You figured out your skin type, got the best cleanser and moisturizer combo for your skin, and of course, you made sure they’re non-comedogenic. You wash your skin religiously, you exfoliate on occasion, and you follow your dermatologist’s instructions to the letter. So why isn’t your acne clearing up?
It could be that your genetics are playing a much larger role in your breakouts than you previously thought. If your siblings or parents also have (or had) regular bouts of acne, there might be hereditary factors at play that make you more prone to breakouts.
So, is acne genetic? Well, kind of, but the relationship between your family history and your present-day acne is a little more complicated. Here’s the rundown on how your breakouts could be related to your genes.
The answer is both yes and no. While acne isn’t a direct result of having any one particular gene (that we know of yet), certain genetic factors can play a role in the frequency and severity of breakouts. If both your parents had acne, for instance, you may have a greater chance of a breakout.¹
Your genetics can also determine how well your immune system protects you from bacteria, including the P. acnes bacteria—the primary acne-causing bacteria.² Similarly, certain hormonal conditions, like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), can run in the family, and they can make a person more prone to acne.³
But there isn’t a single gene for acne, per se, but rather various hereditary implications that may lead to or create common skin conditions where acne will develop more easily and be more challenging to manage effectively.
In fact, scientists have discovered 29 new gene variants that they associate with the risk of acne, as well as confirming 14 variants that were previously linked to acne.⁴ While these genetic variants do not guarantee breakouts, when combined with lifestyle, diet, and environmental factors (such as air pollution), they seem to make an acne breakout more likely.⁵
Besides genetics, several other factors can play a role in the severity of acne and its frequency. They include:
Studies have shown that individuals who eat a diet consisting of low-glycemic foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, and steel-cut oats report fewer acne concerns.⁶ High glycemic foods (such as simple carbohydrates and sugary beverages) can increase inflammation in your body, which may stimulate the production of sebum and bacteria in your skin.
People who live in areas with high levels of air pollution have been shown to have higher rates of acne.⁷ Airborne pollutants can potentially clog your pores, increasing the risk of trapping acne-causing bacteria.
Hormone fluctuations during certain life changes like puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause are a potential risk factor for both adult and teenage acne.⁸
Evidence suggests that stress caused by major changes in sleeping, eating, or personal habits can affect sebaceous gland function, causing breakouts and increasing acne severity.⁹
Several medications can mess with your hormone levels or affect your immune functioning, which can lead to inflammatory acne breakouts.
Some of these medications include corticosteroids, thyroid hormones, certain antibiotics, antituberculosis drugs (INH), antiepileptic drugs (phenobarbital and hydantoin derivatives), among others.¹⁰
If you suspect that your medication is contributing to your acne, make sure you consult with your doctor before stopping or changing it.
Comedogenic means that the products can clog pores and may cause irritation, inflammation, and acne breakouts.
Some common comedogenic ingredients in cosmetics or skincare products that can increase the risk for acne are cocoa butter, coconut oil, isopropyl myristate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and some artificial fragrances or colors.
Individuals with acne should look for products that are labeled as non-comedogenic to avoid clogging their pores.
Depending on the severity and type of your acne, there are steps that you can take toward clearer, healthier skin:
Eat a balanced diet: Although there is no conclusive evidence that diet causes acne, some studies have suggested that certain foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and olive oil have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may benefit your skin health and keep breakouts at bay.¹¹
Reduce your stress levels: Managing stress may play a role in preventing acne. Try to maintain a healthy sleep schedule and get plenty of exercise. Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, hobbies, music, and talking to someone you trust can help keep your stress levels in check.
Wash/change your bedding and pillowcases regularly: Your sheets, blankets, and pillows can be a breeding ground for dead skin cells and oils from your skin and hair that can cause acne breakouts. Wash your bedding at least once weekly with a mild detergent. You can also change your pillowcases every few days or use a clean towel over your pillow every night. This can help prevent bacteria and dirt from transferring to your face while you sleep.
Keep your hair and hands away from your face: This is particularly important especially while sweating. Your hair and hands can carry oil, dirt, bacteria, and products that can clog your pores and cause acne. Consider tying back your hair or using a headband to keep it off your face. If you need to touch your face for any reason (such as applying makeup or a moisturizer), make sure to wash your hands first with soap and water.
Consult a dermatologist: For more stubborn forms of acne, seek advice from a licensed dermatology provider. They can suggest targeted treatments that may be more effective for your acne type and severity.
While there isn’t a particular gene that causes acne, certain genetic characteristics can make you more prone to acne. Besides genetics, your hormones, stress, diet, and sleep quality may also affect your acne breakouts.
While you can’t change your genetics, there are measures that you can take to give your skin the best shot possible. A licensed dermatology provider at Curology can help you create a personalized skincare regimen to suit your needs. Sign up at Curology for a 30-day trial* to seamlessly receive skincare strategies tailored to your specific needs.
Acne that occurs due to a genetic predisposition may be more stubborn or persistent than acne from other causes. Still, with regular washing and topical treatments, you should be able to manage your acne flare-ups just fine. A Curology dermatology provider can provide you with personalized guidance for your skincare.
There is no one particular thing that causes acne breakouts more than any other. However, there is evidence that family history and heredity can account for up to 80% of acne cases.¹²
Any person of any ethnicity can develop acne in any severity, but certain populations may be prone to different types of acne or experience more acne-related side effects. For example, patients with skin of color are more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation—the dark marks left behind on skin when breakouts resolve.¹³
Ballanger, F., et al. Heredity: a prognostic factor for acne. Dermatology. (2006, n.d.).
Antiga, E., et al. Acne: a new model of immune-mediated chronic inflammatory skin disease. G Ital Dermatol Venereol. (April 2015)
Franik, G., et al. Hormonal and metabolic aspects of acne vulgaris in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. (2018, July 22).
Mitchell, B.L., et al. Genome-wide association meta-analysis identifies 29 new acne susceptibility loci. Nature Communications. (2022, February 7).
Bataille, V., et al. The Influence of Genetics and Environmental Factors in the Pathogenesis of Acne: A Twin Study of Acne in Women. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (December 2002).
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Can the Right Diet Get Rid of Acne?. (n.d.).
Krutmann, J., et al. Pollution and acne: is there a link?. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology. (2017, May 19).
Mehta-Ambalal, S. Clinical, Biochemical, and Hormonal Associations in Female Patients with Acne: A Study and Literature Review. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (2017, October 1).
Jusuf, N.K., et al. Correlation Between Stress Scale and Serum Substance P Level in Acne Vulgaris. International Journal of General Medicine. (2021, March 1).
Pontello, R., Jr. and Kondo, R.N. Drug-induced acne and rose pearl: similarities. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. (November-December 2013).
Katta, R. and Desai, S.P. Diet and Dermatology: The Role of Dietary Intervention in Skin Disease. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (July 2014).
Bhate, K. and Williams, H.C. Epidemiology of acne vulgaris. British Journal of Dermatology. (March 2013).
Bhate, K. and Williams, H.C. Epidemiology of acne vulgaris. British Journal of Dermatology. Ibid.
Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.
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Kristen Jokela, NP-C