When you’re experiencing an acne breakout, it’s easy to feel like you’re on your own. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Acne is actually one of the most common diseases in the world – the 8th most common in fact – affecting around 650 million people globally. Most people experience symptoms during adolescence, and with 89% of teenagers breaking out at some point it’s actually rarer to have never had acne.
Perhaps due to the fact that it’s so common, the condition is surrounded by a lot of misconceptions, with the belief that the condition is caused by poor hygiene, or that it can be passed from person to person being just a couple.
We’ve decided to cut through the myths, and simply bring you the truth about acne; from its triggers, to the different types of acne, to how you can treat the condition.
What is acne?
To put it simply, acne is a common skin disease that can come in a number of guises, each with a variety of potential causes and triggering factors. However, if you’re looking for a little more detail then prepare for a short science lesson.
Our skin is covered in hair follicles, some that are visible to the eye and some that are not. These follicles are attached to tiny glands, which help to stop hair drying out by producing a substance called sebum. Sometimes, these glands can produce too much sebum, which can mix with dead skin cells and normally harmless bacteria and plug the hair follicle. This is what causes spots, and on a larger scale, acne.
Why do we get acne?
The exact cause of acne can be an area that is prone to heated debate, with a number of correlations being suggested over the years. However, it’s commonly accepted that plain and simple genetics is the root cause in around 80% of cases, meaning that if one or more of your parents had or have acne, it’s likely you will too. The difference genetically is how the skin and sebaceous glands are structured, they don’t quite function the way they should do, leading to a pre-disposition to develop acne.
Hormones also play a big role, explaining why acne is common during adolescence. It’s thought that production of hormones like testosterone can increase the amount of sebum the glands produce, triggering acne. Because of this, stress is also a potential cause of acne, as when we’re stressed or aggravated the amount of hormones our body produces increases.
It’s also been shown that diet can be a heavy contributor based on individual cases. If you have a food intolerance, it’s fairly common to develop acne seemingly out of the blue without having any notable previous symptoms. Alongside this, the foods we eat also play a big role in general skin health, so if you’re eating a diet that isn’t exactly nutritionally balanced, or you’re eating foods which don’t quite ‘agree’ with you, then this could trigger acne.
What are the different types of acne?
At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that acne isn’t just acne, and that the severity and variety of symptoms can differ from person to person. For example, a person with severe acne might have nodules, where a large amount of sebum and other substances trapped in the follicles make parts of the skin appear red, inflamed, and hard. Other people may mainly have pustules, more commonly known as spots, whilst some might find blackheads more problematic.
What causes acne on the face?
As acne is associated with the sebaceous glands and hair follicles, it’s most common to experience acne in areas where there are lots of these, such as the face.
Whilst the root cause for acne is the same for anywhere on the body, a number of factors can potentially aggravate or contribute to the problem.
If you have acne around your hair line or on your forehead, you should make sure that you’re not using products or shampoos that could make your hair oily. It’s also a good idea to invest in some anti-dandruff shampoo, as dandruff can aggravate both acne on the forehead acne and around the scalp.
If you have acne on the jaw, it could be that you’re suffering from acne mechanica, which is commonly caused by rubbing or friction. Facial hair can also make acne on jaw areas worse, as it can also around mouth areas. Cosmetics can contribute to acne; check the label to make sure they’re non-comodogenic and won’t block the follicles, simply eliminating these cosmetics could solve your acne issues. Similarly frequently touching the face can also introduce dirt and bacteria onto the skin causing spots.
What causes acne on the body?
Like acne on the face, breakouts on the body usually happen in the areas with the most hair follicles. If you mainly experience acne on the neck, shoulders, chest or back, then it could be something in your routine aggravating the problem.
Often, neck acne is made worse by rubbing and sweat caused by tight clothing, like shirt collars. Clothing that rubs or is too tight can also make shoulder, back and chest acne worse, especially if you’re also using a detergent or fabric softener your skin doesn’t agree with. This applies to bedsheets and towels too, which if washed with chemicals your skin reacts to (or not washed frequently enough) can encourage acne breakouts on the body.
Can diet cause acne?
Despite taking precautions, or never having experienced acne before, many people may find that they develop acne seemingly out of nowhere. If this sounds familiar, an explanation could be that you’ve developed something else too; a food intolerance.
A popular misconception is that food intolerances just affect the digestive system, but this is far from the case, and skin conditions such as acne are an equally common sign of intolerance.
Whilst acne could be triggered by an intolerance of any kind, some foods and drinks are known for being particularly problematic. For example, an intolerance to alcohol can trigger acne, as it can result in the skin becoming dehydrated. This causes it to hold onto dead skin cells that would otherwise be shed, increasing the chance of hair follicles becoming blocked. However, it’s important to remember that when it comes to food and acne, things really are individual; just because one person’s breakouts are triggered by alcohol, gluten or dairy, doesn’t mean that yours will be. The only real way to tell if food is contributing to your acne is to get to the bottom of things with a food intolerance test.
Can food treat acne symptoms?
Whilst finding out which foods could be contributing to acne is something that requires a little investigation, finding the foods that are beneficial for your skin is something that’s a little clearer.
For example, eating foods that are high in Vitamin A like carrots and spinach can speed up desquamation, the body’s way of naturally exfoliating, meaning that there is less dead skin to clog up pores. Making sure you get enough zinc through nuts, lean red meat, and shellfish might also help out, as zinc deficiency can dry out the skin, making it easily irritated. Omega-3’s can also help out as they are naturally anti-inflammatory and can reduce acne symptoms like redness, so make sure you’re getting enough oily fish. Brown rice, quinoa and garlic are good shouts too, as they contain high amounts of selenium, which can help relax tight and inflamed skin.
How else can you treat acne?
Some alternative ways to treat acne include:
- Sleep – relaxation helps the skin to repair itself.
- Exercise can help to stimulate the lymphatic system to rid the body of waste.
- Blue light therapy can help to kill bacteria.
- Antibiotics – only to be used when all other options have been exhausted as it’s often only a temporary fix.
- Topical Medication – for example, Retin-A exfoliation, which can keep skin hydrated.
So, let’s recap. For the majority of people, acne will be unavoidable; it’s statistically likely you’ll experience it at some point in your life. The root cause is largely genetic and hormonal, with emotional, environmental, and dietary factors playing their part too. Face acne and upper body acne are the most common types. And whilst you can’t eat your way to a cure, you can change your diet in a way that promotes good skin health in general.
There are also a number of highly effective treatments for acne, many of which are simple. For example, studies have found that for every hour of sleep we lose, the chance of stress increases by 14%, which in turn increases hormone production and the likelihood of acne breakouts. That means that just making sure you get enough beauty sleep shouldn’t’ be underestimated as an acne treatment.
If you suspect that something you’re eating might contributing to your acne, then a food intolerance test could help you to identify which (if any) foods aren’t agreeing. Afterwards, following an elimination diet should work to reduce your symptoms, and improve your skin in general.
You could also try out over the counter or prescription treatments, like antibiotics and topical medication. Antibiotics are usually only prescribed under certain circumstances and once all other options have been exhausted. They work to kill the bacteria that could be causing inflammation and breakouts, this can however also cause the good bacteria in your stomach to die causing further problems with the gut thus causing potentially further breakouts.
Topical medications can be very effective, they’re often made up of different active ingredients depending on what exactly it is you’re using; some might be astringent based, some can be antibacterial, and almost all are exfoliating.
Essentially, when it comes to treating acne not every method will be right for everyone, and what works well for one person might not work for another. Whilst the basics like getting enough sleep, eating the right foods, and preventing any further aggravation apply generally, if you’re looking to banish breakouts then it’s worthwhile looking into a few different options, to see which works out for you.
Think that a food intolerance might be causing your acne? Our Food&DrinkScan programme analyses your reactions to a wide range of potential triggers, letting you know exactly what foods might be the problem.
YorkTest advise that you consult with your GP first if you are experiencing the types of symptoms mentioned in infographic.