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Southern Cross Medical Library

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Acne - causes, treatment

Acne is a common disease of the skin, caused by hair follicles becoming blocked. It is characterised by pimples (zits), blackheads or whiteheads, and sometimes scarring. Acne can be persistent, but effective treatments are available.  

General information

Most people will get acne at some time during their lives. Anyone can get acne, even babies, but it is most common in teenagers. The most common form of acne (medical name: acne vulgaris) affects people during their teenage and early twenties. In some people, however, the condition may persist in adulthood.

You should consult your doctor if your baby develops acne that does not clear up on its own within three months.  Other skin conditions that may resemble acne include rosacea and keratosis pilaris


There are tiny holes on the surface of the skin, called pores. The pores open to a follicle, which contains a hair and an oil gland. The gland releases oil to lubricate and protect the skin. Acne occurs when the glands produce too much oil, which causes the pores to become blocked; and dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells to build up. 

The blockage is called a plug. If the top of the plug is white, it is called a whitehead; if the top of the plug is black, it is called a blackhead. The plugged follicle enlarges producing a bump, which, if it ruptures, releases irritating substances and bacteria that produce inflammation. Inflammation at the surface of the skin produces red bumps (papules) and inflammation deeper in the skin causes pustules (pimples). Even deeper inflammation causes hard painful cysts. 

Hormonal changes related to puberty, menstrual periods, pregnancy, birth control pills, or stress can cause excessive oil secretion that results in acne. Oil-based cosmetics and hair products and certain drugs (e.g. steroids, testosterone, and oestrogen) can also cause acne. 

People with acne may be advised to minimise intake of milk and sugary foods and drinks.

Signs and symptoms

Acne typically affects the areas of the skin with the highest number of hair follicles, i.e. the face, upper part of the chest, and the back. It may also occur on the arms, legs, and buttocks. The most obvious signs and symptoms of acne include: 

  • Small red bumps (papules) 
  • Small red pus-filled, blister-like lesions (pustules) cysts
  • Scarring
  • White raised bumps (whiteheads) 
  • Small dark spots (blackheads) 


A simple examination of your skin allows your doctor to diagnose acne. Laboratory tests are not usually required. 


Acne usually responds well to six to eight weeks of treatment, but it may flare up (return) from time to time. The earlier treatment is started, the less likely there will be scarring.  Self-care that can help your acne includes: 

  • Cleaning your skin gently with a mild soap twice daily
  • Using over-the-counter topical (applied to the skin) medications containing benzoyl peroxide, sulphur, or salicylic acid (which are antibacterial and mild exfoliating or peeling agents) 
  • Shampooing your hair daily and keeping your hair from touching your face 
  • Avoiding scrubbing or repeated skin washing 
  • Not popping or picking your pimples (as this can worsen the infection) 
  • Using water-based (rather than oil-based) cosmetics or creams 
  • Removing make-up at night

If self-care and use of non-prescription medication does not produce improvement in your acne you should see your doctor or a dermatologist (skin specialist). Prescription-only medications include: 

  • More potent topical formulations of benzoyl peroxide, sulphur, or salicylic acid 
  • Oral (taken by mouth) or topical antibiotics 
  • Topical retinoids – drugs derived from vitamin A that help to keep skin pores clear, e.g. tretinoin or retinoic acid 
  • Some oral contraceptives are helpful in treating acne 
  • Spironolactone – a drug that affects hormone activity can help some women with persistent acne

People with severe acne may be prescribed a powerful oral retinoid, isotretinoin, which works by reducing the skin’s oil secretion. Because of side effects, including birth defects, isotretinoin is only used in close dialogue with your doctor or a dermatologist.

Other medical treatments and minor procedures that might help your acne include: 

  • Chemical skin peeling 
  • Dermabrasion for removal of scars
  • Removal or drainage of large cysts or injection of cortisone. 


Fulton Jr, J. (2013). Acne vulgaris (Web Page). Medscape Reference. New York: WebMD LLC. [Accessed 11/02/14]  Oakley A. (2014). Acne Management (Web Page). Hamilton: DermNet New Zealand. [Accessed 11/02/14]  O’Toole, M.T. (Ed.) (2013). Acne. Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (9th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier Mosby.  PubMed Health (2012). Acne (Web Page). Bethesda: U.S. National Library of Medicine. [Accessed 11/02/14] 

Created: February 2014 
Go to our Medical Library Index Page to find information on other medical conditions.