Acne is spots, blackheads and oily skin on your face and sometimes on your back and upper chest, too. It’s known medically as acne vulgaris.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is acne?

Acne happens when the sebaceous (oil-producing) glands in your skin are overactive. If too much oil is produced, this combines with dead skin cells to clog up your pores, resulting in whiteheads and blackheads. The clogged pores provide a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that live on your skin, leading to inflammation and spots.

Acne is one of the most common skin problems, affecting around eight in 10 people between 11 and 30, but some people still get it in middle age.

It can cause a lot of distress if it's severe, especially as it can lead to scarring, but fortunately, there are treatments that can make a big difference.

How to tell if you have acne?

There are six types of acne-related skin blemishes, which can be mild, moderate or severe:

  • Whiteheads – clogged pores just below the skin’s surface
  • Blackheads – clogged pores on the skin’s surface that have turned black as a chemical reaction to oxygen exposure (not caused by dirt)
  • Papules – small, pink spots
  • Pustules – spots with pus at the tip
  • Nodules – large, deep, painful, red spots that are solid with no pus
  • Cysts – deep, pus-filled spots that can be painful and may cause scarring

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for acne

Your GP will look closely at your skin to assess the types of spots you have and their severity. Your acne may be classed as follows:

  • Mild – whiteheads, blackheads, with some papules and pustules
  • Moderate – a moderate amount of whiteheads, blackheads, papules and pustules
  • Severe – lots of papules and pustules, plus nodules, cysts, and possibly some scarring

Your GP may also ask you questions about other symptoms to find out if there’s an underlying medical cause.

If you have it severely, they may refer you to a dermatologist, a doctor who specialises in skin problems.

Causes of acne

The exact cause of acne isn’t fully understood, but things that make it more likely include:

  • Hormonal changes – including normal hormonal changes, such as menopause or puberty, or underlying conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Genetics – if your parents had acne, you may be more likely to get it
  • Greasy make-up

It can also be made worse by:

  • Squeezing spots or blackheads
  • Pollution or humid weather
  • Regularly sweating
  • Over-cleaning your skin
  • Smoking or certain medications
  • Regularly wearing items that cause pressure to an affected area, such as a headband

Contrary to popular myth, acne isn’t caused by:

  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor diet
  • Chocolate
  • Stress, but can make it worse

Common treatments for acne

You can often improve mild acne at home by:

  • Using a mild cleanser
  • Not scrubbing the skin too hard
  • Avoiding picking or squeezing spots
  • Using oil-free or water-based make-up

For moderate or severe acne, your doctor can prescribe:

  • Acne creams or gels to kill bacteria, reduce inflammation, unclog pores and remove dead skin cells
  • Medications – antibiotics, hormonal treatments (for women), or Isotretinoin – a strong acne medication that reduces oil production, kills bacteria, unclogs pores and reduces inflammation

Acne scars

Scarring can happen due to damage in the deeper layers of the skin caused by inflammation from the spot itself, and also from squeezing or picking spots. Getting help for acne as soon as possible will reduce the risk of scarring, plus there are treatments that can help to minimise any scars you already have, including:

  • Dermabrasion
  • Laser treatments
  • Surgical scar removal using punch and subcision techniques