An introduction to acne
Acne is an extremely common skin condition, affecting up to 80% of the population between the ages of 11 and 30.1 The condition usually arises during puberty and the intensity of the symptoms can vary from person to person. There are many different forms of acne ranging from the most common variant, acne vulgaris to the more serious types such as severe nodulocystic acne.
- Acne vulgaris
- Acne conglobate
- Acne mechanica
- Acne fulminans
- Pyoderma faciale
- Gram negative folliculitis
These types can range from mild to extreme but it is important to discuss them in more detail so that sufferers can better understand their condition and how to treat it. Some symptoms are commonplace in all subtypes of acne, such as pimples and other skin complaints such as blackheads.
Acne can appear on the face or neck, sometimes spreading to the back and chest. It is largely due to the high visibility of these symptoms that acne can have such a detrimental effect on the confidence of its sufferers, making them feel embarrassed and ashamed of their condition. Although there is no known cure for acne, these distressing symptoms can be eased through treatments such as herbal remedies and conventional medicine.
It would be remiss to start a discussion about acne without first addressing your sebaceous glands. These small glands sit under the outer layer of your skin and are usually attached to a hair follicle. They emit a greasy mixture of fats known as sebum oil.
This oil is essential for the maintenance of your skin, keeping it smooth and elasticated, and it is normally secreted on the surface of your epidermis via tiny pores in your skin.
However, an episode of acne usually arises when these tiny pores become clogged with dead skin cells, sebum oil and bacteria. This is when you will start to notice the appearance of blackheads, whiteheads and other acne symptoms.
When you experience a surge in your hormone levels – think puberty – it can cause you to produce more sebum oil. This is why your skin often feels greasy and it does make your pores more susceptible to plugging. Nevertheless, hormones are not the only culprit when it comes to stimulating your sebaceous glands – diet, stress, liver function and insulin can all play a role in triggering an outbreak of acne!
Now you understand more about the sebaceous glands, it’s time to familiarise yourself with your hormones. It isn’t just a coincidence that acne tends to emerge around about the same time you start going through puberty, though it may certainly feel as though your body is playing a cruel joke on you.
Male hormones, androgens like testosterone in particular, can stimulate your sebaceous glands and cause them to start overproducing sebum. Both men and women need testosterone but women tend to require smaller amounts than men, which is why they experience acne episodes during pregnancy or their periods. Your hormone levels are shifting during these times, and it might be that your levels of male hormones are increasing, inspiring your acne symptoms.
If your pancreas is producing too much testosterone, it might be expelled from your body via the skin, inspiring an outbreak of acne. However, it isn’t just puberty or your period that is to blame for producing too many androgens – your blood sugar levels can also influence your hormone levels so it’s important to consider certain aspects of your diet and lifestyle as well!
The role of bacteria
The most common type of bacteria associated with acne is propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes. This bacterium can survive on your skin, usually inhabiting hair follicle, in small amounts and normally it is considered to be harmless.
However, when your body starts to produce excessive amounts of sebum oil, it can transform your skin into an ideal breeding ground and the population of P. acnes will start to swell inordinately. When the bacterium becomes trapped in a clogged pore, it can still thrive, breaking down skin cells and proteins such as keratin and collagen.
Your immune system may detect the damage being caused by P. acne and release a wave of inflammatory chemicals to fight the outbreak. These chemicals though, can be abrasive towards your skin and cause swelling, redness and inspire the development of pimples.
While the symptoms of acne may be infamous, there has certainly been a lot of debate over the years about the different factors that may trigger an outbreak. Some of these ideas have gained popularity, even if they don’t necessarily have a basis in reality. Let’s try and separate fact from fiction, so you have a clear understanding of what might be causing your acne symptoms and what is definitely not.
- Poor hygiene: Acne isn’t caused by poor hygiene or not washing your face enough. There is no evidence to this theory although it definitely one that every acne sufferer has heard. While it is never recommended that you allow your skin to become too dirty, rigorously over-cleaning your skin can be just as detrimental to your symptoms, often irritating your skin and weakening the epidermis. Instead, try to follow a sensible skin-care regime and pay no attention to the people that pedal this fable
- Only affects teenagers: There is certainly a lot of evidence to disprove this theory and it’s hard to believe that people still give this myth any credit. Puberty might be a time of upheaval for your hormones but it definitely isn’t the only time you’ll experience a shift in your testosterone levels. It’s estimated that over 80% of adult acne cases occur in women and this makes sense when you think about it – women have menstrual cycles, can get pregnant, and eventually go through the menopause.2 Their hormonal levels are fluctuating all the time, which can definitely irritate the sebaceous glands and trigger an acne outbreak
- Squeezing your pimples can help: How many of us have pulled faces in front of the mirror, trying to desperately get rid of that one, persistent zit? Popping a pimple may be gruesomely satisfying, but it is definitely not doing anything to relieve your symptoms in the long run, and can even add further trauma to your skin, triggering the release of more inflammatory chemicals
- Acne is contagious: While there are plenty of skin conditions that are contagious, acne is definitely not one of them. You can’t catch acne through physical or indirect contact and you certainly can’t transmit the affliction through sexual intercourse. Despite the glaring potholes in this theory though, it is one that continues to persist and has to be thoroughly debunked on a regular basis
- Sunlight can help: There are those that believe that sunscreen can clog up their pores. This idea becomes much more alarming when you consider that some people also believe that sunlight can help to ease their acne symptoms. In fact if you’re an acne sufferer who decides to go sunbathing without wearing sunscreen, you’re going to be in for a nasty surprise. UV radiation might dry out your spots but it can also damage your skin cells and be a nightmare for your acne symptoms in the long run.
The causes of acne
There may be no one specific cause of acne but there are certainly plenty of triggers. The relationship between your hormones and your sebaceous glands has already been touched upon, however there are a variety of lifestyle factors, like diet, stress and your immune function that have yet to be explored. If you want to learn more about the causes of acne, please check out our cause’s page for more information.
The symptoms of acne
Acne can be considered a chronic skin condition although it usually only affects sufferers at specific points in their lives – puberty, pregnancy, menopause etc. The symptoms are extremely well known, so acne is not normally misdiagnosed.
Pimples and blackheads normally appear in mild cases of acne, like acne vulgaris, and are easily to treat using herbal and conventional medicines. However, in more extreme episodes of acne, the symptoms can become more inflamed and pronounced, developing into nodules and cysts that may require additional care.
It’s important that you speak to your doctor if you feel that your acne symptoms are persisting or getting worse. It might be that you are suffering from a more severe variant of the condition, such as Pyoderma faciale acne or severe nodulocystic acne.
The treatments of acne
There are a variety of home and herbal treatments concerned with treating the internal and external symptoms of acne.
Herbal remedies such as Echinaforce might be recommended if the sufferer is looking to boost their immune system whereas some home remedies are more focused on improving your nutrition and lower your stress levels. Conventional medicines can also be used to great effect; however you should always keep an eye out for any worrying side-effects that they may carry.
If you want to learn more about the home, herbal and conventional solutions for acne, please check out our Treatments page.