Coping with acne

Caroline Cassidy

As the most common type of skin condition, acne affects most people at some point in their life. The condition varies from person to person but for some it causes great distress and can seriously affect self-esteem.

Girl looking at acne in mirror
Girl looking at acne in mirror

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Acne is most often associated with teenagers and young adults - according to the NHS, around 80 per cent of 11- to 30-year-olds are affected by the condition but most find their symptoms ease as they grow older.

However, it can continue into adult life and affects roughly five per cent of adult women and one per cent of men.

What is it?
Your skin produces a natural oil (sebum) via sebaceous glands connected to hair follicles just beneath the surface of the skin. This sebum helps to keep your skin supple by travelling up the follicle and out through the pores.

When too much sebum is produced, however, it can cause dead skin cells to be trapped in the pores and if these become infected, a spot will form.

These spots most often appear on the face, back and chest.

What causes it?
Let's just dispel those myths about bad diet and poor hygiene straight away - there is little or no evidence to suggest that either of these causes acne, though a healthy diet that includes fresh fruit and vegetables is always advisable.

In fact, acne is thought to be triggered by changes in hormone levels, which explains why it so often occurs during puberty when testosterone increases.

In adults, the same can be true - more common in women over 25 than men, hormone changes during menstruation or pregnancy often cause a flare-up, though it can also occur as a result of polycystic ovary syndrome or as a side effect of some medicines.

Do not be afraid to seek help if acne, however mild, is causing you distress. According to the NHS, approximately 90 per cent of those who seek treatment see a 50 per cent improvement after three months, and flare-ups can often be controlled with further treatment.

Those suffering with mild acne will often be prescribed topical treatments (gels or creams) such as benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, antibiotics or azelaic acid.

Some of these treatments aim to reduce the production of sebum, prevent dead skin from getting trapped in the hair follicles and/or kill the infection beneath the skin. In moderate cases, an oral antibiotic may be used in combination with a topical treatment.

If you suffer with severe acne, however, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist.

As an expert in skin conditions, a dermatologist will often try a combination of topical treatments and oral medication but if these prove ineffective, the much stronger isotretinoin may be prescribed, though it is unsuitable for pregnant women as it significantly increases the risk of serious birth defects.

Coping with acne
Though acne is not caused by poor hygiene, washing the face twice daily with a gentle, unperfumed cleanser can help to reduce the symptoms by removing dead cells from the skin's surface, thereby reducing the risk of follicles becoming blocked.

It is also advisable to avoid touching your face too much - the NHS advises washing your hands before touching your face to prevent the spread of bacteria and to remove make-up before going to bed.

Over-the-counter spot treatments, such as Oxy and Clearasil, may also help as some contain benzoyl peroxide.

There is no overnight cure for the condition but with the proper treatment your skin can improve greatly, so it's worth seeking help from your GP.