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What is Acne?

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Updated April 19, 2014

Acne Vulgaris or Common Acne

Acne Vulgaris or Common Acne

Image © A.D.A.M.
Question: What is Acne?
What is acne? How and why does acne develop? And, most importantly, what can be done to treat acne?
Answer:

Acne at its most basic is a disorder of the pilosebaceous unit, or what is commonly called the hair follicle or pore. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it is the most common skin disorder in the United States. Acne vulgaris, as common acne is known, is classified as a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin.

Acne is characterized by the presence of pimples or "zits", blackheads, and whiteheads. It chiefly affects the face, neck, chest, back, and/or upper arms of sufferers. Rarely you will find acne in other areas of the body. Acne varies in development from very mild to extremely severe.

Who Suffers From Acne?

Acne most frequently effects teens and preteens. Three out of four teens will experience acne. Acne strikes both sexes equally, but teen boys tend to have longer lasting and more severe acne than do girls.

But acne is not limited to teens. Many men and women suffer from adult onset acne breakouts. Acne can also occur in babies, toddlers, and children.

How Does Acne Develop?

Acne occurs when oil and dead skin cells become trapped within the hair follicle, creating a plug within the pore. This plug of dead cells and oil is called a comedo. Blackheads and whiteheads are examples of non-inflamed comedones.

As the breakout progresses and bacteria invade, the follicle wall may rupture within the dermis, creating inflammation and redness. Inflamed blemishes vary in severity depending on the damage to the follicle wall and the amount of infection present. Severe cases of acne may lead to deeper lesions and cysts.

Most people with acne have a number of non-inflamed lesions, or comedones. However, not every acne sufferer necessarily suffers from inflamed breakouts.

What Causes Acne?

There is no precise cause of acne; rather, it is a result of many factors coming together to create an acne situation. Those who are prone to acne often have skin that is oilier than average. Excess oil can easily become trapped within the pore, creating an impaction.

Acneic skin also produces more dead skin cells than is normal, and those skin cells are not being shed properly (a condition called retention hyperkeratosis). These dead cells stick to the surface of the skin and inside the follicles, mixing with excess oil and creating a comedo.

When the pore becomes blocked by cellular debris and oil, a bacterium that is normally present within the pore grows unchecked. Propionibacteria acnes (P. acnes) are found in great numbers on acneic skin, causing inflamed breakouts.

Why Does Acne Occur?

Acne often first appears during puberty, when there is a surge of androgen hormones within the body. Androgens stimulate the sebaceous glands, creating an oilier complexion and one more prone to breakouts.

Most dermatologists agree androgen hormones significantly influence acne development. In addition to puberty, women may see considerable hormonal fluctuations are during menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and perimenopause. During these life phases, acne is most likely to develop or flare up.

Other factors that contribute to acne development include oily cosmetics, comedogenic skin care or hair care products, certain drugs such as steroids and estrogen medications. Acne tends to run in families. If your parents had acne at any point in their lives, your chance of developing acne is higher.

Is There a Cure for Acne?

Acne is a complex problem, but one we are learning more about every day. While there is no cure, many treatment options are available to those who have acne. It takes time and patience, but nearly every case of acne can be controlled successfully.

Where Should I Go First?

Most mild cases of acne can be treated effectively at home, with good daily skin care and over-the-counter treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. If you are suffering from moderate to severe acne or home treatments are not working for you, contact your doctor. Your dermatologist can help devise a course of therapy that is right for you.

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