If you’re wondering what causes acne, we’re here to help. It’s common knowledge that adolescents experience acne during puberty, but what about adult acne causes? The answer might not be what you think it is.
Acne is a very common skin condition that affects 50 million Americans every year.¹ The good news? If you're prone to breakouts, you’re definitely not alone. The better news? Acne, no matter the cause, is very treatable. So why does acne happen? Many different factors can contribute to acne—hormones, genetics, using products that contain pore-clogging ingredients—but in some cases, acne may be a symptom of another underlying medical condition.
We’re here to inform you about all things skin-related, be it how to take care of your lips or soothe skin inflammation. So, it’s important to know that there are several medical conditions with symptoms that can include acne. If you have acne, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have one of these medical conditions. But if you suspect that you might, it’s best to make an appointment with your local medical provider to get a professional opinion and diagnosis.
Here are some acne-causing medical conditions to be aware of.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) occurs among females and commonly affects the menstrual cycle. We know PCOS is a hormonal condition, but we don’t know exactly what causes it. In addition to getting acne on the face, chest, and back, females with PCOS may experience irregularities in their menstrual cycle. They may produce increased amounts of androgens (a hormone), which may prevent the ovaries from ovulating. Male-pattern hair growth is also common. As the name suggests, many females with PCOS experience cysts in their ovaries. PCOS is also a very common cause of infertility among females.²
If you think you might have PCOS, don’t panic; various treatments are available. Some options your doctor may recommend include birth control pills, androgen-blocking medications, insulin-sensitizing medications to help your body process insulin, and even lifestyle changes that may help symptoms.
Cushing’s syndrome is another hormonal condition that results from prolonged exposure to high levels of the hormone cortisol. In addition to acne, symptoms include weight gain, thin skin, and stretch marks. People with Cushing’s syndrome may bruise easily, and cuts and lesions may take longer to heal. There are a variety of treatments for Cushing’s syndrome, including medications and therapies to help lower the level of cortisol in the body.³
These rare tumors produce too much androgen, a hormone. Again, they are very rare and can be benign or malignant.⁴ Androgens have been shown to contribute to acne, but other symptoms of androgen-secreting tumors can include excessive hair growth, male-pattern hair growth, and menstrual irregularities.⁵ As always, if you’re concerned about these or any symptoms you may be experiencing, we recommend speaking with a medical provider. If anything, doing so will bring you peace of mind and the opportunity to make an informed decision about any treatment you may require.
There are many reasons for breakouts that aren’t due to these or any other medical condition. Here are some of the more common ones:
Using comedogenic products. Some makeup and hair products contain comedogenic or pore-clogging ingredients that could lead to blackheads and whiteheads (and other types of acne!). Be sure to look for products that are labeled non-comedogenic instead.
Leaving comedogenic makeup on overnight. We know how tempting it can be to fall into bed after a long day, but by taking the time to remove all your makeup and wash your face beforehand, you significantly reduce the opportunity for your pores to become clogged. After all, clogged pores can lead to worsening acne breakouts.
Picking and popping. Attacking your acne with your fingers is tempting, sure, but it can actually make it worse. You run the risk of unintentionally pushing its contents even further into your skin. It can also lead to scarring. Be it papules, pustules, or cysts, take it from us: Don’t try to pop acne. Your skin will thank you in the long run.
Only applying a spot treatment. If you’re using a topical acne treatment, be it a prescription or an over-the-counter variety, apply it to all areas where you tend to break out (or as directed by your medical provider).
Not washing your face. Using a gentle cleanser twice daily (as well as after anytime you excessively sweat) is a must for a good skincare routine.
Skincare can be confusing, but we’re here to give you information to help answer questions—no matter how existential—like “What’s the meaning of acne?” or “Why do pimples form?”
There are a lot of different treatments for acne, including topical antibiotic creams, oral antibiotics, and over-the-counter acne treatments. Some topical acne treatments include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoids. For severe acne, such as cystic acne or acne nodules, your medical provider may prescribe isotretinoin, known by its former brand name, Accutane.
Take the guesswork out of your skincare routine with Curology. Sign up for your free trial*, take a few selfies, and your dedicated dermatology provider will evaluate your skin to see if Curology is right for you. As part of your personalized treatment plan, you’ll receive customized, dermatologist-designed skincare delivered right to your door, plus expert guidance when you need it. Curology makes skincare simple by using quality ingredients to target your unique skin’s specific needs.
No! Acne is not an infection. So if it’s not an infection, what causes pimples? Dr. Julie Akiko Gladsjo, a board-certified dermatologist at Curology says, “Acne breakouts can happen when oil, also called sebum, and dead skin cells clog hair follicles. Bacteria thrive in the excess oil and lead to inflammation.”
Ance has been linked to genetics as a potential cause.
For some people, acne might just be part of puberty, but for others, acne can persist into adulthood. Everyone's skin is unique. For example, some females experience hormonal acne well into adulthood. If your acne has lingered past your teenage years, don’t worry; you’re not alone.
American Academy of Dermatology. Acne by the numbers. (n.d.).
Ndefo, U. A., et al. Polycystic ovary syndrome: a review of treatment options with a focus on pharmacological approaches. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management. (2013).
Chaudhry, H. S., & Singh, G. Cushing Syndrome. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. (2022).
Columbia Adrenal Center. Sex-hormone Producing Tumor. (n.d.).
Torti, J. F., & Correa, R. Adrenal Cancer. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. (2021).
Smith, Robyn N et al. A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms in acne vulgaris patients: a randomized controlled trial.The American journal of clinical nutrition. (July 2007).
Zaenglein A. et al. Guidelines of care of the management of acne vulgaris. (2016, May 1).
Yosipovitch, Gil et al. Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta dermato-venereologica. (2007).
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Allison Buckley, NP-C