What Causes Acne?

wiseGEEK Writer

Acne, arguably one of the most annoying aspects of teenagerdom, and even occurring in people in their twenties and older, has several primary causes. All begin with understanding the structure of what are called sebaceous glands. Sebaceous glands are each connected to follicles, which contain tiny, usually very fine hair. The little canal passageways between glands and follicles provide a way for oil, called sebum, to get to the skin's surface.

People often develop acne during puberty, when their hormones are fluxuating.
People often develop acne during puberty, when their hormones are fluxuating.

At certain points in life, people may excrete more sebum than usual. Teenagers are particularly prone to acne because as they hit puberty, hormones like estrogen and testosterone amp the production of sebum. This may die down for older teenagers, but others continue to have increased production of sebum.

Pimples can be caused by clogged pores.
Pimples can be caused by clogged pores.

When sebum is excreted in larger amounts, it can create acne when other related problems exist. Pores, usually directly attached to sebaceous glands can easily become blocked with dead skin cells. As sebum flows to the blocked pores or follicles, these swell, resulting in variety of types of acne, primarily pustules or cysts.

Want to automatically save time and money month? Take a 2-minute quiz to find out how you can start saving up to $257/month.

Excessive stress can cause a person to break out in acne.
Excessive stress can cause a person to break out in acne.

A normal skin bacterium, Propionibacterium acnes, also plays a role in forming certain types of skin breakouts. Though this bacterium is present at all times on the skin, it can accumulate and grow in blocked pores resulting in higher than normal amounts present. When compounded with sebum, P. acnes can create chemical compounds that irritate the skin and cause it to swell.

There are essentially four types of acne. Cysts are usually localized inflammations on the skin, caused by deep blockage of the sebaceous gland, and a presence of more than normal amounts of P. acne. These are under the skin, but may ultimately rupture. Pustules are an accumulation of sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria, and they may look red or inflamed and feel irritated because of the bacteria/sebum compounds. The follicle ruptures, pushing this, the typical “zit,” to the surface.

Blackheads and whiteheads are caused by sebum and skin cell blockage toward the surface of pores, and usually have little bacterial involvement. Blackheads do not contain dirt. They merely look black because the dead skin cells pushed to the surface have oxidized and changed color. Whiteheads usually are blocked a little farther into the sebaceous gland, causing small white bumps (skin cell and sebum) to be pushed outward and become noticeable.

It can be said then that the major causes of acne are:

  • Presence of sebum producing hormones
  • Production of skin oil
  • Dead skin cells being trapped in pores
  • In some cases, normal bacteria on the skin

You will not get pimples or breakouts by eating chocolate or drinking soda. However, you can get them from upswings in sebum producing hormones, which may occur during times of stress. Women well past their teenage years may notice regular breakouts that occur during or right before monthly menstruation. Further some people are genetically more prone to the condition than others. If your parents had acne, you’re more likely to get it too.

Acne has many causes.
Acne has many causes.

Discussion Comments


@waterhopper: There have been many debates over whether or not stress can potentially cause acne, but recent clinical studies have shown that stress worsens acne. Stress worsens acnes by stimulating adrenal glands to produce more hormones and by slowing down the healing process. Also psychological stress can reduce the wound healing capacity of immune systems up to 40% which doubles the impact of stress on acne. Stress worsens the overall skin condition as well as causing acne flare-up.

There are many acne products out there that can not only treat, but possibly prevent acne.


Can stress cause Acne?

Post your comments
Forgot password?