Acne is one of the most common skin conditions in the world, affecting most people during puberty but continuing to frustrate some people throughout their lives. Notably, its severity varies wildly. For some, it’s an occasional annoyance. For others, it’s the cause of tremendous discomfort, significant pain, and extreme social anxiety.
While it can’t exactly be cured, it can almost always be successfully treated. Acne treatments are hugely effective if chosen and used correctly, and they’re reasonably cheap and easy to acquire, meaning sufferers don’t need to simply endure it.
Popular acne treatments
There are various prescription treatments available for acne, and they fall into various categories that function in similar ways. Let’s look at these categories and some examples of the treatments they encompass:
Retinoids: vitamers of vitamin A, these chemical compounds are applied topically and work to unclog pores and slow the progress of further clogging through promoting skin growth, reducing acne as a result. Example: Differin.
Antibiotics: also known as antibacterials when they function to attack bacteria specifically, antibiotics address acne through targeting propionibacterium, the bacteria that feeds on sebum to cause inflammation. There are topical and oral antibiotics available. Topical example: Dalacin-T. Oral example: Oxytetracycline.
Keratolytics: though they often have antibacterial properties, the goal of these topical treatments is to soften the keratin of the skin, promoting exfoliation to remove scales and prevent pore blockages from appearing. Example: Acnecide.
How to select the best acne treatments for you
The many available acne treatments offer slightly different experiences, ranging in strength, the time needed to be effective, typical side effects, and overall efficacy. Dermatology is complex, and everyone’s skin condition is different, meaning that a treatment that works incredibly well for one acne sufferer may be almost useless for another.
The best way to find the treatment (or treatments) best suited to you is to get a prescription from a medical professional, follow their recommended course of treatment precisely, then provide feedback if you don’t see results so they can correct the course. It may take a few treatment options before you find something that works for you, but if you’re patient and dedicated then you will be able to get relief from your acne symptoms.
Vital information about acne
What are the symptoms of acne?
In most cases, acne appears around the face and neck, though it can also present on the back (or even the chest in rare cases). It usually shows up as spotty patches, with the skin within those patches being unusually oily and red. If acne persists in an area for a long time, the skin can suffer permanent damage in the form of acne scars that remain even if the acne is treated.
The spots produced by acne vary in nature, and there are six common varieties:
Blackheads. Whiteheads that have opened and turned black (or sometimes yellow) due to exposure to the air. Can be burst through squeezing.
Cysts. Large boil-like spots filled with pus.
Nodules. Large and hard lumps below the surface skin layer.
Papules. Sore red bumps.
Pustules. Sore red bumps full of white pus.
How is acne diagnosed?
Diagnosing the presence of acne isn’t difficult: in most cases, the appearance of patches of spots and red skin is exactly what you’d think. Where diagnosis becomes useful, though, is in differentiating between grades of acne outbreak. A very mild case, for instance, may need no treatment beyond simple skincare, while a severe case will likely need speedy treatment.
To gauge the extent of an acne outbreak, your doctor or dermatologist will need to perform a visual inspection. They may also need to submit a skin scraping for examination to confirm that there isn’t another condition or infection at work, as acne isn’t the only plausible cause of its typical symptoms. Once they’ve done this, they can proceed to a prescription.
What triggers acne flare-ups?
The exact nature of acne still isn’t understood fully, but we do know various things that have been seen to make acne breakouts more likely. Here’s an incomplete list:
Hormonal changes. Androgens (chiefly testosterone and androstenedione) are hormones that govern male traits, but they’re also converted into estrogens to govern female traits. When androgen levels rise, the skin’s oil glands grow and begin to generate more sebum — and too much sebum causes pore damage that allows the acne bacteria to take hold and start producing symptoms.
This means that any experiences prone to spike androgen levels can exacerbate acne, and that includes such things as menstruation and everyday events that can spark simple rises in stress levels. Given this, it makes complete sense that puberty so often leads to acne outbreaks, even in adults that don’t subsequently suffer from them
Excessive washing. Over time, skin builds up natural oils that serve to protect it from harm. Bathing too frequently (or being overly aggressive when bathing) removes those oils, leaving the skin vulnerable. It also raises the likelihood of the skin suffering abrasion, further damaging it and leading any present acne to worsen.
Insufficient washing. Bacteria can gain a foothold when skin gets hot and sweaty, something that’s common following exercise or during particularly humid weather. Failing to wash affected areas will inevitably raise the overall risk and worsen existing acne.
Medical treatment. Medical treatments can have wide-reaching side effects that can make acne outbreaks more likely. Acne may even be listed as a side effect of a medication. Any acne sufferer should mention their problem to their doctor so they can choose the medication that’s least likely to make it worse.
Topical substances. Creams or lotions applied to an area prone to acne can cause major problems. This is true of medical treatments, but it’s also true of beauty products like makeup and skin creams. Sufferers must be very careful not to overuse such things, remote makeup properly, and pay close attention to how their skin reacts.
What causes acne?
Acne stems from excess sebum mixing with dead skin cells to block pores. Those blocked pores then form spots, and the growth of bacteria in the area can worsen them. There’s no single cause because many things can lead to the conditions that allow acne to develop.
How to prevent acne
If you’re genetically predisposed to acne (perhaps because you naturally produce sebum at an elevated rate), there may be no way to prevent it entirely, but you can at least take precautions. Aim to avoid the situations that trigger acne flare-ups (see the previous section), and see a doctor or a dermatologist if you become at all concerned about the appearance of spots.
Alternatives to acne medication
In mild cases of acne, you can probably just look after your skin, remain as calm as you can, and wait for things to clear up. If you develop moderate or severe acne, though, there are no good alternatives to the various forms of oral and topical acne medication on the market. Bad acne left to fester won’t spontaneously get better.
You can do things like improve your diet and wash less frequently to let your natural oils recover, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll make things better. And since there’s such a set of options when it comes to treatment, you shouldn’t be held back by complications like allergies. If in doubt, get a consultation. A medical professional can point you in the right direction.
Can the contraceptive pill help acne?
Yes, it can. Androgen levels exacerbate acne by causing the production of sebum, and contraceptive pills containing estrogen and progesterone lower androgen levels. They’re not always suitable for use to treat acne, though. Even if a doctor or dermatologist recommends them, it’s worth consulting a gynaecologist for confirmation before proceeding.