Zits. Pimples. Spots. Whatever you call it, acne can cause discomfort and embarrassment. This skin condition affects most people at some point during their lives. About 4 out of every 5 people experience acne outbreaks between the ages of 11 and 30.

Acne starts in the skin’s oil glands. The hair on our bodies comes out through canals from these glands called follicles. Oil glands make oils that emerge to the skin’s surface through the follicles’ openings, or pores, along with the hairs.

Sometimes hair, oil, and dead skin cells come together to plug a follicle. The plugged pore provides the right conditions for bacteria that normally live on the skin to thrive. When the body’s immune system attacks the bacteria, pain and swelling can result. That’s how a pimple forms.

Doctors don’t know why only some people get acne. They do know what raises the risk for acne. Increases in certain hormones can cause oil glands to get bigger and make more oil. These hormone levels go up during puberty. Because of this, acne is most common in adolescents and young adults. Hormone changes caused by pregnancy or by starting or stopping birth control pills can also trigger acne.

But people of all ages can get acne. For most, acne goes away by the time they reach their 30s. However, some people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s still get acne. Although acne is usually not a serious health threat, it can be upsetting, and severe acne can lead to permanent scarring.

There are things you can do to prevent acne, explains Dr. Edward Cowen, a skin specialist at NIH. He recommends that people with acne avoid skin products that contain petrolatum, a type of oil. Instead, he says, look for creams and lotions labeled “noncomedogenic.” These are less likely to clog pores. A lot of people think certain foods can cause acne breakouts. However, Cowen explains, research has not been able to confirm this in most cases. See the Wise Choices box for other tips.

While there are plenty of home remedies for acne, Cowen says, it’s better to start with proven over-the-counter treatments for mild acne. These products can contain benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, or sulfur.

People with severe acne should discuss prescription drug options with a doctor, he adds. These include antibiotics to kill bacteria or drugs called retinoids, which can be given as a topical to apply to the skin or as an oral medication.

NIH-funded scientists are conducting research to better understand why acne develops and to find better ways to treat the condition.

Fight Acne Flare-Ups

These good habits can help reduce acne:

  • Be gentle. Avoid scrubbing hard when washing your face.
  • Hands off. Resist the temptation to squeeze or pick at pimples.
  • Avoid oily skin products. Choose lotions and make-up labeled “noncomedogenic.” These are less likely to clog your pores.
  • Wash your hair. If you have oily hair, washing it every day can reduce oil on the skin.
  • Loosen up. Avoid pressure from tight-fitting clothing, sports equipment, or backpack straps, which can irritate the skin.

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