Thumbnail image of: Skin, Cross Section: Illustration


What is acne?

Acne is a common skin condition that happens when skin pores get clogged with dead skin cells, dirt and oil. Acne is often called pimples or “zits”.

What is the cause?

An oil called sebum is made inside each pore in your body. Acne can be caused by your body making too much of this oil. The extra oil can block dead skin cells in the pores. When the pores are blocked, they can get infected by bacteria that are on the surface of the skin. This is more likely to happen if you squeeze or pick the pimples.

Hormone changes are one of the main causes of acne. Hormones cause the oil glands to make more oil. You are more likely to have acne if:

  • You take hormones such as estrogen or testosterone, or medicines called steroids.
  • You are a teenager.
  • You are a woman who is pregnant
  • You are a woman who is within several days of having your period.

You are also more likely to have acne if:

  • It runs in your family.
  • You use greasy or oily products on your skin.
  • You rub or put pressure on your skin, for example by using a cell phone a lot, or wearing a helmet.

Stress does not cause acne, but can make it worse.

For some people, the following foods may make acne worse:

  • Foods or drinks high in sugar or carbohydrates
  • Foods that contain less healthy oil or fat, such as animal fat
  • Dairy products (especially if they contain milk)
  • Gluten, found in many grains such as wheat

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Whiteheads (pimples), which are closed, completely plugged oil glands
  • Blackheads, which are partly-plugged oil glands that still push oil to the surface of your skin. The oil turns black when it’s exposed to the air.

Some people with acne have cystic acne, which is a type of acne that causes hard, painful red bumps deep in the skin. The cysts may be filled with pus.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you.

How is it treated?

Treatment is aimed at keeping oil and dirt out of the pores and reducing swelling and irritation.

Your healthcare provider can advise you about which skin care products you should or should not use. It is important to clean your skin gently. Scrubbing can irritate your skin.

Several kinds of medicine may be used to treat or prevent acne:

  • Benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, which are nonprescription products that come in the form of lotions, gels, and cleansers that you put on your skin.
  • Prescription medicines that you put on the skin, such as Retin-A or antibiotics.
  • Prescription medicines that you take by mouth, such as:
    • Antibiotics to treat infections
    • Birth control pills to help balance the hormones in your body
    • Isotretinoin, which is often prescribed when other treatments don’t work. Isotretinoin can cause severe birth defects if a woman gets pregnant while she is taking the drug or even if she has taken it 1 or 2 months before getting pregnant. You must tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant, think you might be pregnant, have been trying to get pregnant, or are thinking about getting pregnant BEFORE taking any acne medicine, especially isotretinoin.

If you have severe acne, your healthcare provider may:

  • Use laser therapy to kill bacteria or remove the top layer of skin.
  • Use chemical peels to remove the top layer of skin.
  • Inject cysts with medicine to try to decrease their size and prevent scarring.

New pimples usually stop appearing after 4 to 6 weeks of treatment (the time it takes your body to make a new layer of skin). However, you may need to continue treatment for several months or years.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Wash your face gently 1 or 2 times a day with a mild soap. Clean your hands and use your fingers to wash your face rather than a washcloth. Wash as soon as possible after you exercise.
  • Change the washcloth that you use on your body every day. Bacteria can grow on damp cloth and can be spread to your face.
  • Wash your hands often and keep your hands away from your face as much as possible. Don’t squeeze, pick, scratch, or rub your skin. If you squeeze pimples, you may cause infection, which may lead to scarring. Don’t rest your face on your hands while you read, study, or watch TV.
  • Shampoo your hair at least twice a week. Pull your hair away from your face when you sleep. Style it away from your face during the day.
  • Avoid working in hot kitchens where greasy foods are cooked.
  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • If you try a diet change, be sure to do it for 4 to 6 weeks, since it takes that long to grow a new layer of skin. Write down what you eat. This will let your healthcare provider how diet changes have helped you.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests. Keep a record of the treatments you have tried and how they have worked. Let your provider know if your medicine isn’t working.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-07-31
Last reviewed: 2014-07-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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