Understanding What Causes Acne

Very few of us went through our teenage years, our 20s and even our 30s without battling zits, pimples and acne in one form or another.  Well, there was always that one girl with perfect skin.  Didn’t we hate her?

Definition of Acne

It’s common knowledge that acne refers to the clogging of pores.  What most people don’t know is that pores are actually hair follicles that produce an oily substance called sebum.  Glands within the hair follicles called sebaceous glands, when operating properly, produce just enough sebum to provide lustrous lubrication for our hair and skin.  But when the glands go into overdrive and produce too much sebum, it mixes with dead skin cells within the follicle to create a soft plug.

Blackheads form when the plug is exposed to air, and whiteheads form when the plug does not reach the surface of the skin, causing the follicle to bulge.  When the follicles become red, raised and infected – you’ve got yourself a full-blown pimple.  Pimples are usually red with a white center above the skin.  The most severe form of acne occurs when the follicle becomes infected deep below the skin, causing a painful cyst.  This is also known as cystic acne and is difficult to treat.

Forms of Acne

You’ll most commonly find acne on the areas of your body that have the most oil producing glands, such as the face, back, shoulders and neck.

  • Comedones – Blackheads (open) and whiteheads (closed).  Not infected.  Skin surface.
  • Papules – Small, red, tender bumps, which signal infection.  Skin surface.
  • Pustules – Larger red bumps with pus-filled tips. Skin surface.
  • Nodules – Solid, painful lumps formed by buildup of sebum within hair follicles.  Below skin surface.
  • Cysts – Boil-like infection deep within hair follicles.  Below skin surface.

Causes of Acne

Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly what causes acne in each individual.  Fortunately they DO know it’s not chocolate.  Whew!  In fact, doctors have been unable to tie any particular foods to an increase in acne.  That is not to say that certain foods may not cause acne for you, it just means that certain foods don’t cause acne for everyone.  Watch for patterns in your break outs and diet and then avoid those foods.

More widely, acne is known to be caused by an overproduction of sebum, increased shedding of skin cells within hair follicles, and the buildup of bacteria.  But what causes these factors?

  • Change in Hormones – acne is most common among pubescent teens and pregnant women, both of whom are in the middle of the ebb and flow of hormones
  • Certain Medications – Barbiturates, steroids, DHEA, lithium and certain synthetic hormones are known to cause acne
  • Heredity – Thanks mom and dad!

When to See a Doctor

Acne in and of itself is not a serious medical condition.  However, it wreaks havoc on our social lives and self esteem.  Also, more serious acne can leave scars on the skin that leave painful reminders long after the acne is gone.  If your acne cannot be prevented or effectively treated with over-the-counter cleansers and creams, a dermatologist may have better solutions for your particular case.

Find out about the latest acne and acne scar treatments

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About Victoria Strander

Writes about the latest beauty procedures. Her articles are available for syndication. Use Contact Page for inquiries.


  1. Oh gawd, pimples.
    the bane of my existence.

    thanks for the information on what exactly acne is, and thanks for clarifying that chocolate DOES NOT cause acne! All along I thought it did, but now I can enjoy chocolate happily :3

  2. I am in my mid 30’s and I still get acne. I always thought the beauty of getting older was no more breakouts. This isn’t the case. The challenge now is finding products that allow me to take care of my aging skin without causing my acne to worsen. Any ideas on good anti aging products that will also treat acne or won’t cause it to break out ?

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