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Acne - symptoms, what causes it and how to get advice

If you experience breakouts, you’re not alone. Acne is extremely common, with 80 per cent of us experiencing at least one episode between the ages of 11 and 30, and many others in later life, too.

Aside from the physical effects, having acne on our face and skin can also impact our moods and emotions.

Here, we’ll explore the common causes of acne, its various symptoms, and share our expert tips for helping to calm and soothe outbreaks.

What is acne vulgaris - and what are the symptoms?

Acne vulgaris is the technical term for those annoying everyday pimples that bother so many of us.

Often appearing on the face and cheeks, you might experience them as:

  • Blackheads – when the pore becomes clogged by sebum and dead skin cells while the top of the pore stays open. These can be black or grey.
  • Whiteheads – also known as “closed comedones”, these are the same as above, except the top of the pore is closed. As the same suggests, they are white in appearance.
  • Papules – when severe inflammation causes the walls around the pore to break down and become hard and clogged, tender or sore, and usually pink.
  • Pustules – as above but usually red and pus-filled.
  • Nodules – large, hard lumps that develop beneath the skin’s surface.
  • Cysts – these lumps look a little like boils and tend to occur less frequently than other types.

What causes acne?

As the body’s largest organ, our skin’s job is to serve as a barrier and protect the body from foreign organisms and toxins. Often, our skin’s pores become clogged, primarily with bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells, though hormones and ingrown hairs can also play a part, and this causes acne.

We have pores all over our bodies, except the palms of our hands and soles of our feet and can get acne practically anywhere. However, it’s usually most prominent on our faces.

And there are reasons you might have more breakouts than usual.


Four out of every five teenagers will develop acne at some point in their adolescence. This may partly be caused by higher levels of testosterone – a hormone produced during puberty to help with development. But we don’t always grow out of it. As adults, lifestyle changes and stress can also potentially have an impact.


When it comes to teenagers, boys will generally develop acne more often than girls. In adulthood, however, women are more likely to experience the condition than men. Hormone fluctuations that come with pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, menopause, and conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome can be among the main culprits here.


Acne can run in families – so if one or both of your parents have had adult breakouts, you might too. Having said that, the things we do in our day-to-day lives can influence these genetic factors – so wearing SPF, not smoking, and following a skincare routine, can all help lessen inherited traits.


Some prescription medication can cause hormone shifts and other physical changes that might increase your risk of breakouts. These include:

  • Steroids
  • Antidepressants
  • Epilepsy medications


Wearing makeup won’t automatically lead to more breakouts, however, wash your brushes and sponges regularly and consider using mineral makeup as it is highly recommended for acne-prone skin.

Suss out gentle products your skin can tolerate, and always look for brands that have been tested by dermatologists. When removing your makeup, a double cleanse with an oil or balm followed by a foam cleanser can really make the difference.

Extra pressure on your skin

The more you put on your skin, the more it has to tolerate – so use fewer products that have more of an impact.

Remember that picking your skin should always be avoided too – as this can lead to acne scarring. If you are finding it difficult to stop, try wearing an elastic band round your wrist and pinging it every time you get the urge – or consider techniques such as:

  • Squeezing a soft ball
  • Meditation and breathing exercises
  • Trimming your nails

How can I get advice, and find treatments for acne?

If you’re experiencing severe acne on your face and skin – or a breakout is making you feel self-conscious – there’s a whole range of options for clearing up your complexion.

Find an expert to talk to – whether that’s your doctor, or a dermatologist – and consider the following advice.

Find what works for you

Your skin is yours and yours alone – and the same products and treatments won’t work for everyone. Be discerning with who you follow on social media and remember that you don't have to try every product they recommend.

It’s important to understand your skin type before choosing products. Your skin may be naturally oily, dry, dehydrated, combination or sensitive. Invest the time and shop around to find a product that works for you.

Develop a good skincare regime

Gentle exfoliation and thorough cleansing can remove acne-related bacteria from your skin and pores, helping to keep things clear. Never choose a physical scrub as they are too abrasive and go with chemical instead. Don’t overdo it either. You can have too much of a good thing, and you don't want to irritate your skin with excess products. Take your time and remember – good skincare is a marathon, not a sprint.

Speak to your pharmacist about acne

Your pharmacist may be able to recommend over-the-counter creams and treatments to calm your acne. Speak to them about your breakouts, and what type of spots you get most often, to help them work out the best options for you.

Speak to a doctor about acne

If your acne hasn’t responded to at-home treatments or is tender to the touch, speak to a doctor or clinician. They may be able to prescribe stronger treatments or even medication to help improve your skin, such as steroid injections. Remember that it’s OK to seek advice regardless of your skin’s condition too. If you are concerned, upset or it’s bothering you in any way, make an appointment.

Chemical peels for acne

Facial peels can help to gently exfoliate and lift the top layer of your skin, removing skin cells, dirt, bacteria, and excess oil that might otherwise clog your pores. At-home peels are available, but you should visit a clinician for better, professional results.

Photodynamic therapy

Your doctor may suggest you try photodynamic therapy if lifestyle changes, and other at-home treatments, haven't helped. This involves applying different types of light directly to your skin to help improve your acne symptoms.


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