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Image of a woman's face to represent acne prone skin

Acne-prone skin - what it means, what causes it and how to address it

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Hussa AlBashr from Derma Art

Acne is the most common skin condition in the world, affecting almost 633 million people at one time. The costs associated with treatment and lost productivity among those who sought medical care for acne exceeds US$1.2 billion a year in the US alone.

But what causes skin to be more acne-prone than not? Why do some of us suffer while others seemingly coast through life with a crystal-clear complexion?

As with most things, acne-prone skin can be the result of several factors, including genetics, hormones, stress and lifestyle. And understanding which of these might be affecting you, makes it possible to reduce the chances of further breakouts.

What is acne-prone skin?

Having acne-prone skin means you’re more sensitive to certain environmental triggers such as stress, hormone shifts or even the weather, and that sensitivity can result in an outbreak of spots. There are several different types of acne, from blackheads to pustules, and the term covers any blemishes on your skin.

It’s most common to get acne on your face, but it can occur on all different areas of your body, particularly the chest and back.

It can affect all age groups, from puberty into adulthood. Even babies aren’t immune, with 20 per cent of newborns experiencing what is known as neonatal acne, usually caused by maternal hormones.

Image of woman applying skincare to represent what acne prone skin means

What causes it?

Acne is caused by a combination of sebum (a waxy substance produced by our sebaceous glands), dirt and bacteria, which can then clog pores. Although other factors, such as ingrown hairs, can play a part, it’s really the over-production of sebum that is key to acne-prone skin. So, what causes that?

Hormones

The main cause of an overproduction of sebum is hormonal imbalances. That’s why most acne breakouts can be attributed to specific phases in life.

Age

Most teenagers will likely have some type of acne as they pass through puberty because of the influx of testosterone they experience.

Acne over the age of 25 (adult acne) is usually more common among women – although not exclusively – because of hormone shifts during the menstrual cycle, taking the contraceptive pill, and generally maturing and moving into the menopause.

Medications

Certain medications can cause hormonal imbalances. However, the contraceptive pill can also be prescribed to help reduce acne symptoms. It all depends on the balance of oestrogen and progesterone in each pill.

Stress

Although stress doesn’t directly cause acne, it is believed that if you already have it, stress does make it worse. This may be because cells that produce sebum have receptors for stress hormones

Genetics

Acne-prone skin can run in families. If your mum and dad had it, then it’s likely you might get it at some point.

Other possible causes

Other factors that might contribute to acne-prone skin are sensitivities to certain food groups, such as dairy, or a problematic skin care routine, but these are triggers within our control to change so considered easy to rectify.

Image of dragonfruit to represent skin with acne

How you might treat acne-prone skin

Smart skincare

It’s tempting to use strong products to combat acne, but you could be doing more harm than good by overwhelming your skin. Switch to gentle cleansers and incorporate an acid such as glycolic or salicylic into your routine. Double cleanse each evening to remove all your SPF and makeup (opt for mineral makeup where you can).

Benzoyl peroxide is an organic compound which has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties and retinoids are also effective at holding acne at bay.

Medication

Antibiotics are often prescribed to tackle acne and help make acne-prone skin more resilient to flareups, as is the contraceptive pill. In severe or prolonged cases, your doctor may prescribe roaccutane.

Lifestyle changes

Avoid dairy foods. Try swapping your regular milk for dairy-free alternatives such as almond and oat milk and, of course, drink plenty of water. Experimenting with elimination diets can help reveal any triggers.

Get plenty of exercise or try taking up yoga or meditating, as these are proven methods of reducing stress.

Steroid shots

This acne remedy is relatively painless and quick. Plus, the results are worth it if you have a particularly stubborn area of cystic acne. Steroid shots are great if your skin is not responding to typical acne therapies, but it’s wise to note they offer short-term relief as they’re not intended for regular, repeated use.

Chemical peels

Facial peels can help to exfoliate and lift the top layer of your skin and by removing the dirt, bacteria, and excess oil that can contribute to your acne. Although there are at-home options, visit a clinician to ensure the best results from your treatment.

Laser treatments

Laser treatments are an effective treatment for acne scars. A high-precision laser is used to break apart the scar tissue that has formed and can help to reduce the appearance of deep pitted scars that have formed over time.

Light therapy

As with lasers, light therapy, also known as photodynamic therapy, can also help alleviate the appearance of acne and scars. Skin bacteria is sensitive to certain wavelengths of light and focusing these types of light on areas of acne-prone skin can cause the bacteria blocking pores to break apart.

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