What causes acne?

Learn what makes those pesky pimples grow so you can nip them in the bud.

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Curology Team
Nov 15, 2018 · 7 min read

Acne stress
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Acne is a spectrum, from clogged pores and blackheads to pimples to cysts. But what causes acne? There are multiple potential triggers that can cause pimples to pop up, like birth control, high glycemic foods, and stress. It really comes down to your body’s unique combination of factors.

What triggers acne breakouts?

The hormonal domino effect

Our lifestyle choices can impact our hormones, which in turn can be the culprit behind acne. One of the most common adult acne causes, hormonal acne causes include premenstrual hormone changes, diet (sugar, dairy, alcohol), and stress. Spikes in blood sugar or stress hormones, for example, can set off a chain reaction that leads to breakouts. Hormonal acne can appear on your jawline, chin, and cheeks.

We totally understand that sometimes these things are inevitable! The good news: treating hormonal acne is easy with Curology. The custom mix of active ingredients in your superbottle helps you maintain clear skin, no matter what life throws at you.

Food pyramid glycemic info


Foods that cause acne in some people include anything with a high-glycemic index (translation: sugar). When your blood sugar spikes, your body produces insulin, a hormone that helps your body control blood glucose levels. Studies show the increase in insulin influences the skin to produce more sebum (oil), which can trigger acne.

High and low glycemic foods

Does milk cause acne?

Dairy, especially skim milk, has been linked to acne in recent studies. All milk, including organic, contains the hormone triggers and insulin-spikers that lead to acne. We’re not saying dairy is inherently bad — it doesn’t necessarily cause acne for everyone! But if you’re breaking out, you might want to try cutting out milk, ice cream, etc. for a few months to see if your skin clears up. Try dairy-free, low-glycemic alternatives such as almond milk or soy milk.

Full gallon jug of milk with a white and red straw against a gray neutral background

For more info on how dairy might be related to acne, check out our Acne-Free Lifestyle Guide and our Diet Guide.

What is stress acne?

Stress pimples or stress bumps happen because the hormones released when you’re under stress can trigger breakouts. Stress acne areas include the jawline, chin, and cheeks. The best way to avoid these is to manage your stress — easier said than done, right? But really, anything that you can do to reduce your stress, such as practicing meditation and/or yoga once a day, and getting a good 7 or 8 hours of beauty sleep, can make a big difference.

Does alcohol cause acne?

Drinking alcohol is like combining the effects of too much sugar with too much stress: your body will release steroid hormones such as glucocorticoids and adrenal androgens, which can lead to acne. Drinking might make you feel relaxed, but it’s actually stressing your body out! As always, moderation is key.

The pill (hormonal birth control)

In some cases birth control can help get acne under control, but in other cases it can make breakouts worse. The key factor? The type of hormones in your birth control. We made you this easy tool so you can find out what kinds of hormonal birth control are most likely to contribute to acne. Use the search tool to easily find out if yours is the kind that helps with acne or makes it worse!

Premenstrual acne, aka period acne

Last but definitely not least, the hormone fluctuations that naturally occur over the course of the menstrual cycle can contribute to breakouts. Some women break out when they’re PMSing because, around 7 to 10 days before their period starts, estrogen levels decrease and progesterone levels increase, while testosterone (male androgen hormone) levels stay the same. This hormone shift can lead to more sebum (oil) being produced in the skin.

Androgens (such as testosterone) play a particularly important role in why acne happens. Both males and females produce androgens, but males naturally produce higher levels (that’s why androgens are often referred to as “male hormones”). An increase in androgens can cause your skin to make more oil (aka sebum), which isn’t a bad thing — until you’re dealing with clogged pores. When a pore gets clogged, a combo of oil and dead skin cells can get trapped, which acne bacteria just loves.

What’s in your makeup/hair/skincare products?

Certain ingredients in your products might be behind breakouts — even the ones you use in your hair, because they can get on your face when you sweat, touch your face, or even from your pillow (wash those pillow cases!).

Use non-comedogenic skincare products — although there’s no regulation of this term, so you always want to check the ingredients of your products anyway. Check out our quick tutorial to checking any product for acne-triggering or skin-irritating ingredients.

If you’re getting forehead acne, check out the ingredients in your shampoo, conditioner, and any other hair products you use. Try switching to a sulfate-free shampoo, since sodium lauryl sulfate (aka sodium laureth sulfate) is linked to acne.

Are you getting your vitamins?

Vitamin D-ficiency

Vitamin D for acne might be a good thing to try, because evidence suggests that Vitamin D deficiency may be connected to acne. Vitamin D3 supplements can be helpful, in addition to getting your daily D from the food you eat. (Mythbuster moment: the sun is actually not the best source of vitamin D, so wear that SPF!)

Vitamin D3 sources of food

Vitamin A for acne

Vitamin A is especially important if you’re fending off acne. You should get about 3,000 IU a day of vitamin A, preferably from the food you eat. Avoid taking supplements with high doses of A, as excessive intake could cause side effects including visual problems, bone pain or swelling, liver damage and increased pressure on your brain, or birth defects if you’re pregnant.

Omega 3 for acne

Omega-3 fatty acids help against inflammation. You can get omega 3s from fatty fish such as salmon, chia and flax seeds, omega-3 enriched eggs, or walnuts. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s especially important to add omega-3s to your diet! Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a vegan way to get your daily dose: it’s a type of omega-3 found in chia, flax, hemp, soy, walnuts, and canola oil.

Sources of omega-3 food

Zinc for acne

Zinc may also be helpful — it hasn’t been proven, but some studies have shown lower zinc levels in acne patients, especially those with more severe acne. In any case, zinc inhibits growth of acne bacteria, reduces inflammation, and may reduce breakouts.

Curology free trial acne treatment

Other possible acne causes

It might be your meds

Some vitamins or medications may have the side effect of worsening acne. Most people aren't sensitive to this, but some individuals break out with high doses of B12. Ask your doctor or look at the side effects listed to find out if you might be taking one of the medications that cause acne. Of course, if you have to keep taking the medication, using a topical treatment like Curology can help stop those breakouts!

It might be genetics (sorry!)

Is acne genetic? Possibly — some studies show a correlation when a person’s parents have a history of acne. If this is the case, you can still do your best to control the above factors (stress, diet, etc.) and use a treatment such as Curology that’s right for you and your skin.

It may be due to a medical condition (in rare cases!)

Certain medical conditions, such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), can have signs such as hormone imbalance that could contribute to acne. PCOS symptoms include acne, excessive hair growth, and irregular periods. If you think you may have signs that indicate a hormonal problems, schedule an evaluation with your primary care physician or OBGYN.

The simple solution

Whatever might be causing your acne, Curology can make you a custom treatment to clear it up. Sign up for a free trial month* and give it a try!

Curology bottles on bath tub with pink tiles

To learn more about how to keep your skin clear, healthy, and happy, check out our handy-dandy Guides and the Curology blog.

• • •

Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days + $4.95 shipping and handling.

Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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