Acne: its causes and treatments

Acne is a common problem for the majority of teenagers but that doesn’t mean parents should sweep it under the carpet…

As our children grow and change, they have a variety of issues to deal with such as puberty, hormones, body image…and for many, acne.   It’s a common problem for most adolescents; figures suggest that 9 in every ten teenagers will suffer with it at some point.   For some, they may experience a mild form of acne – the odd spot or 2 perhaps – while for others, it will be more severe.

As parents, it can be very easy to dismiss acne as ‘something every teenager gets’ and assume they’ll ‘grow out of it’ eventually.   That doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case; about 30% of 20-30-year-olds and around one in four 30-40-year-olds will have a varying degree of acne too.   Plus, for teenagers who are becoming increasingly self-conscious, the appearance of acne can be distressing.

Dr Sajjad Rajpar, Consultant Dermatologist at the Midlands Skin Institute based at BMI Priory Hospital in Birmingham, says there’s evidence to show that acne can have a huge impact on a person’s quality of life.  “A research paper published in 1999 showed that the impact of acne on quality of life and anxiety and depression levels was greater for acne than for psoriasis or cancer,” he says.  “Acne can have an immense effect on self-image, confidence, psychological well-being and even career progression.  Treating acne can help improve all these effects significantly.”’s Dr Tabi Leslie, a Consultant Dermatologist and member of the British Association of Dermatologists, agrees.  “To have a physical imperfection can be damning to teenagers.  In different cultures it can be frowned upon.  There is a huge psychological implication; people with acne may not want to leave their home; they may become depressed or bullied; or suffer with low self-esteem.”

Whether it’s you or your teenager that has acne, here’s a quick guide to the condition, its causes and effective treatments.

Spots vs. acne

According to Dr Rajpar, having spots can be different to having acne.  “The term ‘spots’ is commonly used to mean red bumps which may or may not have a whitehead,” he says.  “They are an important feature of acne but not the only one.  Acne also causes open comedones – black heads – and closed comedonesm, which are skin-coloured bumps.  Acne can also cause nodules and cysts, which are deeper lumps.”

What causes acne? 

“Hormones released at the onset of puberty are responsible for teenage acne outbreaks,” says dermatologist, Dr Ariel Haus, whose Dr Haus Dermatology clinic is in London’s Harley Street.  “These hormones stimulate the skin’s sebaceous oil glands, creating an oily skin that is more prone to pore blockages and subsequent breakouts.”

Stress can also be a factor, especially for adults.  When we get stressed, our bodies release a hormone called Cortisol.  This subdues the immune system, giving acne the opportunity to develop.

Treatments for acne

Although there are no cures for acne as such, there are medicines and treatments that can help to control it.  These include over-the-counter remedies as well as those available on prescription.

Here’s what our 3 dermatology experts advise:

Dr Rajpar

“There are 3 active ingredients that can be bought over the counter. These are benzoyl peroxide, available as a wash or cream, Salicylic acid, available as a wash or cream too, and nicotinamide available as a cream. Scrubs, masks and harsh cleansers should be avoided as they have no clear role in improving acne and may make skin more sensitive to helpful acne treatments. Remember topical treatments for acne can take four to 6 weeks to start having an effect.”

Dr Leslie

“Benzoyl peroxide is good for drying spots out. Mild, antibacterial, antiseptic washes bought over-the-counter can also be effective. If they don’t appear to be working, go to your GP who may prescribe a topical antibiotic, vitamin A cream, or a combination of treatments. Some people say toothpaste can dry out spots and get rid of them quicker but I would be wary of trying things like that. You have to be careful because it’s not a recommended spot treatment – it’s a cream that’s meant for a different purpose.”

Dr Haus

“Try to avoid certain products – mainly creams and lotions – that contain oil. These will block the pores and aggravate and even increase the acne spots. Choose products labelled as being non-comedogenic – these should not cause blackheads or whiteheads – or non-acnegenic, which means they should not cause acne. Always look for oil-free sun block and moisturiser if you have a case of acne.”

For more information about acne, please visit NHS Choices or the British Association of Dermatologists.

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