What Causes Acne & How Should My Teen Treat It?

Acne usually starts in puberty, but it affects adults too. Around 80% of teenagers get some form of acne, and there are many myths about what causes it. Here are the facts and details of treatments.

There are better ways to treat acneAcne consists of spots and painful bumps on the skin. It’s most noticeable on the face, but can also appear on the back, shoulders and buttocks. Severe acne can cause scarring.

What Causes Acne?

Acne is mostly caused by the way skin reacts to hormonal changes. The skin contains sebaceous glands that naturally release sebum, an oily substance that helps protect it.

During puberty, raised levels of the hormone testosterone can cause too much sebum to be produced. This happens in both boys and girls.

The sebum can block hair follicles. When dead skin cells mix with the blockage, it can lead to the formation of spots. Bacteria in the skin multiply, which can cause pain and swelling (inflammation) beneath the blockages.

There are different kinds of spots:

  • Blackheads – small, blocked pores
  • Whiteheads – small, hard bumps with a white centre
  • Pustules – spots with a lot of pus visible
  • Nodules – hard, painful lumps under the skin

Inflammatory acne is when the skin is also red and swollen. This needs to be treated early to prevent scarring.

Try not to pick or squeeze spots as this can cause inflammation and lead to scarring. Spots will eventually go away on their own, but they might leave redness in the skin for some weeks or months afterwards.

Acne can become worse during times of stress. In women, it can be affected by the menstrual cycle. Sometimes acne can also occur during pregnancy.

If you have acne, wash your skin gently with a mild cleanser and use an oil-free moisturiser. Scrubbing or exfoliating can irritate the skin, making it look and feel sore.

Myths About Acne

There are several myths about what causes acne:


Many people say that eating chocolate or greasy food causes acne, but this isn’t true. There isn’t any evidence that acne is caused by what you eat. However, eating a balanced diet is good for your general health, so aim to have a healthy diet.

Bad Hygiene

Some people believe that acne is caused by bad personal hygiene, but this is not true. If you are going to get acne, you will get it no matter how much you clean your skin. Too much cleaning may make the condition worse by removing the protective oils in your skin.


There is also a myth that wearing make-up can cause spots, but there is no evidence that this is the case. The less you touch your skin, the fewer bacteria will be spread to your skin. If you wear make-up, wash your hands before putting your make-up on and always remove it before going to bed.

Treatments for Acne

Acne will usually go away on its own, but it can take many years. There are treatments for acne that can help clear it more quickly.

Over-the-counter treatments that you buy from a pharmacy can help with mild acne. Ask a pharmacist for advice on which treatment could help and how long you will have to use it. You may not see results for several weeks or months. Find your nearest pharmacy.

If over-the-counter treatments don’t help, treatments are available on prescription. Your GP (family doctor*) can assess how bad your acne is and discuss the options with you. Don’t be afraid to tell your GP how your acne affects your life and how it makes you feel.

Mild, non-inflammatory acne consists of whiteheads and blackheads. Treatments include gels or lotions that can contain retinoids (vitamin A), topical (applied to the skin) antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide (which is antibacterial) or azelaic acid.

These medications, or a combination of them, can also be used to treat mild-to-moderate inflammatory acne, which has some pustules and nodules. It can take up to eight weeks before you see a difference in your skin, and treatment may need to be continued for six months.

In women, contraceptive pills that contain oestrogen can also help clear acne.

If acne is severe, your GP (family doctor*) can refer you to a dermatologist, who may prescribe a stronger medication called isotretinoin (Roaccutane) (in the US may be known as Claravis, Sotret, Myorisan, Accutane, or Amnesteem*).

Find out about acne treatments, including isotretinoin.

Some light and laser therapies claim to help get rid of acne. However, few if any of these are available on the NHS (in the US, this may not be covered by your health insurance plan*).

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US audience.


About the Author

NHS Choices (www.nhs.uk) is the UK’s biggest health website. It provides a comprehensive health information service to help put you in control of your healthcare.


8 Responses to “What Causes Acne & How Should My Teen Treat It?”

  1. Stephen Brown says:

    I’ve always been told that chocolate can cause face acne. Now that I know this is simply a myth I feel free to eat chocolate again! Hopefully I’ll be able to find the real cause of my acne and manage it as well.

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      I’m glad this was helpful! Here’s to enjoying chocolate and discovering an acne solution that works for you! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  2. Very Helpful Article.

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      Thanks! It helps to know when something we publish makes a difference! Thanks for letting us know. Hope you have a great New Year!

  3. Cal Driver says:

    Thanks so much for this article. I have to admit, I was blown away to learn that facial hygiene really has no bearing on acne. I’ve been hearing that for YEARS. I won’t stop washing, of course, but it’s good to know that I’m not directly to blame for zits and pimples. Thanks again!

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      Most welcome! BTW – you’re not alone. I always thought it had to do with food too, so it was a most welcome surprise to me as well 🙂 THanks for stopping by!

  4. Alex Parkar says:

    Such helpful article. And even an informative one.

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