Acne is a common skin condition that causes spots and pimples to develop on the skin, usually on the face, back and chest. It can lead sufferers to have anxiety, low self esteem, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
See also: Acne Treatment Products
The spots and pimples caused by acne can range from surface blackheads and whiteheads, which are often mild, to deep, inflamed, pus-filled pustules and cysts, which can be severe and long-lasting and lead to scarring.
Keeping your skin clean is important, but will not prevent new spots developing. Wash the affected area twice a day with a mild soap or cleanser, but do not scrub the skin too hard to avoid irritating it.
If your skin is dry, use a moisturiser. Most of these are now tested so they don’t cause spots (non-comedogenic).
Although acne can’t be cured, it can be controlled with treatment. Several creams, lotions and gels for treating spots are available at pharmacies.
If you develop acne, it’s a good idea to speak to your pharmacist for advice. Products containing a low concentration of benzoyl peroxide may be recommended, but be careful as this can bleach clothing.
If your acne is severe or appears on your chest and back, it may need to be treated with antibiotics or stronger creams that are only available on prescription.
Seeing your Doctor
See your GP if you cannot control your acne with over-the-counter medication or if it is causing you distress and making you feel unhappy.
Also see your GP if you develop nodules or cysts, as they will need to be treated properly to avoid scarring.
Treatments can take up to three months to work, so don’t expect results overnight. Once they do start to work, the results are usually good.
See treating acne below.
Try to resist the temptation to pick or squeeze the spots as this can lead to permanent scarring.
Causes of Acne
Acne is most commonly linked to the changes in hormone levels during puberty, but can start at any age.
It affects the grease-producing glands next to the hair follicles in the skin. Certain hormones cause these glands to produce larger amounts of oil (abnormal sebum).
This abnormal sebum changes the activity of a usually harmless skin bacterium called P. acnes, which becomes more aggressive and causes inflammation and pus.
The hormones also thicken the inner lining of the hair follicle, causing blockage of the pores (opening of the hair follicles). Cleaning the skin does not help remove this blockage.
Acne is known to run in families. If both your mother and father had acne, it is likely that you will also have acne.
Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy, can also lead to episodes of acne in women.
There is no evidence that diet, poor hygiene or sexual activity play a role in acne.
Who is affected?
Acne is very common in teenagers and younger adults. About 80% of people between the ages of 11 and 30 will be affected by acne.
Acne is most common between the ages of 14 and 17 in girls, and boys between 16 and 19.
Most people have acne on and off for several years before their symptoms start to improve as they get older. Acne often disappears when a person is in their mid-twenties.
In some cases, acne can continue into adult life. About 5% of women and 1% of men have acne over the age of 25.
Teenage acne is thought to be triggered by increased levels of a hormone called testosterone, which occurs during puberty. The hormone plays an important role in stimulating the growth and development of the penis and testicles in boys, and maintaining muscle and bone strength in girls.
The sebaceous glands are particularly sensitive to hormones. It is thought that increased levels of testosterone cause the glands to produce much more sebum than the skin needs.
Acne in families
Acne can run in families. If your parents had acne, it’s likely that you will also develop it.
One study has found that if both your parents had acne, you are more likely to get more severe acne at an early age. It also found that if one or both of your parents had adult acne, you are more likely to get adult acne too.
Acne in women
More than 80% of cases of adult acne occur in women. It is thought that many cases of adult acne are caused by the changes in hormone levels that many women have at certain times.
These times include:
- periods – some women have a flare-up of acne just before their period
- pregnancy – many women have symptoms of acne in pregnancy, usually during the first three months of their pregnancy
- polycystic ovary syndrome – a common condition that can cause acne, weight gain and the formation of small cysts inside the ovary
Other possible triggers of an acne flare-up include:
- some cosmetic products – however, this is less common as most products are now tested so they don’t cause spots (non-comedogenic)
- certain medications, such as steroid medications, lithium (which is often used to treat depression and bipolar disorder) and some anti-epileptic drugs (used to treat epilepsy)
- regularly wearing items that place pressure on an affected area of skin, such as a headband or backpack
- smoking, which can contribute to acne in older people
Despite being one of the most widespread skin conditions, acne is also one of the most poorly understood. There are many myths and misconceptions about it:
- “Acne is caused by a poor diet.” So far, research has not found any foods that cause acne. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is recommended because it is good for your heart and your health in general.
- “Acne is caused by having dirty skin and poor hygiene.” Most of the biological reactions that trigger acne occur beneath the skin, not on the surface, so the cleanliness of your skin will have no effect on your acne. Washing your face more than twice a day could just aggravate your skin.
- “Squeezing blackheads, whiteheads and spots is the best way to get rid of acne.” This could actually make symptoms worse and may leave you with scarring.
- “Sexual activity can influence acne.” Having sex or masturbating will not make acne any better or worse.
- “Sunbathing, sunbeds and sunlamps help improve the symptoms of acne.” There is no conclusive evidence that prolonged exposure to sunlight or using sunbeds or sunlamps can improve acne. Many medications used to treat acne can make your skin more sensitive to light, so exposure could cause painful damage to your skin, not to mention increase your risk of skin cancer.
- “Acne is infectious.” You cannot pass acne on to other people.
Treatment for acne depends on how severe it is. It can take several months of treatment before acne symptoms improve.
If you just have a few blackheads, whiteheads and spots, you should be able to treat them successfully with over-the-counter gels or creams (topical treatments) that contain benzoyl peroxide.
Some self-help techniques may also be useful:
- Do not wash affected areas of skin more than twice a day. Frequent washing can irritate the skin and make symptoms worse.
- Wash the affected area with a mild soap or cleanser and lukewarm water. Very hot or cold water can make acne worse.
- Don’t try to “clean out” blackheads or squeeze spots. This can make them worse and cause permanent scarring.
- Avoid using too much make-up and cosmetics. Use water-based products that are described as non-comedogenic (this means the product is less likely to block the pores in your skin).
- Completely remove make-up before going to bed.
- If dry skin is a problem, use a fragrance-free, water-based emollient.
- Regular exercise cannot improve your acne, but it can boost your mood and improve your self-esteem. Shower as soon as possible once you finish exercising as sweat can irritate your acne.
- Wash your hair regularly and try to avoid letting your hair fall across your face.
Treatments can take up to three months to work, so don’t expect results overnight.
See your GP if your acne is more widespread – for example, you have a large number of papules and pustules, or over-the-counter medication hasn’t worked – as you probably need prescription medication.
Prescription medications that can be used to treat acne include:
- topical retinoids
- topical antibiotics
- azelaic acid
- antibiotic tablets
- in women, the combined oral contraceptive pill
- isotretinoin tablets
If you have severe acne, such as a large number of papules and pustules on your chest and back as well as your face, or if you have painful nodules, your GP can refer you to an expert in treating skin conditions (dermatologist).
A combination of antibiotic tablets and topical treatments is usually the first treatment option for severe acne. If this doesn’t work, a medication called isotretinoin (see below) may be prescribed.
Many of these treatments can take two to three months before they start to work. It’s important to be patient and persist with a recommended treatment, even if there is no immediate effect.
Topical treatments (gels, creams and lotions)
Benzoyl peroxide works as an antiseptic to reduce the number of bacteria on the surface of the skin. It also helps to reduce the number of whiteheads and blackheads and has an anti-inflammatory effect.
Benzoyl peroxide is usually available as a cream or gel. It’s used either once or twice a day. It should be applied 20 minutes after washing to all of the parts of your face affected by acne.
It should be used sparingly as too much can irritate your skin. It also makes your face more sensitive to sunlight, so avoid too much sun and ultraviolet (UV) light, or wear sun cream.
Benzoyl peroxide can have a bleaching effect, so avoid getting it on your hair or clothes.
Common side effects of benzoyl peroxide include:
- dry and tense skin
- a burning, itching or stinging sensation
- some redness and peeling of the skin
Side effects are usually mild and should pass once the treatment has finished.
Most people need a six-week course of treatment to clear most or all of their acne. You may be advised to continue treatment less frequently to prevent acne returning.
Topical retinoids work by removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin (exfoliating) which helps prevent them building up within hair follicles.
Tretinoin and adapalene are topical retinoids used to treat acne. They are available in a gel or cream and are usually applied once a day before you go to bed.
Apply to all of the parts of your face affected by acne 20 minutes after washing your face.
It is important to apply topical retinoids sparingly and avoid excessive exposure to sunlight and UV.
Topical retinoids are not suitable for use during pregnancy as there is a risk that they might cause birth defects.
The most common side effects of topical retinoids are mild irritation and stinging of the skin.
A six-week course is usually required, but you may be advised to continue using the medication less frequently after this.
Topical antibiotics help kill the bacteria on the skin that can infect plugged hair follicles. They are available as a lotion or gel that is applied once or twice a day.
A six- to eight-week course is usually recommended. After this, treatment is usually stopped as there is a risk that the bacteria on your face could become resistant to the antibiotics. This could make your acne worse and cause additional infections.
Side effects are uncommon, but can include:
- minor irritation of the skin
- redness and burning of the skin
- peeling of the skin
Azelaic acid is often used as an alternative treatment for acne if the side effects of benzoyl peroxide or topical retinoids are particularly irritating or painful.
Azelaic acid works by getting rid of dead skin and killing bacteria. It is available as a cream or gel and is usually applied twice a day (or once a day if your skin is particularly sensitive).
The medication does not make your skin sensitive to sunlight, so you do not have to avoid exposure to the sun.
You will usually need to use azelaic acid for a month before your acne improves.
The side effects of azelaic acid are usually mild and include:
- burning or stinging skin
- dry skin
- redness of the skin
Antibiotic tablets (oral antibiotics) are usually used in combination with a topical treatment to treat more severe acne.
In most cases, a class of antibiotics called tetracyclines is prescribed, unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women are usually advised to take an antibiotic called erythromycin, which is known to be safer to use.
It will usually take about six weeks before you notice an improvement in your acne.
Depending on how well you react to the treatment, a course of oral antibiotics can last four to six months.
Tetracyclines can make your skin sensitive to sunlight and UV light and can also make the oral contraceptive pill less effective during the first few weeks of treatment.
You will need to use an alternative method of contraception, such as condoms, during this time.
Hormonal therapies can often benefit women with acne, especially if the acne flares up around periods or is associated with hormonal conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome.
If you don’t already use it, your GP may recommend that you start taking the combined oral contraceptive pill, even if you are not sexually active. This combined pill can often help improve acne in women, but may take up to a year before the full benefits are seen.
Co-cyprindiol is a hormonal treatment that can be used for more severe acne that doesn’t respond to antibiotics. It helps reduce the production of sebum.
You will probably have to use co-cyprindiol for two to six months before you notice a significant improvement in your acne.
There is a small risk that women taking co-cyprindiol may develop breast cancer in later life.
For example, out of a group of 10,000 women who have not taken co-cyprindiol, you would expect 16 of them to develop breast cancer by the time they were 35. This figure rises to 17 or 18 for women who were treated with co-cyprindiol for at least five years in their early twenties.
There is also a very small chance of co-cyprindiol causing a blood clot. The risk is estimated to be around 1 in 2,500 in any given year.
It is not thought to be safe to take co-cyprindiol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Women may need to have a pregnancy test before treatment can begin.
Other side effects of co-cyprindiol include:
- bleeding and spotting between your periods, which can sometimes occur for the first few months
- sore breasts
- mood changes
- loss of interest in sex
- weight gain or weight loss
Isotretinoin has a number of beneficial effects:
- it helps normalise sebum and reduce how much is produced
- it helps prevent follicles becoming clogged
- it decreases the amount of bacteria on the skin
- it reduces redness and swelling in and around spots
However, the drug can also cause a wide range of side effects. It is therefore only recommended for severe cases of acne that have not responded to other treatments.
Because of the risk of side effects, isotretinoin can only be prescribed by a specially trained GP or a dermatologist.
Isotretinoin is taken as a tablet. Most people take a four- to six-month course. Your acne may get worse during the first 7 to 10 days of treatment. However, this is normal and soon settles.
Common side effects of isotretinoin include:
- inflammation, dryness and cracking of the skin, lips and nostrils
- changes in your blood sugar levels
- inflammation of your eyelids (blepharitis)
- inflammation and irritation of your eyes (conjunctivitis)
- blood in your urine
Rarer side effects of isotretinoin include:
- inflammation of the liver (hepatitis)
- inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- kidney disease
Read more about the side effects of isotretinoin.
Because of the risk of these rarer side effects, you will need a blood test before and during treatment.
Isotretinoin and birth defects
Isotretinoin will damage an unborn baby. If you’re a woman of childbearing age:
- don’t use isotretinoin if you are pregnant or you think you are pregnant
- use one, or ideally two, methods of contraception for one month before treatment begins, during treatment and for one month after treatment has finished
- have a pregnancy test before, during and after treatment
You will be asked to sign a form confirming that you understand the risk of birth defects and are willing to use contraceptives to prevent this risk, even if you are not currently sexually active.
If you think you may have become pregnant when taking isotretinoin, contact your dermatologist immediately.
Isotretinoin is also not suitable if you are breastfeeding.
Isotretinoin and mood changes
There have been reports of people experiencing mood changes while taking isotretinoin. There is no evidence that these mood changes were the result of the medication.
However, as a precaution, contact your doctor immediately if you feel depressed or anxious, have feelings of aggression or suicidal thoughts.
Several treatments for acne do not involve medication.
- comedone extractor – a small pen-shaped instrument that can be used to clean out blackheads and whiteheads
- chemical peels – where a chemical solution is applied to the face, causing the skin to peel off and new skin to replace it
- photodynamic therapy – where light is applied to the skin in an attempt to improve symptoms of acne
These treatments may not work and can therefore not be routinely recommended.
It has been suggested on some websites that toothpaste can dry up individual spots.
While toothpaste does contain antibacterial substances, it also contains substances that can irritate and damage your skin.
There are far more effective and safer treatments available from pharmacists or your GP. Using toothpaste in this way is not recommended.
Acne can often cause intense feelings of anxiety and stress, which can sometimes make people with the condition become socially withdrawn. This combination of factors can lead to people with acne becoming depressed.
You may be depressed if during the last month you have often felt down, depressed or hopeless and have little interest or pleasure in doing things.
If you think that you or your child may have depression, it is important to speak to your GP.
Treatments for depression include talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
A range of informally run message boards and blogs about acne are on the web. You may find it supportive to read about other people’s experience of living with acne.
For example, talkhealth provides a free acne support and information community.
The charity Get Connected also has a website and helpline for teenagers and young people with emotional and other difficulties.
Make-up can help cover up scars and can be particularly useful for facial scars.
Camouflage make-up specially designed to cover up scars is available over the counter at pharmacies. Alternatively, ask your GP for advice.
Source – www.nhs.uk