What is acne prone skin?

You’ve probably heard the term ‘acne prone’ a lot, but what does it actually mean? Join us as we go under the surface to tell you what it means to have acne-prone skin and how to manage it.

There are so many questions and doubts about acne prone skin

In this article we’ll explain: What it means to have acne prone skin, what causes breakouts and flare-ups, how to recognize different types of pimples, how to know how severe your acne is and some other factors that might affect your acne prone skin.

What does it mean to have acne prone skin?

Despite what you might think, it’s not just teenagers who have acne-prone skin. According to research, a staggering 80-90% of teens are affected by acne, and around 54% of adult women report experiencing breakouts too. It’s not something that we experience during our teenage years and never again, which means that it can be a real source of frustration for those of us who have acne-prone skin after our teen years. We know it’s not easy, but there are things you can do to manage your acne-prone skin.

Medically, acne is called acne vulgaris and is considered to be a long-term, chronic skin condition. Acne changes constantly in terms of severity and where it appears on the body. So, if you’ve noticed your acne getting worse during certain phases, then you probably have acne-prone skin. You’ve likely seen acne spread in a number of different places on your body like your face, back, neck, chest, and shoulders the most, all of which can really affect your self-esteem.

Acne-prone skin means that breakouts happen more easily and more often for you. And, unfortunately, it’s not a simple skin type that will just “go away on its own.” Instead, acne-prone skin requires consistent treatment over a number of months or years to manage it effectively, but more on that later.

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What causes breakouts and flare-ups?

If you have acne-prone skin then this means that a number of factors are causing your skin to break out. Breakouts happen when your oil glands produce too much sebum and dead skin cells are not shed properly. This results in your pores (hair follicles) getting blocked with oil, dead skin and bacteria, creating blackheads, whiteheads, and inflamed pimples.

Once your pores are blocked, this leads to a build-up of p. Acnes bacteria (otherwise known as propionibacterium) in your pores. It’s the overgrowth of this bacteria that causes the inflammation. To fight this overgrowth of bacteria, your skin starts to release inflammatory mediators, which make your skin appear red around your spots. Sometimes the follicle walls can rupture under the pressure too which can create pustules and papules.

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#1 Healthy follicle

Our skin has pores (tiny holes) which are openings to the hair follicles. Each follicle is made up of hairs and one or more sebaceous glands, which secrete a waxy oily substance called sebum (oil), which lubricates the skin and hair.

#2 Build up of sebum and dead cells

Sometimes, dead skin cells are not shed properly and stay attached to the skin. When this happens, the excess sebum is not able to come out of the pore and flow away properly. This means that the sebum mixes with dead skin cells instead. It’s this combination of dead skin cells and sebum that forms a plug and blocks the pore.

#3 Overgrowth of p.acnes bacteria

Once the pore is blocked it becomes deprived of oxygen. tThis, combined with sebum, is the best environment for p.Acnes bacteria to growth. If you are prone to acne then you’re more sensitive to p. Acnes bacteria. The p.Acnes bacteria colonise the duct in the plugged follicle and trigger inflammation.

#4 Triggered inflammatory process

When pores get clogged up with sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria (p.Acnes) this leads to inflammation inside the follicle. The follicle wall can rupture under the pressure of this buildup. When this happens, pus leaks into nearby tissues and forms pimples, pustules or papules.

What are the different types of pimples?

If you are prone to acne and experience breakouts, you will likely have noticed that your pimples are white or black in colour, these are blackheads and whiteheads and both are known medically as comedones. These are the most common lesions, but there are other types too.

The different types of pimples

Blackheads (open comedones)

Blackheads (open comedones) are not inflamed and are known as open comedones, or clogged hair follicles because they occur when a pore is clogged by a combination of sebum and dead skin cells. They have a characteristic black colour because the top of the pore stays open, allowing oxygen in. Treatment for this type of pimple is not too difficult and both acid exfoliation and using clay masks regularly can really help to reduce them.

Whiteheads (closed comedones)

Whiteheads (closed comedones) are not inflamed and are closed, clogged bumps on the skin’s surface. Whiteheads can also form when a pore gets clogged by sebum and dead skin cells and often appear thanks to hormonal imbalances. Unlike blackheads, they have a white colour because the top of the pore closes up, which is why they’re also called closed comedones. Whiteheads are more difficult to treat because the pores are already closed. However, these are milder than other forms of pimples and can be treated with over-the-counter exfoliants.

Pimples, Papules, and Pustules

Pimples are small pustules or papules that form when oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria become trapped in a pore. Our immune system starts to react to the overgrowth of p.Acnes and the area gets red and swollen.

Papules occur when the walls surrounding your pores break down due to severe inflammation. This results in hard, clogged pores that are tender to the touch and the skin around them is usually pink.

Pustules can also form when the walls around your pores break down. Unlike papules, pustules are filled with pus. These raised bumps and are usually red in colour and often have yellow or white heads on top.

Cystic pimples and post inflammatory spots

Cystic pimples differ from normal pimples as they are actually infections deep in your skin (instead of on the surface) which create red, tender, and painful bumps that are full of pus.

Post inflammatory spots (marks) are red or purple marks left after your pimples disappear.

To make things even more interesting, there is another type of spot that looks like other pimples which are called milia. These are often confused with an acneic pimple but they’re actually different to other pimples because they form when skin flakes or keratin gets trapped under the skin. You’ve probably seen these around your eyes and cheeks.

If you are not sure how to treat your skin, make sure to visit a professional dermatologist, as they will be able to advise you as to how to treat it best.

I had clear skin in my teens but now I’m experiencing breakouts, why?

As we said before, acne isn’t just something that teenagers have to deal with. Many people experience breakouts later on. There are two main subtypes of adult acne prone skin: persistent breakouts and late onset of breakouts.

  • Persistent acne prone skin continues from adolescence into adulthood, sometimes with periods of remission. This is the most common subtype of adult acne prone skin and actually presents itself differently to adolescent breakouts. It usually starts to appear gradually and is mild to moderate in severity in contrast to adolescent acne which develops rapidly and can be more severe.
  • Late onset acne prone skin occurs in approximately 20% of women with adult acne prone skin and this subtype first appears long after puberty, most often between the ages of 21 and 25.

Adult breakouts appear in two different ways.

  • Non-inflammatory breakouts, which consist of hyperseborrhea (i.e. excess sebum) and non inflammatory lesions i.e. blackheads and whiteheads, which don’t cause swelling.
  • Inflammatory breakouts, which consist of either mild to moderate inflammatory lesions or deep seated, long lasting nodules and cysts on the lower third of the face, jaw line and neck (i.e. “chin acne”).

How can I tell how severe my breakouts are?

Blackheads and whiteheads are the mildest forms of breakouts. These can sometimes be cleared up with over the counter treatments, especially salicylic acid-based cleansers and other spot treatments. If your skin doesn’t respond to these treatments, you can also try retinoids.

Learn more about what ingredients can help clear up your acne with our guide!

Pustules and papules are more moderate forms of breakouts, and nodules and cysts are the most severe form. Both will require a trip to the dermatologist as it’s likely you need something stronger to treat them. Whatever you do though, don’t pick or pop nodules and cystic pimples as this can lead to scarring, instead apply a spot treatment and wait for the swelling to go down.

The scales for acne severity

Why your skincare isn’t working for your
acne prone skin?

If you’re obsessed with skincare and love trying new products based on trends or the glowing reviews you find on Instagram, unfortunately for you, we’re here to tell you that hopping between products really isn’t helpful when it comes to acne-prone skin. Instead, you need to keep it simple, find a couple of products that work for you and use these consistently in a routine.

Another thing you need to know is that relapse is totally normal, especially for those with late‐onset acne prone skin (after the age of 20). Late breakouts are described as particularly stubborn when it comes to conventional treatments which means that blemishes can reappear a number of times, and it can take time until you find a right routine. Before you jump to a new routine, try using the products for at least 12 weeks.

Compliance = consistency is key

Using skincare products consistently is key to managing and improving your acne prone skin. This means that you should find out as much as possible about the products you’re using, how long it will take to see results (approx. 42 days), the healing process, and any potential side effects. You should also be prepared for your skin to go through a ‘purging’ process which means it could look worse before it starts to look better.

Consistency is key for adult acne prone skin because this type of skin requires more maintenance over a longer period of time than adolescent acne prone skin. This is because the lesions caused by puberty usually respond more quickly to treatment.

Help build consistent habits and manage your daily routine with our holistic skincare app.

How to build a skincare routine for acne prone skin?

As we said, acne prone skin can be managed with the right products and a consistent skincare routine. Before you start building your routine, make sure to check your skincare products to see what ingredients they have in them, if they contain large amounts of alcohol they are likely stripping your skin of moisture meaning that it’s producing more sebum to overcompensate. Equally, you don’t need any scratchy scrubs, as these can cause microtears in your skin meaning that your pimples spread more easily. Instead, look for a gentle foaming cleanser with salicylic acid and an acid exfoliant.

The first step in any skincare routine is cleansing. You should look for a gentle cleanser and apply this on damp skin in the morning and the evening.

The next step is to exfoliate. We recommend using an acid exfoliant as they gently remove dead skin cells, leaving skin clear and smooth. We use a gentle leave-on exfoliant with azelaic acid in our Starter Set. All you need to do is apply it in a thin layer after cleansing, let it sit for 60 seconds to absorb, and then continue with the rest of your routine. No need to wash off!

Some days you will need a spot treatment to target those pimples that just popped up overnight! It’s on these days that a handy SOS treatment will be your best friend. Steer clear from harsh spot treatments though, as these will dry out your skin, instead look for an oil based treatment and apply as often as you need to, throughout the day.

Finally, it’s time to moisturize! Despite what you might think, acne-prone skin needs a lot of moisture! So, look for a moisturizer with skin restoring, lipid balancing and protective ingredients and apply every morning and evening. Moisturizing regularly will give your acne-prone skin long lasting hydration and protect it against spot causing dirt and bacteria.

What are the other factors which might be affecting my acne prone skin?

Many people believe that acne-prone skin is a result caused by eating greasy food or not washing your face enough. Whilst these stereotypes aren’t useful, things such as stress and using inappropriate skincare products can increase the likelihood of breakouts and flare-ups. Scientists agree too, that ‘modern’ lifestyle could have a significant impact on our health and our skin. Understanding your skin’s requirements and using skincare products accordingly can give you the power to manage your acne-prone skin. A good first step is to start a skin diary or use our app to help track your food and understand its impact on your skin

#1 Is there an “Acne” gene?

There isn’t a genetic mutation that actually makes your skin more prone to acne. However, if your parents have/had acne prone skin you’re likely to have acne prone skin too. That’s because, specific genetic mutations can make you more likely to develop acneic skin types such as the hereditary tendency to overproduce sebum or dead skin cells, both of which result in more blocked pores.

#2 What about our hormones?

Hormones are one of the primary causes for acne-prone skin, which is why teenagers suffer from acne the most. This is because the sebaceous glands in your hair follicles are sensitive to hormones and a spike in hormones causes the gland to overproduce sebum. But, hormonal fluctuations don’t stop after puberty which means that your hormones can trigger outbreaks in adults, too. This happens in women more often than men, especially for those women suffering from PCOs. Women also experience breakouts around their periods and during pregnancy, and menopause.

#3 Does stress have an impact on acne prone skin?

Stress can affect you more than just causing you to lose sleep. When you’re stressed out, no matter whether the stress stems from your work or your private life, your adrenal gland will pump out adrenaline, including some testosterone (see our article on hormonal acne), which can cause your skin to produce more oil, and therefore more acne.

Learn more about the effects of stress on acne.

#4 Too much cleansing can have a negative impact

There is definitely such a thing as having too much of a good thing! Regardless of what you may have heard, acne isn’t caused by dirty skin, so put that cleanser down and back away slowly.

A good rule of thumb is to clean your face twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. Overcleansing can be just as bad as not cleansing at all, because if you clean your skin too much, it will encourage the production of oil to compensate for the oil being removed. And the more oil on your face means that there’s more of a chance of new acne forming.

Wondering what might be a good cleanser option for you?
Check out our guide to finding the best cleansers for your acne-prone skin.

#5 Is acne caused by a bad diet?

Whilst it hasn’t been proven that certain foods cause acne breakouts, you shouldn’t discount them completely either. If you notice that you break out after eating something specific, like dairy or chocolate, then you should definitely try to cut these out of your diet and see what happens. If you keep breaking out even after you’ve cut a certain food from your diet, there are most likely other factors involved other than just what you’re eating. So make sure to build a consistent skincare routine, eat a balanced, nutritious diet and stay well hydrated.

Research does suggest, however, that the “Western diet” of sugary desserts, refined grain, high-fat dairy, and high amounts of protein could be triggering the advance of acne as well, well that, and obesity too. When it comes to your skin, you are what you eat, so we recommend making sure that you’re fueling your body in the best possible way. Not only can this help to improve your skin, but you’ll feel great from the inside out!

You can learn more about what foods are either good or bad for your acne-prone skin in our food journaling guide.

#6 Is lack of sleep affecting my acne prone skin?

We all know that getting enough sleep is important for our mental and physical wellbeing, but did you know that poor sleep can actually exacerbate illnesses, destabilise your immune system and increase the production of stress hormones. When it comes to acne and sleep, it’s often a vicious circle consisting of stress, lack of sleep, increased breakouts which then leads to more stress etc. What you might not know, though, is that women experience sleep problems more frequently than men because their sleep quality is affected by their greater susceptibility to anxiety and to changes in their sleep patterns during their menstrual cycle. So, if you’re experiencing breakouts, make sure you get enough sleep.

Although having acne prone skin can be difficult to manage and really knock your confidence at times, there are a lot of things you can do, especially now that you're armed with all of this knowledge. The biggest thing you can do for you, and your skin, is to stick to a consistent routine and allow your products time to work. We recommend trying our Starter Set for a minimum of 42 days, and, if you download our app, we’ll even help you stick to your routine.

Keep your head up and keep doing your thing, whatever you do, don’t let your acne prone skin hold you back.

We believe in demystifying skincare

There is no topical skin treatment that acts against all four of the major problems of acne-prone skin: attached skin cells (hyperkeratinization), sebum over-production, bacteria and inflammation.

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