No one factor causes acne. Acne occurs when sebaceous (oil) glands attached to the hair follicles are stimulated at the time of puberty or due to other hormonal changes. Sebum (oil) is a natural substance that lubricates and protects the skin. Associated with increased oil production is a change in the manner in which the skin cells mature, predisposing them to plug the follicular pore. The plug can appear as a whitehead if it is covered by a thin layer of skin, or if exposed to the air, the darker exposed portion of the plug is called a "blackhead." The plugged hair follicle gradually enlarges, producing a bump. As the follicle enlarges, the wall may rupture, allowing irritating substances and normal skin bacteria access into the deeper layers of the skin, ultimately producing inflammation. Inflammation near the skin's surface produces a pustule; deeper inflammation results in a papule (pimple); if the inflammation is deeper still, it forms a cyst.
Although acne remains largely a curse of adolescence, about 20% of all cases occur in adults. Acne commonly starts during puberty between the ages of 10 and 13 and tends to be worse in people with oily skin. Teenage acne usually lasts for five to 10 years, normally going away during the early 20s. It occurs in both sexes, although teenage boys tend to have the most severe cases. Women are more likely than men to have mild to moderate forms into their 30s and beyond.
Avoid touching or rubbing your face, since that can make acne worse. Try to keep your cell phone from touching your face, too. Use earbuds instead of having the phone against your skin. Also, don't lean your face on your hands, which may carry oils and germs that can irritate blemishes. Sweat can also make acne worse. Sweaty after exercise? Wash up.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.