Everything You Need To Know About Acne

Acne is a chronic skin condition that affects between 80–90% of all Americans at some point in our lives. It’s easy to recognize if you have acne, but it’s much harder to understand what the cause is and how to prevent it.

Here, we break down everything you need to know about acne.

Acne blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules

4 minute read

What is acne?

All of our pores contain a hair follicle and a sebaceous gland, which produces sebum, our skin’s natural oil. The body is constantly regenerating and shedding dead cells, but when those dead skin cells get trapped within the sebum of our skin, they combine to create non-inflammatory acne. If bacteria is present on the skin, it can combine with the dead cells and oil and cause an infection, otherwise known as inflammatory acne.

What is non-inflammatory acne?

This type of acne, also called comedones, are simply clogged pores. You probably know them as blackheads and whiteheads, maybe even as the building blocks of acne.

A blackhead is an open comedo, meaning that the clogged pore is open to the surface of the skin, and the air has oxidized the gunk inside, turning it black.

graphic illustration of a blackhead

A whitehead is a closed comedo, meaning the dead skin and sebum are unexposed but trapped within the skin.

How to treat non-inflammatory acne

If you have blackheads and whiteheads, the key is to unclog your pores and prevent bacteria from infiltrating them. A cleanser like SLMD Salicylic Acid Cleanser is great for this, as it contains gentle, exfoliating, ingredients that will reach deep into your pores morning and night — soothing active acne and preventing future breakouts.

After cleansing, an exfoliating pad like SLMD Resurfacing Acne Swipes can be used for continued cleaning and exfoliating. Made with salicylic, glycolic and lactic acids, these easy wipes work to shed the buildup of cells that initially create blackheads and whiteheads.

Non-inflammatory acne is also typically responsive to topical retinoids. Retinol is an effective, less potent form of tretinoin that can be found in over the counter serums like SLMD Retinol Serum. Just remember to only apply it at night because it is deactivated by the sun and makes skin more sensitive to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays.

What is inflammatory acne?

Cutibacterium acnes, or C. acnes for short, is a bacteria that loves to feed on the sebum within our skin. When C. acnes bacteria gets into clogged pores it reproduces rapidly, causing inflammation. Your body then rushes blood to the scene to try to fix it, causing even more redness and inflammation.

Papules and pustules are the main types of inflammatory acne. Papules are red and hard, and pustules usually have a white head that’s surrounded by red, irritated skin.

The most severe type of acne, however, is cystic acne, which includes nodules and cysts. Acne cysts form deep under the skin, and are large, red, and painful. This is the type of acne best treated by dermatologists, as it has the highest chances of causing permanent scarring. It’s also the main type of hormonal acne, which is caused by an imbalance of hormones due to your genetics.

How to treat inflammatory acne

To treat papules and pustules, choose products formulated with benzoyl peroxide, an effective ingredient that kills acne-causing bacteria. SLMD BP Lotion is a lightweight treatment for everyday use, and BP Spot Treatment is a maximum strength, targeted solution for especially stubborn pimples.

To best manage inflammatory acne, Dr. Lee recommends incorporating benzoyl peroxide with salicylic acid and retinol. All of these are found in SLMD Acne System. People sensitive to benzoyl peroxide also may want to consider trying SLMD Sulfur Lotion, which treats acne by stopping the growth of bacteria and regulating oil without being too irritating or drying.

For cystic acne, dermatologists may take a different approach extending beyond the above over-the-counter ingredients — such as prescribing oral medications, offering cortisone injections, or chemical peels, along with other in-office treatments. These treatments can be a very powerful resort for severe or cystic acne — just be sure to consult with your physician to best decide what is the safest and best approach for you.

SLMD Acne System

What causes acne?

There are a multitude of factors that can cause, or make us more susceptible to acne, but the most common causes of acne are:

  • Genetics: Those with a family history of acne are more prone to breakouts.
  • Hormones: High levels of types of hormones called androgens can lead to acne. Acne is common in teenagers and pregnant women because of the fluctuating hormones present in their bodies.
  • Environment. City air that’s filled with pollution can wreak havoc on the skin.
  • Lifestyle: Dietary choices, comedogenic cosmetic products, certain medications, and sitting in tight, sweat-soaked clothing can also lead to acne. Consistent contact with dirty hands, sheets or towels can also lead to pimples.

Dr. Lee's last word

Acne is certainly one of the most common skin concerns my patients have. The good news is that we can definitely help you manage it with dermatological ingredients. Identifying your specific type of acne is a great first step in building a skincare regimen to treat it. 

—Dr. Sandra Lee


Shop the Article