Blemishes, breakouts, spots, pimples, zits. Whatever you call them, we're all talking about the same thing – Acne. Our 'friends' that are never wanted, never welcome but arrive just the same. Whether it's a pimple or two just before a date, or those pesky few spots that appear around that time of the month, and not forgetting those of you who suffer from severe acne, if they bother you, it's reason to address them. Any type of spot can affect your self-confidence and sometimes it can ruin your day.
To help you navigate this complex world of acne, let's dive a little deeper into the types of acne, causes, and how you can get rid of those evil little buggers – so we can help you get your healthy, glowing, blemish-free skin back!!
What is Acne?
The simple answer is sebum (the oil that naturally lubricates our skin), and more importantly, when sebum mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria it then clogs your pores, and bang, say hello to acne! When you add in other complications such as shedding of the cells that line their hair follicles as well as hyperproduction of sebum, and these two factors lead to congestion of the pores.
Types of Acne
OK you gorgeous lot, before we dive in, it's important we emphasise that all severe forms of acne should be diagnosed by a professional dermatologist or doctor and further treatment recommended depending on their recommendation. It is also important, that no matter what your treatment plan is your acne-prone skin must be protected each day with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above.
Now, when you are looking to tackle breakouts, it's important to know what type you have. The type of acne will depend on your route of attack, and you may have more than one type.
We can group the main types of acne into three:
Also known as comedonal acne is when your sebum (oil) mixes with dead skin cells and then becomes trapped in your pores. There are two types of non-Inflammatory acne:
Closed (aka whiteheads/clogged pores): These appear when a layer of skin forms over the build-up of dirt in your pore to create a flesh-coloured bump.
Open (aka blackheads): When the dirt in your pore gets exposed to air, it oxidises and turns black.
As part of a healthy skin barrier, we all have natural bacteria on the surface of our skin called P. acnes. Inflammatory acne is usually caused by an overgrowth of this bacteria which in turn increases inflammation. There are two types of inflammatory acne:
Pustules (aka red bumps with white pus): These are tender bumps with redness and swelling that have no visible fluid (in other words, no whitehead, more your traditional looking spot). Usually caused by dead skin cells clogging the pores.
Papules (aka red bumps): These can be described as inflamed lesions with a visible whitehead that may be tempting to squeeze (lower those hands people – do not pop that spot!). Often caused by the overgrowth of P. acnes.
A more severe infection that occurs deep down in the layers of the epidermis (your skin) and should always be treated by a professional. It takes on two forms:
Nodules (aka under the skin bumps): A painful, red spot that forms just under the skin and therefore never really form a head.
Cysts (aka large painful spots): They look remarkably like pustules but are bigger, more painful, and sometimes itchy. Cystic acne can have more of a genetic or hormonal origin and will need support from a dermatologist.
Causes of acne
The reasons you have acne can be multi-factorial:
Hormones - periods, perimenopause, menopause, and androgens (testosterone usually raging for boys)
Bacteria - Propionibacterium Acnes (AKA acne) only needs the perfect environment to spread
Inflammation - through illness, medication, food and in times of stress
Sensitivities - such as allergies, reactions to products, reactions to foods/environment
What can I do to help?
Now at this point, you must be thinking if the causes can range from several factors, then surely, it's out of my control! My skin is doomed! Well, no, your skin is NOT doomed! Everyone with acne has the chance to have clear skin, you just need to approach your treatment holistically. Meaning a completely rounded approach to looking after your skin, from diet to managing stress levels.
Some skincare habits to cultivate:
Products containing benzoyl peroxide are a favourite for acne (warning - we prefer acid as they are less drying on the skin and unlikely to cause irritation)
Use topical exfoliants like chemical acid toners
Treat your skin gently and with respect (no harsh scrubs or devices)
Cleanse with superior quality oils and/or balm cleansers
Do not completely strip your skin of oil and moisture by using soaps, foam cleansers, oil-free products
Add retinol to your routine
Always hydrate your skin with a light gel-like cream
Consider that your skin might need oil in more dehydrated places
Avoid moisturisers with heavy moisturising agents like shea butter
Do not pick any spot, but especially red cysts
Avoid products containing alcohol
Avoid mineral oils when cleansing - natural oils are much better for the skin
Address poor habits:
Change your pillowcase every night (sounds excessive, but any oils transferred onto your pillow overnight will not build up on your skin over the following nights)
Cut down (or avoid) drinking alcohol
Stop smoking cigarettes and vaping
Try to avoid sugar, white foods, red meat, dairy, and fried foods
Consider supplements like probiotics
Wash after working out
Work on stress level – we cannot express just how important it is to identify the source of your stress and find ways to manage it. This can be exercise, meditation, yoga, a walk in the hills, a warm bath, and, and if you feel it would help, seek help from a professional.
Not all acne can or should be treated at home; cysts and nodules that are deeper in the skin may require a visit to your dermatologist. Sometimes prescription topicals, a cortisone injection, or even an incision and drainage are necessary.
Time is the key; this isn't an overnight process. Whether you are doing this yourself or through a dermatologist be patient, consistent, and don't give up. Even though there is no magical 'cure' for acne, no one 'quick-fix' to cure all types of acne for everyone you can achieve bright, clear, healthy, glowing skin. And it’s yours for the taking.
Fundamentally, we need to normalise spots, everyone (and I mean everyone) gets them at some point in their lives. Social media and the apps used to 'edit out flaws' (please!) have made us believe that only the unlucky get spots. This just isn't true. Believe in yourself, you are beautiful, and you can achieve the skin you have always dreamed about.