If you’re like most people, chances are you’ve had acne breakouts or the occasional pimple pop-up. As frustrating as acne can be, for many of us, it’s a normal part of life. Acne is one of the most common skin conditions in the United States, affecting up to 50 million Americans every year.¹ Nevertheless, it can also be somewhat multifactorial when it comes to knowing what causes it or why it occurs. But have you ever wondered if acne is contagious or infectious? We’re here to answer your acne-related skincare questions and help you on your journey to healthier skin.
Good news! The simple answer is no. It’s impossible to “catch” acne the same way you catch a cold. Acne is an inflammatory skin condition caused by a variety of factors, but being in contact with or around people with acne is not one of them.
Acne isn’t infectious, but if you squeeze or pick at pimples and frequently touch your face, there is a chance that you could spread acne-causing bacteria or oil and cause more pimples. The same goes for makeup brushes and other things that touch your face (like your phone). While acne isn’t contagious, it is possible to transfer dirt and oil to your skin that could potentially clog your pores and contribute to acne.²
We know that acne is neither infectious or contagious. So what are the causes of acne?Because acne is multifactorial, the answer to this isn’t so simple. Here are some of the most common contributing factors to acne:
Genetics. One potential factor is family history. But before you start blaming your parents, don't panic. Acne is still very treatable even when there’s a hereditary component.
Hormones. People often associate acne with puberty, but it’s actually the changes in hormone levels that happen during puberty that can lead to acne. An increase in androgen hormones during adolescence causes the sebaceous glands to enlarge and produce more sebum (oil).³ Adult acne can also be triggered by hormonal fluctuations, particularly around menstrual cycles.⁴
Stress. Stress doesn't directly cause acne, but it has been linked to worsening breakouts. Our advice? Take a deep breath and take time to do whatever works for you to keep stress at bay. Whether it's spending time with friends, exercising, or enjoying a relaxing cup of herbal tea, your skin will thank you.
Diet. Your diet is another possible contributing factor when it comes to acne. Some studies suggest a low glycemic diet may reduce pimples, while others suggest cow's milk could worsen acne in some people.⁵ This doesn’t mean you need to give up your favorite foods. Instead, pay attention to what you think could be triggering breakouts, and remember, everyone’s skin is different. What works for one person may not work for another.
Exercise. Exercise is good for overall health, but aspects of exercise may encourage breakouts. During exercise, form-fitting workout clothes can repeatedly rub on your skin to create friction and irritation. When your skin gets hot and sweaty, bacteria can thrive and pores can get clogged (aka acne mechanica). Sweat can also mix with makeup and oil on your skin, which may clog your pores and lead to breakouts.
Now that we’ve established some potential causes of acne, let’s talk about the different types of acne and how they can occur. Acne can appear when hair follicles clog with dead skin cells and oil (sebum). Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes), one of the bacteria normally found on our skin, thrives in the excess oil, leading to the inflammation you may notice with certain acne lesions.⁶ Acne vulgaris is a medical term that refers to a combination of different types of acne lesions,⁷ but knowing the specific type or types of acne lesions you’re experiencing can help determine which treatment will be effective.
Whiteheads and blackheads. These are comedonal acne. They occur when the hair follicle gets clogged with sebum and dead skin cells. A whitehead is a closed comedones, while a blackhead is open and exposed to the air.⁸
Papules. Papules are red and inflamed bumps. They are inflammatory acne lesions.
Pustules. Like papules, pustules are also inflammatory acne, except they’re filled with a white liquid called pus.⁹
Cysts and nodules. Cysts and nodules are a more severe type of acne; they are found deep under the surface of the skin and may cause acne scarring. Cysts are filled with pus, while nodules are harder, painful lumps.
We know acne is complicated—and it’s not always easy to get rid of. Luckily, there are some simple yet effective steps you can take that may help prevent breakouts.
Use a gentle cleanser regularly. When it comes to washing your face, it’s like goldilocks finding the perfect porridge. Too much can dry out or irritate your skin, but you still want to regularly cleanse your skin of bacteria and buildup. Experts recommend washing your face twice daily, once in the morning and again at night or after excessive sweating.¹⁰
Keep popping in the past. Tempting as it may be, popping a pimple is typically not a good idea unless done by a dermatology provider. You could potentially cause the pimple to become more inflamed or scar.¹¹
Moisturize. Don’t let your skin dry out, especially if you’re using acne treatments with vital active ingredients. Dry and irritated skin is more prone to breakouts, so be sure to use a great face cream at the end of your skincare routine to keep your skin feeling moisturized.
Use non-comedogenic products. A sneaky cause of acne could be your hair care products or the makeup you wear. Look for products that are labeled non-comedogenic to avoid any pesky pore-clogging ingredients.
Spread acne medication evenly. Unless otherwise directed by a medical provider, spread a thin layer of your acne medication on all acne-prone skin. Whether a retinoid like tretinoin or a topical antibiotic such as clindamycin, typically you want to apply your go-to acne-fighting treatment to all acne-prone areas and not just active breakouts.
Exfoliate in moderation. Exfoliation can be great for your skin, but make sure you’re not overdoing it. While it might be tempting to try and literally scrub away all your bumps and blemishes, this can irritate your skin and lead to more breakouts.
Acne is stubborn but very treatable! To help you take some of the guesswork out of the process, we put together a short list of effective acne treatments