Did you know that 80% of all adults will have some experience with acne? That’s a substantial proportion of people. But when we’re faced with airbrushed images and glowing filters that hide blemishes, scaring and even flare-ups in acne, its no wonder that we get a bit self-conscious when we experience it; it seems we’re battling it alone.

To help understand a little more about acne and how we can tackle it, we posed some of your most searched for queries to Stephanie Munn, Dermatologist at Bupa.

How is acne defined?

oily skin type

Acne or acne vulgaris is a skin condition that causes spots on the face, neck, shoulders and back. It is most prolific in teenagers and young adults, due to hormonal changes, and is very common – eight in 10 people will experience the condition at some point between the ages of 11 and 30.  While it is less common in later life, adult acne can also affect people aged 25 to 40.[1]

The severity of acne varies. Lesions can be inflammatory (red bumps with or without yellow pus-filled spots) and non-inflammatory comedones (blackheads and white heads).

What causes acne?

Acne is typically caused when hair follicles in the skin get blocked with sebum – an oily substance naturally produced by the skin to prevent it from drying out. This mixes with dead skin cells and clogs the tiny follicles, leading to spots. These can vary in shape, colour and size.

In some cases, a bacterium called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) that is usually harmless, can grow inside the hair follicles and contribute to inflammation within blemishes.

Hormonal changes in men and women can also trigger acne. An increase in testosterone can cause skin to produce more sebum, leaving it greasy, creating the ideal environment for blocked pores to develop. In women, hormonal changes such as just before a period may cause acne to flare up. Stress can also increase the stress hormones in the body which can cause acne to occur.

Your diet can also be associated with acne, for example high diary intake can make the skin more prone to acne.

Interestingly, acne can run in families. If both of parents had acne, there is a significant chance their child will experience it too.

How can acne be treated?


Excessive face washing can exacerbate the symptoms

If you’re suffering with acne, speak to a dermatologist or your GP, as there are a range of treatments available. Your level of treatment will depend on the severity and type of your acne, meaning this will differ from person to person.

Creams, lotions and gels are one way to tackle the symptoms. Topical retinoids can be used on the skin to reduce blackheads. This method can cause irritation but will calm down over time.

If your acne doesn’t respond to topical creams, visit a GP or dermatologist who may recommend an oral antibiotic.

Another way to treat the symptoms of acne in women is by taking oral contraceptives. Your GP or local sexual health clinic can best advise which contraceptive is suitable and best for you.

Regardless of what treatment you have, it is important to be patient. Acne can take four to eight weeks to improve, so don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t change immediately. At the start of your treatment, you may feel irritation and a flare in your spots, but this side effect should subside after a few days.

The biggest advice a healthcare professional would give you is not to pick or squeeze your skin as this can make the acne worse and result in scarring. By aggravating the affected skin, you are introducing harmful bacteria and infections which you may be carrying around on your hands and nails.

There is a misconception that acne is caused by having poor hygiene, so washing and scrubbing will not help, it can in fact make acne worse. I would advise gently washing spot-prone areas as normal with a mild soap or unperfumed, oil free cleanser. Your skin does not need to be washed more than twice a day.

The aftermath of acne. When you’re left with scarring, blemishes etc. what treatments are available? 

There are several treatments designed to reduce and improve acne scars, with varying reported success.

Some procedures and methods have substantially helped people, therefore, getting the right advice from your GP or dermatologist is your best starting point in your post-acne treatment.

Some of these treatments include laser resurfacing, dermabrasion, chemical peels and skin needling. These treatments are designed to tighten the skin which will lift the scars and reduce their depth, with the end goal being to make them less noticeable. Always make sure to get professional advice when considering any of these treatments. [2]

There are a few simple things you can do to look after your scars once your acne has cleared. Introduce daily skin routines which will help keep your scars well hydrated with an oil-free moisturiser to reduce dryness. Most scars are sensitive to sunlight so ensure you are wearing SPF during the summer months. Another useful way to minimise the appearance of scars is with make-up. This will help to cover your scars but won’t be able to fill them in or flatten raised scars. Seek advice from a dermatologist on the best recommended products to help you with this.

For some people, having acne is very distressing. If you’re feeling low or anxious about your acne, talk to your GP, who will be able to help.

To create this piece we’ve worked in partnership with Bupa Health Clinics. Bupa provide a range of health checks and dermatology appointments in its clinics across the UK, offering a range of trusted health services close to where people live and work.  We’ve not received any payment for this piece.

[1] https://www.bupa.co.uk/health-information/healthy-skin/acne

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/acne/complications/

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