Tips and Tools: Tips for managing acne

What is it?

Acne results from overactive oil glands in the skin, which causes clogged pores. Clogged pores lead to pimples or "zits" on the face, neck and back. Acne is typically associated with people in their teens, although the condition is common in adults.

People with acne may have blackheads, whiteheads or larger pimples called cysts or pustules. Deep acne can cause red, inflamed skin that may be permanently scarred.

What causes acne?

You might think that acne is caused by junk food or dirty skin, but acne is usually caused by one of the following:

Hormones: Hormonal changes related to puberty, menstruation or pregnancy can cause acne. Rising levels of androgens (male sex hormones) in boys and girls during puberty increases the production of oil by the skin's sebaceous (oil) glands.

Heredity: People whose parents had acne are more prone to the condition in puberty or adulthood.

Several factors can worsen acne, including certain drugs or medications (for example, corticosteroids), cosmetics, skin cleansers, and friction caused by scrubbing or frequently touching the skin.

How is acne treated?

There is no known cure for acne, but treatment can control and prevent breakouts. Self-treatment is usually adequate for mild to moderate acne. More severe cases, or acne that does not improve after six to eight months of self-treatment, may need a doctor's attention. A doctor will likely recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • Skin lotions that contain benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid or sulphur (compounds that help unclog pores and help skin shed dead cells). These products are available at most drug stores and you don't need a prescription.
  • In some women, certain oral contraceptives to help regulate the hormonal changes that cause acne outbreaks.
  • Antibiotic lotions or creams containing usually an antibiotic (e.g., erythromycin, tetracycline, clindamycin) and a retinoid (e.g., isotretinoin or retinoic acid-a substance derived from vitamin A). Topical (applied to the skin only) retinoic acid and topical antibiotics are NOT associated with an increase of birth defects. However, due to the lack of safety information for topical isotretinoin, it is not recommended for use in pregnant women.
  • Antibiotic pills or oral isotretinoin for more severe acne. Pregnant women should not use oral antibiotics or oral isotretinoin due to the risk of birth defects.
  • Although sunlight helps temporarily dry the skin, certain acne medications make people more prone to sunburn. Noncomedogenic (non acne-causing) sunscreens should be used.

Acne usually requires long-term treatment, so it's important to keep using medications as suggested by your doctor. It may take six to eight weeks to see improvement and treatment is often required for several years. If you are taking medications for acne, talk to your pharmacist and doctor about possible interactions with other prescription medications and herbal products.

Tips for People with Acne

Although acne cannot be prevented, you can help reduce the occurrence of pimples with the following tips:

  • Avoid squeezing or picking at pimples.
  • Avoid abrasive and/or antibacterial soaps.
  • Wash your face gently, twice daily with a mild unscented soap and pat dry.
  • When buying cleansing products and cosmetics, look for the word "noncomedogenic" (non-acne causing) on the label.
  • After exercise, wash your face, neck and affected areas as soon as possible.
  • Wash your hair daily, especially if you have very oily skin.
  • For men, shave gently and only when necessary.

Learn more about Skin Care