Variety of cheeses, one of the dietary factors possibly contributing to acne

The 4 Causes of Acne — And What You Can Do About Them Right Now

The better you understand your breakouts, the more effective your at-home treatment plan will be.


4 minute read

No matter the trigger or the type of breakout, your acne is dependent upon 4 underlying factors. Understanding these root causes — and making minor adjustments to your skincare routine as needed — can make a huge impact on your journey to clear skin.


While there is no one “acne gene,” acne is strongly determined by genetics. Parents can pass on their skin type to their children, which can make them more susceptible to acne. Some families have a hereditary tendency to either overproduce sebum (oil), which can mix with bacteria in pores to create inflammatory acne, or to overproduce dead skin cells which can get clogged in pores.

Recent research suggests a connection between the microbiome — our unique balance of bacteria, fungi and viruses living in and on us — and our tendency to develop acne. This gut/skin axis, in part passed on from generation to generation, may turn out to play a large role in our skin health.

For now, what we know for sure is that people who have acne-prone skin will pass on certain characteristics that make their children more susceptible to acne. If a parent had bad acne as a child, their children are more likely to have acne.


Acne is created when dead skin cells get trapped within the sebum (natural oil) of our skin. Hormones, particularly androgens, trigger increased sebum production in the skin which leads to increased acne breakouts. For this reason, men tend to get acne mainly during the teenage years when hormones are spiking, and women can continue breaking out well into their adult years, due to the fluctuating hormone levels associated with their menstrual cycle.

In adulthood, hormonal acne can appear anywhere on the body, and it typically flares up in females the week before or during your period. To keep your pores from getting clogged with excess oil and other impurities, use a gentle exfoliating cleanser with beta hydroxy acid. Follow that up with a treatment lotion containing benzoyl peroxide (or sulfur for sensitive types), to kill acne-causing bacteria and help control oil production.

Try: SLMD Salicylic Acid Cleanser, Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Lotion


We’ve talked before about the consequences of UV exposure on the skin — and for acne in particular — but there are various other environmental stressors that can exacerbate your breakouts.

  • Weather: temperature changes can be stressful for skin, increasing the likelihood of developing acne. Hot and humid environments elevate sebum levels.
  • Air pollution: can wreak havoc on the skin by increasing skin inflammation and triggering hyperpigmentation. Particularly true if you work in a humid or greasy environment, like a kitchen.
  • Water quality: can also affect the skin. Hard water is known to cause dryness due to the presence of alkaline minerals. If you live in an area with hard water, consistent use of a moisturizer is key.

Try: SLMD Facial Moisturizer with Vitamin C, Dual Defender SPF 30


Now for some good news: while there’s not a lot we can do about our genetics, hormones, or the environment, changing our lifestyle is something we can all accomplish. Making choices that foster skin health means more than just building a skincare regimen. Your overall health contributes to your skin health, so factors like stress, hygiene, diet, and comedogenic cosmetics and personal care products can play a role in promoting acne.

Stress depresses your immune system which lowers your body's ability to fight inflammation. It can also cause you to start picking at our skin, which usually worsens breakouts. Instead of popping your pimples, use a spot treatment like SLMD BP Acne Spot Treatment for inflammatory pimples and SLMD Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment for noninflammatory blackheads and whiteheads.

Maintaining good hygiene is a full body effort, and there are simple steps you can take to prevent breakouts. After you work out or sweat, try not to sit in sweaty clothes for too long. Sweat can make clothes occlusive, meaning they trap sweat, dirt and bacteria by binding to the skin. If you can’t shower right away, an acne treatment spray (try SLMD Salicylic Acid Body Spray) will stop the buildup of bacteria between your clothes and skin to combat breakouts. An antibacterial body wash with benzoyl peroxide is also a good option to treat and prevent inflammatory acne (try SLMD BP Body Wash).

In terms of your diet, dairy consumption of dairy products has been linked to acne due the presence of additional hormones. A high-glycemic diet—one with many refined carbohydrates, including sugar— rapidly raises your blood glucose and insulin levels and may lead to more frequent breakouts by promoting inflammation.

Lastly, make sure you’re choosing personal products formulated with acne-prone skin in mind. Makeup, lotions, fragrance and hair products can all be occlusive, leading to breakouts.

If you don't know where to start in combating these factors, a simple regimen like SLMD Acne System and Body Acne System are great choices that will get you in the habit of taking care of your skin, morning and night.

Dr Sandra Lee

Dr. Lee's Last Word

Acne is a complicated condition, and we dermatologists are still learning about what causes it. But you can manage it with the right skincare regimen and lifestyle changes…or with your doctor’s help if need be. So try not to get discouraged and be gentle with yourself!


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