Acne is a common skin condition that affects most people at some point. It causes spots to develop on the skin, usually on the face, back and chest.
The spots can range from surface blackheads and whiteheads – which are often mild – to deep, inflamed, pus-filled pustules and cysts, which can be severe and long-lasting and lead to scarring.
Read more about the symptoms of acne.
What can I do if I have acne?
Keeping your skin clean is important, but will not prevent new spots developing. Wash the affected area twice a day with a mild soap or cleanser, but do not scrub the skin too hard to avoid irritating it.
If your skin is dry, use a moisturiser (emollient). Most of these are now tested so they don’t cause spots (non-comedogenic).
Although acne can’t be cured, it can be controlled with treatment. Several creams, lotions and gels for treating spots are available at pharmacies.
If you develop acne, it’s a good idea to speak to your pharmacist for advice. Products containing a low concentration of benzoyl peroxide may be recommended, but be careful as this can bleach clothing.
If your acne is severe or appears on your chest and back, it may need to be treated with antibiotics or stronger creams that are only available on prescription.
When to see your GP
See your GP if you cannot control your acne with over-the-counter medication or if it is causing you distress and making you feel unhappy.
Also see your GP if you develop nodules or cysts, as they will need to be treated properly to avoid scarring.
Treatments can take up to three months to work, so don’t expect results overnight. Once they do start to work, the results are usually good.
Read more about treating acne.
Try to resist the temptation to pick or squeeze the spots as this can lead to permanent scarring.
Find out more about complications of acne.
Why do I have acne?
Acne is most commonly linked to the changes in hormone levels during puberty, but can start at any age.
It affects the grease-producing glands next to the hair follicles in the skin. Certain hormones cause these glands to produce larger amounts of oil (abnormal sebum).
This abnormal sebum changes the activity of a usually harmless skin bacterium called P. acnes, which becomes more aggressive and causes inflammation and pus.
The hormones also thicken the inner lining of the hair follicle, causing blockage of the pores (opening of the hair follicles). Cleaning the skin does not help remove this blockage.
Acne is known to run in families. If both your mother and father had acne, it is likely that you will also have acne.
Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy, can also lead to episodes of acne in women.
There is no evidence that diet, poor hygiene or sexual activity play a role in acne.
Read more about the causes of acne, including some common acne myths.
Who is affected?
Acne is very common in teenagers and younger adults. About 80% of people between the ages of 11 and 30 will be affected by acne.
Acne is most common between the ages of 14 and 17 in girls, and boys between 16 and 19.
Most people have acne on and off for several years before their symptoms start to improve as they get older. Acne often disappears when a person is in their mid-twenties.
In some cases, acne can continue into adult life. About 5% of women and 1% of men have acne over the age of 25.
Symptoms of acne
Acne causes spots and oily skin, and sometimes skin that is hot or painful to touch.
Acne most commonly develops on:
- the face – this affects almost everyone with acne
- the back – this affects more than half of people with acne
- the chest – this affects about 15% of people with acne
Types of spots
There are six main types of spot caused by acne:
- blackheads – small black or yellowish bumps that develop on the skin; they are not filled with dirt but are black because the inner lining of the hair follicle produces pigmentation (colouring)
- whiteheads – have a similar appearance to blackheads, but they can be firmer and will not empty when squeezed
- papules – small red bumps that may feel tender or sore
- pustules – similar to papules, but have a white tip in the centre that is caused by a build-up of pus
- nodules – large hard lumps that build up beneath the surface of the skin and can be painful
- cysts – the most severe type of spot caused by acne; they are large pus-filled lumps that look similar to boils and carry the greatest risk of causing permanent scarring
When to seek medical advice
Even mild cases of acne can cause distress. If your acne is making you feel very unhappy or you cannot control your spots with over-the-counter medication, see your GP.
Also see your GP if you develop scarring, nodules or cysts. Scarring is more common with deep nodules and cysts, but can occur after spots nearer the surface.
Causes of acne
Acne is caused when tiny holes in the skin, known as hair follicles, become blocked.
Sebaceous glands are tiny glands found near the surface of your skin. The glands are attached to hair follicles, which are small holes in your skin that an individual hair grows out of.
Sebaceous glands lubricate the hair and the skin to stop it drying out. They do this by producing an oily substance called sebum.
In acne, the glands begin to produce too much sebum. The excess sebum mixes with dead skin cells and both substances form a plug in the follicle.
If the plugged follicle is close to the surface of the skin, it will bulge outwards, creating a whitehead. Alternatively, the plugged follicle can be open to the skin, creating a blackhead.
Normally harmless bacteria that live on the skin can then contaminate and infect the plugged follicles, causing papules, pustules, nodules or cysts.
Teenage acne is thought to be triggered by increased levels of a hormone called testosterone, which occurs during puberty. The hormone plays an important role in stimulating the growth and development of the penis and testicles in boys, and maintaining muscle and bone strength in girls.
The sebaceous glands are particularly sensitive to hormones. It is thought that increased levels of testosterone cause the glands to produce much more sebum than the skin needs.
Acne in families
Acne can run in families. If your parents had acne, it’s likely that you will also develop it.
One study has found that if both your parents had acne, you are more likely to get more severe acne at an early age. It also found that if one or both of your parents had adult acne, you are more likely to get adult acne too.
Acne in women
More than 80% of cases of adult acne occur in women. It is thought that many cases of adult acne are caused by the changes in hormone levels that many women have at certain times.
These times include:
- periods – some women have a flare-up of acne just before their period
- pregnancy – many women have symptoms of acne in pregnancy, usually during the first three months of their pregnancy
- polycystic ovary syndrome – a common condition that can cause acne, weight gain and the formation of small cysts inside the ovary
Other possible triggers of an acne flare-up include:
- some cosmetic products – however, this is less common as most products are now tested so they don’t cause spots (non-comedogenic)
- certain medications, such as steroid medications, lithium (which is often used to treat depression and bipolar disorder) and some anti-epileptic drugs (used to treat epilepsy)
- regularly wearing items that place pressure on an affected area of skin, such as a headband or backpack
- smoking, which can contribute to acne in older people
Despite being one of the most widespread skin conditions, acne is also one of the most poorly understood. There are many myths and misconceptions about it:
- “Acne is caused by a poor diet.” So far, research has not found any foods that cause acne. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is recommended because it is good for your heart and your health in general.
- “Acne is caused by having dirty skin and poor hygiene.” Most of the biological reactions that trigger acne occur beneath the skin, not on the surface, so the cleanliness of your skin will have no effect on your acne. Washing your face more than twice a day could just aggravate your skin.
- “Squeezing blackheads, whiteheads and spots is the best way to get rid of acne.” This could actually make symptoms worse and may leave you with scarring.
- “Sexual activity can influence acne.” Having sex or masturbating will not make acne any better or worse.
- “Sunbathing, sunbeds and sunlamps help improve the symptoms of acne.” There is no conclusive evidence that prolonged exposure to sunlight or using sunbeds or sunlamps can improve acne. Many medications used to treat acne can make your skin more sensitive to light, so exposure could cause painful damage to your skin, not to mention increase your risk of skin cancer.
- “Acne is infectious.” You cannot pass acne on to other people.
Your GP will be able to diagnosis acne by looking at your skin. This will involve examining your face, chest and back for the different types of spot, such as blackheads or sore, red nodules.
How many spots you have and how painful and inflamed they are will help determine how severe your acne is. This is important in planning your treatment.
Four grades can be used to measure the severity of acne:
- grade 1 (mild) – acne is mostly confined to whiteheads and blackheads, with just a few papules and pustules
- grade 2 (moderate) – there are multiple papules and pustules, which are mostly confined to the face
- grade 3 (moderately severe) – there is a large number of papules and pustules, as well as the occasional inflamed nodule, and the back and the chest are also affected by acne
- grade 4 (severe) – there is a large number of large, painful pustules and nodules
Acne in women
If acne suddenly starts in adult women, it can be a sign of a hormonal imbalance, especially if is accompanied by other symptoms such as excessive body hair (hirsutism) and irregular or light periods.
The most common cause of hormonal imbalances in women is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS can be diagnosed using a combination of ultrasound scans and blood tests. Read more about diagnosing PCOS.
Treatment for acne depends on how severe it is. It can take several months of treatment before acne symptoms improve.
If you just have a few blackheads, whiteheads and spots, you should be able to treat them successfully with over-the-counter gels or creams (topical treatments) that contain benzoyl peroxide.
Things you can try
Some self-help techniques may also be useful:
- Do not wash affected areas of skin more than twice a day. Frequent washing can irritate the skin and make symptoms worse.
- Wash the affected area with a mild soap or cleanser and lukewarm water. Very hot or cold water can make acne worse.
- Don’t try to “clean out” blackheads or squeeze spots. This can make them worse and cause permanent scarring.
- Avoid using too much make-up and cosmetics. Use water-based products that are described as non-comedogenic (this means the product is less likely to block the pores in your skin).
- Completely remove make-up before going to bed.
- If dry skin is a problem, use a fragrance-free, water-based emollient.
- Regular exercise cannot improve your acne, but it can boost your mood and improve your self-esteem. Shower as soon as possible once you finish exercising as sweat can irritate your acne.
- Wash your hair regularly and try to avoid letting your hair fall across your face.
Treatments can take up to three months to work, so don’t expect results overnight.
Treatments from your GP
See your GP if your acne is more widespread – for example, you have a large number of papules and pustules, or over-the-counter medication hasn’t worked – as you probably need prescription medication.
Prescription medications that can be used to treat acne include:
- topical retinoids
- topical antibiotics
- azelaic acid
- antibiotic tablets
- in women, the combined oral contraceptive pill
- isotretinoin tablets
If you have severe acne, such as a large number of papules and pustules on your chest and back as well as your face, or if you have painful nodules, your GP can refer you to an expert in treating skin conditions (dermatologist).
A combination of antibiotic tablets and topical treatments is usually the first treatment option for severe acne. If this doesn’t work, a medication called isotretinoin may be prescribed.
Many of these treatments can take two to three months before they start to work. It’s important to be patient and persist with a recommended treatment, even if there is no immediate effect.
Topical treatments (gels, creams and lotions)
Benzoyl peroxide works as an antiseptic to reduce the number of bacteria on the surface of the skin. It also helps to reduce the number of whiteheads and blackheads and has an anti-inflammatory effect.
Benzoyl peroxide is usually available as a cream or gel. It’s used either once or twice a day. It should be applied 20 minutes after washing to all of the parts of your face affected by acne.
It should be used sparingly as too much can irritate your skin. It also makes your face more sensitive to sunlight, so avoid too much sun and ultraviolet (UV) light, or wear sun cream.
Benzoyl peroxide can have a bleaching effect, so avoid getting it on your hair or clothes.
Common side effects of benzoyl peroxide include:
- dry and tense skin
- a burning, itching or stinging sensation
- some redness and peeling of the skin
Side effects are usually mild and should pass once the treatment has finished.
Most people need a six-week course of treatment to clear most or all of their acne. You may be advised to continue treatment less frequently to prevent acne returning.
Topical retinoids work by removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin (exfoliating) which helps prevent them building up within hair follicles.
Tretinoin and adapalene are topical retinoids used to treat acne. They are available in a gel or cream and are usually applied once a day before you go to bed.
Apply to all of the parts of your face affected by acne 20 minutes after washing your face.
It is important to apply topical retinoids sparingly and avoid excessive exposure to sunlight and UV.
Topical retinoids are not suitable for use during pregnancy as there is a risk that they might cause birth defects.
The most common side effects of topical retinoids are mild irritation and stinging of the skin.
A six-week course is usually required, but you may be advised to continue using the medication less frequently after this.
Topical antibiotics help kill the bacteria on the skin that can infect plugged hair follicles. They are available as a lotion or gel that is applied once or twice a day.
A six- to eight-week course is usually recommended. After this, treatment is usually stopped as there is a risk that the bacteria on your face could become resistant to the antibiotics. This could make your acne worse and cause additional infections.
Side effects are uncommon, but can include:
- minor irritation of the skin
- redness and burning of the skin
- peeling of the skin
Azelaic acid is often used as an alternative treatment for acne if the side effects of benzoyl peroxide or topical retinoids are particularly irritating or painful.
Azelaic acid works by getting rid of dead skin and killing bacteria. It is available as a cream or gel and is usually applied twice a day (or once a day if your skin is particularly sensitive).
The medication does not make your skin sensitive to sunlight, so you do not have to avoid exposure to the sun.
You will usually need to use azelaic acid for a month before your acne improves.
The side effects of azelaic acid are usually mild and include:
- burning or stinging skin
- dry skin
- redness of the skin
Antibiotic tablets (oral antibiotics) are usually used in combination with a topical treatment to treat more severe acne.
In most cases, a class of antibiotics called tetracyclines is prescribed, unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women are usually advised to take an antibiotic called erythromycin, which is known to be safer to use.
It will usually take about six weeks before you notice an improvement in your acne.
Depending on how well you react to the treatment, a course of oral antibiotics can last four to six months.
Tetracyclines can make your skin sensitive to sunlight and UV light and can also make the oral contraceptive pill less effective during the first few weeks of treatment.
You will need to use an alternative method of contraception, such as condoms, during this time.
Hormonal therapies can often benefit women with acne, especially if the acne flares up around periods or is associated with hormonal conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome.
If you don’t already use it, your GP may recommend that you start taking the combined oral contraceptive pill, even if you are not sexually active. This combined pill can often help improve acne in women, but may take up to a year before the full benefits are seen.
Co-cyprindiol is a hormonal treatment that can be used for more severe acne that doesn’t respond to antibiotics. It helps reduce the production of sebum.
You will probably have to use co-cyprindiol for two to six months before you notice a significant improvement in your acne.
There is a small risk that women taking co-cyprindiol may develop breast cancer in later life.
For example, out of a group of 10,000 women who have not taken co-cyprindiol, you would expect 16 of them to develop breast cancer by the time they were 35. This figure rises to 17 or 18 for women who were treated with co-cyprindiol for at least five years in their early twenties.
There is also a very small chance of co-cyprindiol causing a blood clot. The risk is estimated to be around 1 in 2,500 in any given year.
It is not thought to be safe to take co-cyprindiol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Women may need to have a pregnancy test before treatment can begin.
Other side effects of co-cyprindiol include:
- bleeding and spotting between your periods, which can sometimes occur for the first few months
- sore breasts
- mood changes
- loss of interest in sex
- weight gain or weight loss
Isotretinoin has a number of beneficial effects:
- it helps normalise sebum and reduce how much is produced
- it helps prevent follicles becoming clogged
- it decreases the amount of bacteria on the skin
- it reduces redness and swelling in and around spots
However, the drug can also cause a wide range of side effects. It is therefore only recommended for severe cases of acne that have not responded to other treatments.
Because of the risk of side effects, isotretinoin can only be prescribed by a specially trained GP or a dermatologist.
Isotretinoin is taken as a tablet. Most people take a four- to six-month course. Your acne may get worse during the first 7 to 10 days of treatment. However, this is normal and soon settles.
Common side effects of isotretinoin include:
- inflammation, dryness and cracking of the skin, lips and nostrils
- changes in your blood sugar levels
- inflammation of your eyelids (blepharitis)
- inflammation and irritation of your eyes (conjunctivitis)
- blood in your urine
Rarer side effects of isotretinoin include:
Because of the risk of these rarer side effects, you will need a blood test before and during treatment.
Isotretinoin and birth defects
Isotretinoin will damage an unborn baby. If you’re a woman of childbearing age:
- don’t use isotretinoin if you are pregnant or you think you are pregnant
- use one, or ideally two, methods of contraception for one month before treatment begins, during treatment and for one month after treatment has finished
- have a pregnancy test before, during and after treatment
You will be asked to sign a form confirming that you understand the risk of birth defects and are willing to use contraceptives to prevent this risk, even if you are not currently sexually active.
If you think you may have become pregnant when taking isotretinoin, contact your dermatologist immediately.
Isotretinoin is also not suitable if you are breastfeeding.
Isotretinoin and mood changes
There have been reports of people experiencing mood changes while taking isotretinoin. There is no evidence that these mood changes were the result of the medication.
However, as a precaution, contact your doctor immediately if you feel depressed or anxious, have feelings of aggression or suicidal thoughts.
Several treatments for acne do not involve medication.
- comedone extractor – a small pen-shaped instrument that can be used to clean out blackheads and whiteheads
- chemical peels – where a chemical solution is applied to the face, causing the skin to peel off and new skin to replace it
- photodynamic therapy – where light is applied to the skin in an attempt to improve symptoms of acne
These treatments may not work and can therefore not be routinely recommended.
Complications of acne
Acne scarring can sometimes develop as a complication of acne. Any type of acne spot can lead to scarring, but it is more common when the most serious types of spots (nodules and cysts) burst and damage nearby skin.
Scarring can also occur if you pick or squeeze your spots, so it is important not to do this.
There are three main types of acne scars:
- ice pick scars – small, deep holes in the surface of your skin that look like the skin has been punctured with a sharp object
- rolling scars – caused by bands of scar tissue that form under the skin, giving the surface of the skin a rolling and uneven appearance
- boxcar scars – round or oval depressions, or craters, in the skin
Treatments for acne scarring are regarded as a type of cosmetic surgery, which is not usually available on the NHS. However, in the past, exceptions have been made when it has been shown that acne scarring has caused serious psychological distress.
See your GP if you are considering having cosmetic surgery. They will be able to discuss your options with you and advise you about the likelihood of having the procedure carried out on the NHS.
Many private clinics offer treatment for acne scarring. Prices can vary widely (from £500 to more than £10,000) depending on the type of treatment required.
The website of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons provides more information about private treatment available in your area.
It is important to have realistic expectations about what cosmetic treatment can achieve. While treatment can certainly improve the appearance of your scars, it will not be able to get rid of them completely.
After treatment for acne scarring, most people notice a 50-75% improvement in their appearance.
Some of the available treatments for acne scarring are explained below.
Dermabrasion involves removing the top layer of skin, either using lasers or a specially made wire brush.
After the procedure, your skin will look red and sore for several months, but as it heals you should notice an improvement in the appearance of your scars.
Laser treatment can be used to treat mild to moderate acne scarring. There are two types of laser treatment:
- ablative laser treatment – where lasers are used to remove a small patch of skin around the scar to produce a new, smooth-looking area of skin
- non-ablative laser treatment – where lasers are used to stimulate the growth of new collagen (a type of protein found in skin), which helps repair some of the damage caused by scarring and improves the appearance
Punch techniques are used to treat ice pick scars and boxcar scars. There are three types of punch technique:
- punch excision – used to treat mild ice pick scars. The scar is surgically removed and the remaining wound is sealed. After the wound heals, it will leave a smoother and more even area of skin.
- punch elevation – used to treat boxcar scars. The base of the scar is surgically removed, leaving the sides of the scar in place. The base is then reattached to the sides, but lifted up so it is level with the surface of the skin. This makes the scar much less noticeable.
- punch grafting – used to treat very deep ice pick scars. As with a punch excision, the scar is removed, but the wound is then “plugged” with a sample of skin taken from elsewhere on the body (usually from the back of the ear).
Subcision is a surgical treatment that can be used to treat rolling scars. During surgery, the upper layer of the skin is removed from the underlying scar tissue. This allows blood to pool under the affected area. The blood clot helps form connective tissue, which pushes up the rolling scar so it is level with the rest of the surface of the skin.
Once subscision has been completed, additional treatment, such as laser treatment and dermabrasion, can be used to further improve the appearance of the scar.
Acne can often cause intense feelings of anxiety and stress, which can sometimes make people with the condition become socially withdrawn. This combination of factors can lead to people with acne becoming depressed.
You may be depressed if during the last month you have often felt down, depressed or hopeless and have little interest or pleasure in doing things.
If you think that you or your child may have depression, it is important to speak to your GP.
Read more about treatment for depression.
There is currently no main charity or support group for people affected by acne in England.
However, there is a range of informally run message boards and blogs about acne on the web. You may find it supportive to read about other people’s experience of living with acne.
The charity Get Connected also has a website and helpline for teenagers and young people with emotional and other difficulties.
‘Acne can be managed and you can be happy’
When Will developed severe acne in his early teens, it destroyed his self-esteem. It was only when he tried the drug isotretinoin at 18 that his acne finally cleared up. Will wants to help other people with acne see that there is hope.
“I started getting spots when I was about 13. It wasn’t really a problem to start with because all my friends had them too.
“But the spots got worse and I developed severe cystic acne all over my face and back. My first year at university should have been one of the happiest times of my life, but it was actually the worst.
“Acne was affecting my work, my friendships and my relationship with my parents. I missed great nights out because, when my skin was really bad, I couldn’t face seeing anyone.
“At 18, I felt really depressed. All my friends were meeting girls and I couldn’t talk to any of them because of the way I looked. I refused to be photographed.
“When I was at my worst, I couldn’t sleep properly and I eventually went to my GP to ask for some sleeping pills. He commented on my acne straight away. He asked if I was depressed and explained that the acne was causing my sleep problems.
“He recommended the drug isotretinoin [also branded as Roaccutane] and referred me to a skin specialist. I was prescribed a five-month course and that’s when things really changed for me. A month after my 19th birthday, my acne had almost cleared up. Everyone started saying how healthy I looked and I knew what they meant. I felt great for the first time in ages.
“I know the drug might not be the right treatment for everyone, but it really helped me. I saw the benefits the next year, when the side effects (dry skin and thinning hair) wore off. My hair is now thick again, but I do still get dry lips. However, I think this is a price worth paying.
“That was five years ago. Since then I’ve started a website giving practical advice and support to other people with acne. I want people to have a more balanced view of Roaccutane as there are lots of horror stories around.
“I still do get the occasional spot, but it’s just what the average person gets, nothing like the cystic acne I had before. My acne scars have almost completely faded.
“I’d say to others with acne: don’t ignore it. Make sure you see a doctor. I suffered for about five years before seeing my GP because I was in denial. I thought every teenager got it.
“Acne can be managed and you can be happy. You are not stuck with acne for life.”