What Is Acne: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

What Is Acne: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

March 03, 2022

14 min read

There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning and finding a blemish dominating your nose on an important day or a breakout on your forehead right before a big meeting. Acne doesn’t just affect teenagers, it’s a problem for adults as well!

Below, Metropolitan Skin Clinic will talk about what acne is, how to stop acne, and more!

What Is Acne?

You probably have acne, or you hear about it all the time from people who do, but what is acne exactly? Definition of acne is a skin condition where hair, bacteria, dead cells, and sebum clog pores and cause whiteheads, blackheads, and all kinds of pimples.

Acne vulgaris, the most common form of acne, affects most people, while more intense forms of zits like cystic acne are hormonal and affect fewer people.

Acne Symptoms

There are a number of acne signs and symptoms that involve varying forms of uncomfortable pimples. The following are different acne types to look out for:

  • Blackheads: Open pores clogged with dead cells and oil
  • Whiteheads: Closed pores clogged by oil and dead cells
  • Cysts: Painful, pus-filled bumps under the skin
  • Papules: Small, inflamed, pink bumps
  • Pustules: White, pus-filled pimples with red rings
  • Nodules: Another painful acne form is solid, large, and painful pimples under the skin

When to See a Doctor

If you experience any of the following acne symptoms, call your dermatologist or provider:

  • Acne is very bad, i.e. cysts, painful acne, increased redness, and swelling
  • Breaking out is worsening
  • Face isn’t clearing up after months of using over the counter medications and self-care routines
  • Acne scars appear even as your acne is clearing
  • Your acne is causing you emotional distress

What Causes Acne?

what causes acne

Everyone gets acne — teenagers, adults, men, and women. But what causes it? Does dairy cause acne? Does sugar cause acne? Is acne genetic?

In reality, the answer to what causes acne is pores clogged by the following:

  • Overproduction of sebum, the oil released by the glands in your pores which usually serves to keep skin soft, can block pores.
  • Bacteria buildup in the pores alerts the body’s immune system to react and causes pimples.
  • Dead skin cells accumulate, plugging up the pores.

Below are some possible triggers for acne:

  • Genetics: If your parents have acne, you’re more likely to struggle with it as well.
  • Hormonal changes: For women, hormonal changes are constantly occurring due to menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and birth control. For men, it’s primarily testosterone changes during puberty. These fluctuations often cause acne as the skin produces more sebum.
  • Diet: Carbohydrate-heavy foods and dairy products have been linked to worsening acne, but more studies are needed to be sure. There is no proof that greasy foods or chocolate actually cause acne. Diet alone is certainly not the sole cause of acne.
  • Stress: Does stress cause acne? No, it doesn’t cause it, but it can worsen it.
  • Medications: Certain drugs like steroids, testosterone, estrogen, phenytoin, lithium, and birth control methods like IUDs and birth control pills have been linked to acne.
  • Comedogenic products, like oily makeup or lotions, have pore-clogging ingredients that can lead to acne breakouts.

Other possible triggers for acne are tight clothing or headgear, sweating or humidity, air pollution, and touching your skin excessively. Picking at acne can also worsen it, as well as leave scars.

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Acne?

There are plenty of acne myths surrounding the cause of breakouts, from chocolate being the primary culprit to dirt being the only reason zits form. What’s actually true is that there are a few risk factors for developing acne, including:

  • Hormonal changes from puberty or pregnancy
  • Medications like birth control pills
  • High sugar and carb diet
  • Genetic factors, like your parents, had acne

How Is Acne Diagnosed?

The first in the steps of how to get rid of acne is getting it diagnosed in the first place. During an exam, your dermatologist will give you a physical exam and ask you about stresses and family acne history, along with questions regarding menstrual cycles, if relevant. If you’re older, and hormones are likely not the reason for your acne, the pimples might be a sign of underlying conditions.

Acne Grades

what is acne

Acne can be ranked by severity:

  • Mild: usually just whiteheads and blackheads and maybe some papules and pustules
  • Moderate: many pustules and papules on the face
  • Moderately severe: numerous pustules and papules and some inflamed nodules. Mostly on the face, but can be found on the back or chest too.
  • Severe: many large and painful, inflamed nodules and pustules.

How to Get Rid of Acne

Self Care

Let’s start with how to clear acne with self-care because sometimes, the best acne treatment is the kind you do at home, and knowing how to treat acne yourself can save you time and money in the long run.

For the best way to get rid of acne at home, check out these easy steps:

  • The best natural acne treatment is cleansing your skin with warm water and very mild cleansers that won’t leave your skin oily or dry it out.
  • Shower after exercising or any excessive sweating.
  • Use water-based or “non-comedogenic” creams and concealer.
  • Always take off your makeup before you go to bed.
  • Wash your hair often, especially if it gets greasy easily, and tie it back so it’s not in your face.
  • Don’t scrub your face or wash it excessively — this will dry it out too much, causing the skin to react to irritation by producing even more sebum than usual which can start the acne cycle all over again.

Here are some important DON’Ts of acne removal to keep in mind:

  • Don’t pop, squeeze, scratch, rub, or pick your zits. They will heal slower, get infected, or scar.
  • Don’t leave your makeup on overnight. Even when you’re feeling tired after a long day— always take it off!
  • Don’t use oily or greasy cosmetics, lotions, and moisturizers.
  • Don’t touch your face a lot, your hands and fingers are dirty, oily, and covered in bacteria that are sure to clog your pores.
  • Try to avoid hats, headbands, etc., that are too tight.

If these don’t work, it might be time to try medication instead. Do not take or apply medication without seeking advice from a doctor or dermatologist first!


Medications Applied Topically

acne removal

  • Azelaic acid: This is a natural acid that can be found in grains like barley, rye, and wheat. It reduces swelling and kills microorganisms.
  • Benzoyl peroxide: This wash targets bacteria that cause acne.
  • Dapsone: A topical, anti-bacterial gel that reduces skin inflammation.
  • Retinoids: Treats whiteheads and blackheads that cause breakouts.
  • Salicylic acid: This usually comes as a lotion or cleanser that serves to take off the first layer of skin that is damaged. It dissolves any dead skin cells and prevents clogged hair follicles.
  • Topical antibiotics (like clindamycin and erythromycin): Can control the bacteria on the skin that often lead to the swelling of acne.

Medications Taken Orally

  • Antibiotics: Oral antibiotics like amoxicillin, doxycycline, erythromycin, minocycline, tetracycline, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole are great for moderate to severe acne.
  • Isotretinoin: This oral retinoid is used exclusively for severe acne cases, and women must be on two forms of birth control to qualify. To take it, men and women must enroll in an FDA-approved risk management program. Pregnant women cannot take this.
  • Oral contraceptives: Can be used for breakouts caused by menstruation.
  • Spironolactone: Primarily for acne in women caused by hormonal changes.

Other Therapies

Non-invasive skin treatments like HydraFacial.

  • Chemical peels: Treats acne scars by removing the top layer of skin and allowing new, smoother skin to grow in its place.
  • Lasers: Lasers like BBL deliver heat to trigger the body’s wound healing response to produce collagen.
  • Steroids: Sometimes used to treat severe acne or reduce inflammation.

How to Prevent Acne

Occasional acne happens, but there are always a few ways to avert it, including:

  • Washing your face every day with a mild, oil-free cleanser and warm water.
  • Moisturizing.
  • A good acne diet: eating healthy foods that help acne, like vegetables and fruits.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Not touching your face.
  • Use good makeup and remove it before bed.
  • Using over-the-counter acne gels or creams.


Acne is normal, it happens to everyone — but it is treatable! If your at-home care isn’t working — don’t wait to get treatment. Metropolitan Skin Clinic is the best place to go for high-quality acne treatment if you reside in Edina or the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Contact us or visit our website to learn more about how our services can rejuvenate your skin.


What foods cause acne?

Most acne is caused by hormonal changes rather than food. However, there are some foods that can potentially cause acne breakouts, including whey protein and foods high in refined sugar and carbohydrates, for instance. Either way, a healthy, balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, protein, and carbs can’t hurt!

What should I do while waiting to see a dermatologist or esthetician?

While waiting for your dermatology appointment, continue to wash your face daily and consider using over-the-counter medication like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

How long does it take for acne to go away?

There’s no timeline when it comes to acne! Genetic factors, changes in hormones, stress, diet, and more can all determine how long acne will last. Continuing to wash your face, using the right medicines, and doing treatments is the best course to take.
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