of a whitehead or blackhead. Normal bacteria that lives on the skin can use this buildup to multiply and thrive instead of dying off which is what typically happens for acne-free skin. As the bacteria thrives, the body’s immunity defense reacts and begins to fight the bacteria causing the acne. The result is the tender, red bump that appears on the surface of the skin, also known as a pimple.

Acne is most commonly found on the face but it’s not uncommon to deal with acne breakouts on other areas of the body. Acne on the back and shoulders is very common as well as other places like the chest, arms, and even the neck.

Who Gets Acne

For many people, the first encounter with acne starts at the onset of puberty. This is typically between the ages of 10 to 13. This kind of acne will generally last throughout adolescence tapering off in early adulthood. Acne is not gender specific and both women and men can experience it throughout their lifetimes with women being slightly more susceptible for a longer time period, sometimes into their 30’s. It is not uncommon for babies to experience acne at some point as well. Baby acne can show up as small red bumps on the face or the back. While it is unclear what exactly causes baby acne, it normally clears up on its on without further treatment.

For people who are well past their early adult years and find themselves frequently fighting acne and breakouts, their skin type is considered acne-prone. People with acne-prone skin can find themselves dealing with acne regardless of their age. Acne-prone skin can be characterized in a number of different ways. For some, it’s large pores that become easily clogged, for others, it’s over production of oil. And for others still, it’s a simple matter of genetics. People who have acne-prone skin typically have to steer clear of certain products and must maintain a more aggressive skincare routine in order to keep acne at bay.

What Causes Acne

As one of the most common skin conditions affecting up to 50 million Americans a year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne can be one of the most frustrating skin conditions to deal with. While some of us have it easier than others with periodic breakouts, the rest of us may find ourselves dealing with this problem far more often. Regardless of which category you fall under, the one thing that all acne sufferers can benefit from is knowing what causes acne. Understanding what causes acne can be the first step in getting rid of it. The answer to this question, though, isn’t as simple as you’d think. To correctly determine what causes acne will vary depending on your skin type, genetics, and even where the breakout has occurred.

Before we get into the tiny details of what causes acne on different areas of the body, let’s start with the basics. Acne, regardless of where it’s located or how often you experience breakouts, is the result of a clogged pore. Sometimes this pore becomes clogged with oil which is a typical cause of acne for people with oily skin. Other times, the pore can become clogged with bacteria or even dead skin. Once the pore is clogged, the oil, bacteria, or skin becomes trapped. This manifests into a whitehead, blackhead, or the typical red pimple.

Unfortunately, there is a ton of misinformation floating around about what causes the acne cycle to begin, with many people believing a few common myths. You’ll commonly hear claims that acne is caused by eating greasy foods like cheeseburgers and french fries, or that acne is caused by wearing certain makeup products. Truthfully, neither of these are what causes acne although a healthy diet and using noncomedogenic makeup products can have a positive impact on acne-prone skin.

There are a few things that tend to make acne worse and those are typically associated with factors beyond our control. Overproduction of sebum is a main cause of acne and also very common in adolescents going through puberty. This is why you’ll find acne most common in teens and young adults. Hormonal changes, like the ones during puberty, can also cause acne which is why many women experience breakouts during pregnancy or near their cycle. Other causes of acne beyond your control are genetics—if your parents had/have acne it is likely you will too—and even certain medications.

Different Types of Acne

For many people, the term acne is a loosely used word to describe what many of us dealt with during the years of our youth. We typically don’t associate the erratic pimples that occur when we’re under stress with acne and you won’t find many women who experience breakouts around their cycle claiming to be dealing with acne. It’s also unlikely for the person who habitually uses their favorite pore strips to clear out blackheads to realize they are fighting acne as well. The truth is, all of these instances, in some way or another, is a different type of acne.

There are many different types of acne that affect millions of people around the world. From some of the most subtle occurrences that barely effect the person to more severe cases that can cause more serious effects. To truly understand this complex condition, you have to start with getting a deeper understanding of the different types of acne. Once you’re clear on the type of acne you are experiencing, you can work on a plan to treat, reduce, and possibly even prevent it. Let’s briefly go through each type of acne taking into account what causes it, how to spot it, and even what to do about it.

Acne Vulgaris

Let’s start at the beginning with acne vulgaris. Acne vulgaris sounds much more serious than it is. Medically speaking, acne vulgaris is simply the technical term for normal acne. Acne vulgaris covers many different types of acne including many listed here. It is considered to be a mild type of acne so more severe types of acne would not fall under this category. Acne vulgaris is easily treated using a number of methods and over-the-counter treatments with many people finding success using salicylic based gels or cleansers. It’s very normal to experience acne vulgaris on various areas of the body, but the face, back, and shoulders are the areas most commonly affected.

Hormonal Acne

Acne breakouts can be caused by many different factors. When the cause of acne, regardless of which type, is the result of a hormonal change or imbalance it is considered hormonal acne. Hormonal acne occurs when your body’s hormones produce excess oil. Hormonal acne generally tends to follow a schedule and occur around the same times specifically during menstruation for women, pregnancy, and even menopause. Hormonal acne usually appears around the mouth or along the jawline and can range from very mild to severe. Treating hormonal acne can be tricky due to the fact that for the most part, it is out of your control. To effectively treat hormonal acne, you’ll need to be consistent. It’s not uncommon to go through a few cycles of different treatments before you find the one that works for you.

Cystic and Severe Acne

Of all the different types of acne a person may encounter during their lives, cystic acne is the most severe of them all. Fortunately, though, while cystic acne is the most severe, it is also the least common of the different types of acne. With cystic acne, the cause is typical of many different types of acne: clogged pores. The difference with cystic acne is that the clogged pores remain blocked which ultimately leads to an infection. This infection and inflammation at the blocked pore creates a cyst, and the most painful and noticeable cysts are considered cystic acne. The appearance of cystic acne stands out against different types of acne because of the extreme inflammation and likely the quantity of cysts in a small area. For cystic acne, the best way to get effective treatment is to consult a dermatologist. There are many prescription grade treatments that can help get cystic acne under control.

Papules and Pustules

Other types of acne that are created as the result of inflammation are papules and pustules. Although their names sound similar and they have similar causes, they are each a different type of acne in their own right. Papules are a type of acne that forms as a result of a clogged pore that develops into a bump (also known as a comedone) and becomes inflamed. Typically papules are small, sensitive when touched, and are mainly found on the face or the back. When papules become excessive it can develop into cystic acne. The good news is that papules are relatively easy to treat with many over-the-counter creams helping to kill bacteria. There are also some antibiotics that can be used to treat more severe papule acne as well as anti-inflammatory treatments which may help as well.

Pustules, on the other hand, are also a type of inflamed bump but it’s the appearance and cause that differs with this type of acne. Pustules are small, pus-filled bumps that look similar to whiteheads. You’ll commonly find this type of acne on the face, back, or chest area and frequently in clusters on specific areas of the body. Pustules acne generally occur as a result of hormonal changes, hormonal imbalances, or possibly even an allergic reaction. Treating pustules acne is the easiest of them all: you wait it out. Pustules generally go away on their own with proper skin care habits. If you really want to feel like you’re doing something to treat this type of acne, over-the-counter acne cleansers can’t hurt.


Remember we talked about comedones? Those bumps that develop from a clogged pore? Well, whiteheads are formed when comedones stay closed on the skin’s surface and have a whitish appearance. Whiteheads are a type of acne that is typically caused by hormonal changes and women going through various life phases (puberty, pregnancy, and menopause) are most likely to experience whiteheads during their life. Since this type of acne is hormonal based, it’s hard to prevent and can’t be “cured” in the same sense as other types of acne. Thankfully, whiteheads are generally a very mild type of acne and can be easily treated with over-the-counter creams and salicylic acid cleansers.


Blackheads are a type of acne that many people may not realize falls under this condition due to it’s stark contrast to many other kinds mentioned here. Blackheads are opposites of whiteheads by the fact that that they are open on the skin’s surface, not closed. Blackheads are very small bumps that look black in appearance due to the oil and dead skin that may be clogging the pores. Blackheads are another type of acne that is commonly caused by hormonal changes or imbalances but, there are many other factors that can contribute as well. Anything that can potentially cause a blockage of pores including certain types of cosmetics and even perspiration can be the cause of a blackhead. Fortunately, treatment for this type of acne is fairly easy with salicylic acid and the popular blackhead clearing strips being the go-to courses of action. Other lifestyle adjustments may be helpful in preventing blackheads from occurring. Using cosmetics that are non-comedogenic meaning they won’t clog pores is a great place to start.

Nodular Acne

While cystic acne is the most severe type of acne, nodular acne is one of the most difficult types to treat. Nodular acne typically occurs at the end of an acne cycle and can prolong the process. Nodular acne is characterised by a large bump under the skin that is painful to the touch. What makes nodulars such a tricky type of acne is the fact they can lie dormant under the skin for a long period of time before flaring up. It’s also not surprising to see nodular acne appear multiple times in the same place due to it being unresolved. Treating nodular acne will take some time and you may find yourself trying a few different things before landing on something that works. If you’re heading the over-the-counter route anything with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can help calm a nodular acne flare up. There are also more advanced dermatological procedures involving cortisone that can help to treat a particularly stubborn nodular if needed.

Adult Acne

It’s important to understand that different types of acne can occur at any age in life. Though it is more common in adolescence through early adulthood, it’s not an anomaly for an adult to have acne. Whenever a person experiences acne in adulthood it is considered adult acne. Adult acne can fall under any one of these conditions and can be caused by everything from stress to hormones.