Acne: causes and treatments

June 22, 2022
5 minute read

Acne can affect more than just your skin. People with mild to moderate acne have also reported low self-esteem, anxiety and social isolation. This has a significant impact on someone’s quality of life and mental wellbeing especially with prolonged acne.

In this blog, we start by exploring what acne is, the potential causes of acne, top tips to manage acne at home, and when to seek further medical advice and treatment.

What is acne?

Acne is a common condition affecting the skin, mostly on the face, neck, back or chest. It is defined by the presence of whiteheads, blackheads and pus-filled spots. Whilst it’s normal to get the odd spot, if your skin becomes hot, painful to touch and you’re experiencing regular outbreaks, this could be a sign of acne.

Acne is mostly linked with the changes in hormone levels in teenagers during puberty but in fact it can also affect adults at any age too. Acne can run in families and is more likely to occur in women than men because of the different fluctuations in life stages in women’s hormones, for example, during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

More severe acne can cause scarring which may affect one's confidence and self-esteem. The good news is that acne is a treatable condition with lots of options available, it’s just about finding the treatment that works for you.

What causes acne?

Acne occurs when the hair follicles (tiny holes in our skin) become blocked with excess oil from the glands underneath our skin and is mixed with surrounding dead skin cells.

The sebaceous glands underneath our skin are sensitive to hormones, and in particular the hormone testosterone which plays an active role of growth in the body. This is thought to be one of the reasons for teenage acne, due to the increasing levels of testosterone used to support muscle and bone strength through puberty.

However, there are possible external factors that are possible triggers of acne. These include, bacteria build up transferred onto the skin from mobile phones, make-up brushes, pillowcases or even headbands and backpacks if worn regularly. Some cosmetic products may also trigger acne as well as certain medications such as steroids. Please speak to a pharmacist or your GP for more advice on this.

What are the treatment options for acne?

There are many different types of treatment available depending on the severity and extent of the acne. In the first instance speak to your pharmacist who can advise you about potential “over the counter” treatments for mild acne. For moderate to severe acne, it’s best to speak to your GP who may prescribe you topical treatments (gels, creams, face washes) or oral antibiotics.

It can often take a few months to see some improvement with acne so be patient with your treatment.

Things to try at home for acne

Firstly, there are some things you can do which may help improve mild acne.

  • Washing your face twice a day with lukewarm water can help clean the skin.  
  • Do not pick your skin or squeeze spots as this usually causes further irritation and can lead to infection and scarring of the skin.
  • Be gentle with your skin and do not over rub or use harsh scrubs.
  • Use non-comedogenic skincare products and make up. This means the product is less likely to block the pores in your skin.
  • Showering straight away after exercise to wash away any sweat and dead skin cells. Exercise also helps improve your mood and self-esteem.  
  • Nutrition alone cannot clear acne but having a varied diet is good for your overall health.
  • Drinking plenty of water and avoiding fizzy drinks to maintain healthy skin.

Medical treatment for acne

It’s a good idea to speak to a pharmacist if you’re getting a few whiteheads, blackheads or spots. They can advise you on common OTC topical treatments that can help for mild acne. Typically, these contain benzoyl peroxide, an antiseptic that reduces the number of bacteria on the skin and can help dry up the spot. These are effective and a good treatment for mild acne. It is always recommended to start with the lowest strength first and to use for a minimum six-week period.

If you have more severe acne such as deep breakouts or cysts these need to be treated medically to prevent scarring. In this case, we would recommend speaking with your GP.

Your GP may prescribe several topical treatments (creams/gels) such as:

  • Benzoyl Peroxide
  • Topical Retinoids
  • Antibiotic cream/gel
  • Azelaic acid

Other oral treatments that are available are:

  • Antibiotics
  • Hormone therapies
  • Isotretinoin

Usually, the first option for acne are antibiotics with a topical treatment. Your GP may refer you to a dermatologist if you have painful breakouts, a large number of spots on your chest and back as well as your face, or if you are at risk of scarring.

For more information on any of these treatments, visit the NHS website here.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing acne, you can chat to our friendly pharmacy team who will be happy to provide you with medical advice and guidance on the different treatment options that may be available to you.

Content last reviewed on:
June 22, 2022
Next review date:
June 22, 2024
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