Search up why do we get acne? and you’ll find page after page of articles, and with good reason: more than 80% of us get pimples sometime in our lifetime. But if you’re paying close attention, you’ll probably notice that most of the articles talk all about how acne forms. Very few of them, however, talk directly about why.
Why? That’s a really good question. The truth is, dermatologists have a pretty good understanding of how we get pimples — the nitty gritty of what’s going wrong within the skin. What is far from clear, however, is exactly what’s behind the malfunctions.
Maybe you’re wondering why this even matters: Let’s just clear up the dang breakouts, quick! We feel you — but knowledge is power. And that’s why, with the help of Sandra Lee, MD (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), we’re going to get you up to speed about why acne happens, and what you can do about it.
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What causes acne?
We’ve already described in detail how pimples form, but there are several factors that contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing acne. Some of these are under our control, says Dr. Lee, but some of them aren’t.
Acne factors out of our control
- Genetics. Acne seems to show up in families, so if your parents had it, you’re more likely to have it too. It has a lot to do with your skin type: oily skin tends to be more acne-prone, since excess sebum contributes to acne development. Also, a recent study linked certain genes (some of which affect hair follicle formation) to cases of severe acne.
- Hormones. Sebum levels are regulated by androgens (like testosterone), which skyrocket during the teenage years. This explains why acne peaks then. Hormones are also responsible for breakouts during a woman’s monthly cycle, during pregnancy, or during menopause.
Acne factors within our control
- Stress. This goes hand in hand with lack of sleep, in fact the two reinforce each other. When we’re stressed or over-tired, it’s harder for our skin to repair itself and maintain a healthy balance. This leaves us vulnerable to breakouts.
- Environment. Things like sun exposure, air pollution, even weather changes can all weaken the skin barrier, leaving us more susceptible to breakouts. Interesting new research into the skin’s microbiome is shedding light on our own unique environments, too.
- Diet. Processed starchy, sugary foods (aka high glycemic foods), along with hormones in milk, can lead to hormonal changes that make acne more likely.
- Smoking. In case we need another reason to just say no, the chemicals in both cigarette smoke and vape pens break down our skin and damage DNA, making it more vulnerable to breakouts.
- Beauty routine. Cosmetics and hair care products can be occlusive (aka pore-clogging), which causes breakouts known as “pomade acne,” says Dr. Lee.
- Lifestyle. This includes activities like sports, work, or regulations (like masking) that lead to acne mechanica — like when a football player breaks out from wearing pads, or a violinist gets pimples on their chin from irritation.
- Skincare routine. Surprisingly, washing your face too much, or using really strong products on your face, can damage your skin barrier and/or cause your oil glands to produce even more oil — which can lead to more acne.
What’s the best way to treat acne?
Now that we’ve nailed down the known causes of acne, we can discuss what to do about it. According to Dr. Lee, this means using both proven ingredients and supporting your skin with a healthy lifestyle.
Dr. Pimple Popper’s top acne tips
#1 Use an acne-fighting skincare regimen
No matter how healthy our lifestyle choices may be, most of us are still going to have to deal with breakouts. But Dr. Lee says that the right combination of active ingredients can treat and prevent acne. She recommends using a system with products formulated to work together, like her SLMD Acne System.
#2 Stay consistent (and patient)
No matter what skin concern you’re managing, results take time. Dr. Lee says that it could take a couple of months to see breakouts begin to clear. If your routine includes a retinoid (like SLMD Retinol Resurfacing Serum), it can take as many as six to twelve months to reach its full potential.
#3 Don’t pop your pimples
Squeezing, poking, and popping your pimples is an absolute no-no, says Dr. Lee. It creates more inflammation and can spread bacteria that leads to even more pimples. Popping also can create post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne scars.
#4 Choose a healthy lifestyle
We know it’s just not possible to avoid the sun, always get enough sleep, and never eat junk food. And even if we do, there’s still a good chance that pimples will pop up. Dr. Lee suggests making healthy choices as often as possible, while still enjoying life.
Dr. Lee's Last Word
I say this all the time because it's an important lesson to remember: most acne is NOT life threatening. But it does affect self-esteem and quality of life, and can impact skin long-term if it leads to scarring. The best thing you can do is try to minimize the risk from lifestyle factors and make sure you find acne products or an acne routine that works and is effective for you!