Acne: Facts, Myths and Tips
Acne. We’re all familiar with the term, but do we understand what it really means? Let's explore the physiology of each bump, dispel the myths and factualise our way to the treatments.
Updated: Tuesday 17 November 2020
Acne. We’re all familiar with the term, but do we understand what it really means? Let’s explore the physiology of each bump, dispel the myths and factualise our way to the treatments. Fundamentally, we need to be clear as to what acne is. Acne can appear on the face, neck, back, chest and shoulders - the areas where there are the most sebaceous glands that produce oily sebum.
These glands secrete oil to lubricate the skin and hair, which travels down the shaft of the hair and onto the skin. But when sebum is overproduced and the hair follicle is blocked with dead skin cells, the two form a plug behind which the sebum builds to form a moist environment for microorganisms to breed. Bacteria thrive in these conditions, infecting the pores and causing inflammation.
Spotting the Problem
Hair follicles - also called pores - release sweat from the sweat glands in skin but are generally not involved in causing acne. The factors known to cause acne include:
- Oil production - overproduction of sebum creates too much traffic in the pores, and jams.
- Dead skin cells - without routine exfoliation to remove the dead cells, they form a cake of dead skin layering the pore exit.
- Bacteria - microorganisms thrive in the damp and humid environments such as a sebum-clogged hair follicle.
- Clogged pores - dead skin fills the follicles and creates a plug.
Acne can be broken down into six different spot types. These include spots that are part of our day-to-day conversations and then the more serious and rare forms.
- Whiteheads - the plug extends the wall of the pore and protrudes as a whitehead.
- Blackheads - the plug is exposed to air and darkens in colour.
- Pustules - aka pimples, where the white or yellow plug is surrounded by red and inflamed skin due to presence of bacteria.
- Papules - small, red bumps on the skin.
- Nodules - the lesion is hard and lodged deep within the skin.
- Cysts - the inflamed blockage is soft as it is filled with pus, and deep inside the hair follicle . These can eventually form scars.
Mysterious Roots of Acne
We like to know the cause of conditions so that we can get to the root of the issue and fix it. Truth is, science is has yet to pinpoint the exact cause of acne, which is a complex and multifaceted condition.
So far, researchers have agreed on several contributing factors, but one has to watch out for the myths still circulating the webosphere. Dirt causes acne? Myth. Chemicals in cosmetics? Unsurprisingly, true. Let’s expand on these.
- Greasy foods barely affect acne but working in a place where greasy food is prepared, such as a fast-food restaurant, could increase acne as the grease sticks to the face and fills the hair follicles.
- Dirty skin is another myth. A common belief is that if you have acne, you must not clean your skin properly. In fact, scrubbing the face aggressively with harsh soaps and chemical-filled products can irritate the skin and make acne worse. Instead, you should gently remove the dead skin, dirt and oil.
- Makeup which is oil-free does not block the pores, although it should still be removed regularly to let the skin breathe.
- Hormones such as androgens (including testosterone) spike in teenagers as they go through puberty, secreting more sebum from their glands, which can clog the hair follicles.
- Stress can worsen acne as the stress hormones increase sebum secretion in the pores.
- Medications that contain corticosteroids, androgens, and lithium can make acne worse. Other metals can also have a negative effect on skin, such as arsenic, which was used in Victorian times to treat a wide range of health complaints; from asthma to diabetes. Arsenic infused their cosmetic creams and powders to achieve that pale complexion that was the height of fashion in those days. However, the arsenic seeped into their pores, worsening their acne - which they tried to cover up with even more arsenical power - continuing the vicious cycle.
- Diet has a large role to play in health. “You are what you eat” always rings true. Dairy, carbohydrates (bread, chips), and chocolate have all been proven to trigger acne.
- Family history could increase your chances of having acne. Genetics means you could be predisposed to acne, so if your family has had it, it is more likely that you will have it too.
- Friction from mobile phones, tight clothes, and headwear create pressure and friction on the skin, which irritate it.
- Get some sleep - getting more rest lowers your levels of stress, which is known to aggravate acne.
- Change your diet - throw out the pasta, white breads and rice, and, of course, the sugar. Instead, opt for carbohydrates that burn slowly, lasting longer in your body and releasing their energy gradually. This avoids the insulin spike which can increase the acne symptoms. Foods that your body metabolises slowly include whole grains, beans, and vegetables.
- Drink water - water flushes internal toxins and resets your metabolism.
- Wear sunscreen - sunburn can cause inflammation to the skin, worsening acne.
Acne-friendly Skin Routine
Fancy and complicated skin-care routines are overrated. The best is to remove the dead cells and excess oil from your skin. This can be done in two simple steps.
- First, exfoliate. Use the palms of your hand to gently scrub your face in a circular motion. This will remove the dead cells. Tip: milk is a natural exfoliant. You can mix some milk and honey (or try to) and apply it to your face, as the honey has disinfectant properties.
- Second, you should avoid harsh soaps when washing your face. Choose something gentle and more natural than chemical.
- Third, using oil-free makeup will decrease the chances of aggravating acne further.
- Forth, feel fabulous!
Pharmica sells a wide range of Acne treatment to help to reduce the inflammation of the skin, reduce the existing spots and blackheads, and kill acne-causing bacteria.
Authored by Iris Barbier
Born in France, Iris moved to the UK to study Biological Sciences at London Metropolitan University. Upon graduating, Iris moved up north, where she completed an MA in Science Journalism at the University of Lincoln.
As a qualified science journalist, Iris uses her expertise to write content for Pharmica’s online Health Centre. She ensures our patients get specialist knowledge on medical conditions and how to treat them.