What is acne anyway?

The causes of acne explained

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We’re here to tell you what we know, but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider about your specific health concerns.

Acne is so common that about 85% of teenagers and twenty-somethings battle at least minor acne every year. But why? What is acne, anyway? First off, knowledge is power. This guide will explain exactly what acne is and where it comes from. Just remember that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to suffer with pesky or painful breakouts.

Illustration of pores with text "Healthy," "Whitehead," "Blackhead," "Papule," "Pustule," "Cyst/Nodule," Sebaceous gland"

Do I have acne?

Acne is a spectrum and can appear in many forms, from clogged pores to small inflamed bumps (called papules) to large cysts. Clogged pores are also known as comedones, which can be open (blackheads) or closed (whiteheads), and might lead to more inflamed and larger blemishes that we all commonly associate with acne. The more inflamed a zit gets, the higher the chance it’ll leave a scar behind.

Types of Acne

Who can get acne?

Teenagers aren’t the only ones who can suffer from acne. Adults do, too—especially women! Almost half of women in their 20s and a quarter of women in their 30s deal with acne.

Illustration of an infant with acne on face with caption "Acne can even happen to babies!"

Not-so-fun fact: almost 20% of newborns up to three months old, and even infants and small children, face acne problems. This happens when mothers pass androgens to their babies, stimulating the child’s sebaceous glands. Just like with teens and adults, these glands enlarge and release more oil, overwhelming the pores.

What causes acne?

Illustration with text "Normal Follicle:" "Open pore," "Hair follicle," "Sebaceous gland" beside image with text "Inflamed Acne:" "Pore lining ruptures," "Inflammation and tissue destruction"
  • Acne starts in the pore. Dead skin cells lining the pore start to collect instead of sloughing off like usual.

  • Hormones (called androgens) increase how much sebum your body makes, and these natural oils begin to collect in your pores. Normally, these skin cells slough off just fine, but sometimes clog up the pore instead.

  • Next, this sludgy mix hanging out in your pores gets exposed to bacteria that naturally live on the skin. These bacteria (called P. acnes) thrive in the extra oil in the pore.

  • Lastly, the skin cells, the oil and the bacteria fill up and overflow, leaking out into the nearby tissue, causing further inflammation and larger breakouts.

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Acne Treatments

Luckily, there are treatments you can try to limit acne, like:

  • Tretinoin → smooths and firms skin while clearing acne

  • Azelaic acid → helps with melasma, rosacea, and hyperpigmentation

  • Clindamycin → stops acne-causing bacteria in its tracks

  • Zinc pyrithione → kills acne-causing fungus to help stop breakouts

Addressing triggers like diet and stress and using a dermatologist-approved skincare solution can help—like Curology!

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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If you’re feeling unsure about what acne treatment your skin needs to beat breakouts, talking to a dermatology provider can help. You can get started with one at no extra cost when you start your Curology free trial (just pay $4.95 to cover shipping and handling)*. Just take a quick skin quiz and snap a few selfies and one of our licensed medical providers will evaluate your skin.

• • •

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

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

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