Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is acne?

Acne is a very common skin condition in the United States. Most of us, at one point or another, have probably had acne. It affects 40 to 50 million people in the United States each year. It is most common during adolescence, affecting three out of four teenagers. However, it can also affect people in their 30s and 40s; pregnant women are also prone to breakouts. Acne tends to run in families.

Many myths are associated with the cause and treatment of acne. For example, the belief that chocolate or greasy foods cause acne is a misconception.

Acne occurs when our pores, or openings in the skin, become clogged with dead skin cells. An overproduction of oil traps these skin cells inside the pore. The backed-up ducts become filled with dirt and bacteria, forming a plug known as a comedone. The top of the plug has a white tip, which if punctured, releases oil and bacteria into the skin. The inflammation can go deep into the skin, causing a cyst or nodule.

People with acne often feel stigmatized and embarrassed about their condition. It can cause anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.

There are a variety of treatments for acne, including self-care, topical medications, prescription medications, and skin surgery. You should not attempt to pop or disrupt the pimples, as this can lead to a worsening of the condition.

Seek prompt medical care if you develop signs of a spreading or deeper infection that is associated with acne, such as swelling, warmth and redness of the involved area, or fever and chills.

What are the symptoms of acne?

Acne is a skin condition that has a number of symptoms. It is not just limited to the red spots we know as pimples, but also includes a number of different skin irritations. Acne can be superficial (pimples without abscesses) or deep (when the inflamed pimples push down into the skin, causing pus-filled cysts that rupture and result in larger abscesses).

Acne can occur all over the body. It most often appears in areas where there’s a high concentration of sebaceous glands, including the face, chest, upper back, shoulders, and neck. Acne can also occur on the legs, arms and buttocks.

Common symptoms of acne

Common signs and symptoms of acne include:

  • Whiteheads (closed pores that are filled with dead skin cells)
  • Blackheads (open pores that fill with dead skin cells)
  • Cysts (lesions that occur when a pore fills with oil, dirt and bacteria and goes deep into the skin, causing irritation)
  • Nodules (hard, large bumps under the surface of the skin)
  • Pustules (commonly called pimples; clogged, pus-filled pores)
  • Redness
  • Scarring

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Acne is rarely a serious condition. However, if infection spreads or worsens after scratching or attempting to disrupt or pop pimples, it is possible to develop a deeper or more widespread infection of the skin. Seek prompt medical care if you, or someone you are with, have these symptoms:

  • Generalized swelling, redness, or warmth of the skin

What does acne look like?

Knowing what type of acne you have is important for finding the right treatment. You can try over-the-counter acne treatments for some types of acne. However, if your acne is widespread or you have cystic or nodular acne, see a dermatologist for treatment.

Pustules are white or yellow pus-filled lesions, commonly called pimples that may be red at the base.

Close-Up Of Young Woman With Acne On Face

Cystic lesions are large, painful, pus-filled lumps under the skin.

close-up of person's nose showing blackheads, a type of acne or pimple
Blackheads are open pores filled with dead skin cells.
whitehead, or pimple on nose, closeup image
Whiteheads are closed pores (comedones) filled with dead skin cells and bacteria.

What causes acne?

Acne is caused by clogged pores, which are tiny openings in the skin’s surface. An overproduction of oil (or sebum) by the oil glands (sebaceous glands) combined with rapidly growing skin cells can clog the pores. When the pores become plugged, ordinary skin bacteria begin to grow inside the pore. Complete blockage of the pore results in whiteheads; incomplete blockage results in blackheads.

Enzymes released by these trapped bacteria cause localized inflammation within the resulting plug called a comedone. The comedone can burst, spilling material into surrounding areas, intensifying the inflammation. Deeper infections, including painful cysts, can also develop under the skin.

Acne most often begins in puberty, when the male sex hormones (androgens) increase in both boys and girls. This causes the sebaceous glands to become more active, which results in increased production of oil, or sebum.

Rising hormone levels during puberty are one cause of acne. In addition, acne is often inherited. Other causes may include hormone-level changes during the menstrual cycle; certain drugs (such as corticosteroids, lithium, and barbiturates); oil and grease from the scalp, mineral or cooking oil, or certain cosmetics; and bacteria inside pimples.

What are the risk factors for acne?

Several factors increase the risk of developing acne, can trigger acne, or cause it to worsen:

  • Family history of acne
  • Medications, such as anticonvulsants, birth control pills, and steroids
  • Stress
  • Sweating or being in an area of high humidity
  • Use of shampoos, soaps, lotions or makeup that may contain oils or block pores

Acne can be aggravated by squeezing the pimples or by scrubbing the skin too hard. Skin may also become irritated with friction or pressure from helmets, backpacks, or tight collars. Some environmental conditions, such as pollution or humidity can irritate the skin as well.

Contrary to popular myths, these factors have little effect on acne:

  • Eating chocolate or greasy foods.
  • Poor hygiene. Dirty skin does not cause acne. Using harsh chemicals and scrubbing too hard can actually irritate skin and worsen acne.
  • Using cosmetics. Choose oil-free makeup (noncomedogenic) that doesn’t clog pores, and gently remove makeup daily.

Reducing your risk of acne

Some risk factors for acne are more controllable than others. You may be able to lower your risk for acne flare ups by:

  • Avoiding greasy creams or cosmetics
  • Ensuring that your skin is clean, oil-free, and clear of makeup before going to bed
  • Keeping your hands and fingers away from your face
  • Shampooing your hair often (if oily)

What are the diet and nutrition tips for acne?

Some studies indicate that a diet high in carbohydrates—such as breads, cookies, bagels, chips—may worsen acne. However, more research is needed to determine if people with acne would benefit from a specific diet.

Overall, healthy diet tips include:

  • Focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and avoiding processed foods
  • Limiting red meat in favor of lean poultry, fish, and plant-based proteins
  • Including healthy fats, such as those found in avocado, chia seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon

Ask your healthcare provider for guidance before making significant changes to your diet.

When should you see a doctor for acne?

You should see a doctor if self-care and over-the-counter treatments do not clear your acne or if your acne is severe. Your primary care doctor or a dermatologist—a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating skin conditions—can prescribe stronger medications.

Women may experience acne for decades, with flare-ups a week before menstruation. Contraceptives may help clear up this type of acne.

A sudden onset of severe acne in older adults may indicate an underlying disease requiring additional medical attention.

Because acne can lead to pitted skin (acne scars), thick scars (keloids), and changes in skin color, it’s important to receive an accurate diagnosis and follow your treatment plan.

Seek emergency medical care if you experience these allergy symptoms after using a skincare product:

  • Throat tightness
  • Faintness

How do doctors diagnose acne?

Acne is usually a clinical diagnosis, based on the doctor looking at your skin. To diagnose your acne, and to understand more about your skin health, your doctor or dermatologist may ask you several questions including:

  • Do you have a family history or acne or other skin conditions?
  • What are your symptoms, when do they occur, and how long have you had these symptoms?
  • What medications, if any, do you take regularly?
  • What over-the-counter acne treatments, if any, have you tried?

Your doctor may order lab work to determine if another condition is causing your symptoms.

How is acne treated?

The goal of acne treatment is to reduce the occurrence of new pimples, minimize scarring, and improve appearance. Although acne cannot be cured, many effective treatments are available to reduce its symptoms. These include over-the-counter (OTC) medications, prescription medications, and surgeries. Fortunately, with time, most young people with acne will outgrow the condition. However, some women experience acne into adulthood due to hormonal changes. Adult men may also experience acne.

You and your doctor can design a treatment plan based on your age, the type of acne, how severe your acne is, and what you are willing to do as part of your regimen. Your doctor may prescribe topical medications (applied to the skin) or systemic medications (taken orally). In some cases, a combination of topical and systemic medicine may be recommended.

OTC medications

You can buy topical medications in stores without a prescription. These medications typically dry out the pimples and kill bacteria. The following products are available in both OTC and prescription strengths:

  • Benzoyl peroxide (Clearasil)
  • Salicylic acid (Noxzema Anti-Acne Gel, Neutrogena)

Prescription medications

If OTC medications do not work, your doctor or dermatologist (skin doctor) can prescribe something stronger. These medications treat the infection and causes of oil buildup. They include:

  • Antibiotics, either oral (taken by mouth) or topical (applied to the skin), such as erythromycin (Ery-tab or Erythra-derm), minocycline (Dynacin, Minocin), or tetracycline (Acnecycline, Tetra-bac)
  • Birth control pills or other hormonal treatments
  • Topical or oral retinoids (tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene)

    Other treatments

    • Chemical or laser skin treatments to remove scars
    • Cyst removal or drainage

    Self-care measures to improve your acne

    There are several self-care measures you can take to improve your acne. These include:

    • Changing your pillowcases frequently
    • Keeping your hair away from your face
    • Keeping your hands and fingers away from your face and other areas of eruption
    • Washing your hair and face often, especially if you have oily skin

    What are the potential complications of acne?

    Although untreated acne is not associated with life-threatening complications, it can produce both mental and physical scars. These include:

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Embarrassment
    • Scarring and dark spots long after original eruptions have cleared
    Was this helpful?
    1. Acne. American Academy of Dermatology.
    2. Acne. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
    3. Acne. Mayo Clinic.
    4. What is Acne? National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

      Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
      Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 9
      View All Acne Articles
      THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.