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Acne is a disorder that causes outbreaks of skin lesions commonly called pimples. It is caused by the skin's oil glands making too much sebum, an oily substance, which leads to plugged pores. It also can be caused by the rapid production of a bacteria P. acnes.
Acne lesions occur mostly on the face, neck, back, chest, and shoulders. It is the most common skin disease. Although acne is not a serious health threat, severe acne can lead to disfiguring and permanent scarring.
Most young women and men will have at least a few pimples over the course of their lives. But acne seems to affect men and women in different ways. Young men are more likely to have a more serious form of acne. Acne in young women tends to be more random and linked to hormone changes, such as the menstrual cycle.
As women get older, acne often gets better. But some women have acne for many years. Some women even get acne for the first time at age 30 or 40.
For many women, acne can be an upsetting illness. Women may have feelings of depression, poor body image, or low self-esteem. But you don't have to wait to outgrow acne or to let it run its course. Today, almost every case of acne can be resolved. Acne also can, sometimes, be prevented. Talk with your doctor or dermatologist (a doctor who specializes in treating skin problems) about how you can help prevent acne and if treatment would help you.
Many things can trigger acne in women:
It is a myth that women get acne because they don't wash enough. Too much washing or scrubbing the skin harshly can make acne worse. And washing away surface oils doesn't do much to prevent or cure acne, because it forms under the skin. The best way to clean the face is to gently wash it twice a day with a mild soap or cleanser. Be careful to remove make-up without harsh scrubbing.
Stress does not cause acne. But, acne may be a side effect of some medicines used to treat stress or depression. And in some cases, the social and emotional impact of acne lesions causes stress. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns.
While many women feel that eating chocolate or greasy foods causes acne, experts have not found a link between the diet and acne. Foods seem to have little effect on acne in most people. But, it's important to eat a healthy diet for good health.
There are many treatments for mild acne. Mild acne can consist of whiteheads, blackheads and small pustules. At home, you can wash your face twice per day with warm water and a gentle cleanser or soap. Your doctor may suggest you also try an over-the-counter lotion or cream. These medicines may make your skin dry if you use them too much. Be sure to follow the directions.
If these medicines don't work, your doctor may prescribe a cream or lotion with benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, or sulfur.
If your acne does not get better after six to eight weeks, talk with your doctor about changing your treatment.
Yes. Work with your doctor to find the best treatment for you.
Moderate to moderately severe acne. This type of acne consists of several whiteheads, blackheads, papules and pustules that cover from ¼ to ¾ of the face and/or other parts of the body. It can be treated with antibiotic lotions or gels, as well as retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is an altered form of vitamin A. It helps prevent whiteheads and blackheads. Your doctor may also prescribe an antibiotic pill, such as erythromycin. If you take birth control pills to prevent pregnancy, antibiotics can affect how well they work. Be sure to use a second method of birth control with the pill, such as a condom. Retinoic acid and antibiotic pills can make the skin sensitive to the sun. So, wear sunscreen and stay in the shade while using them.
Severe acne. Severe acne consists of deep cysts, redness, swelling, extreme damage to the skin and scarring. You should see a dermatologist to care for this type of acne. Scarring can be prevented with appropriate treatments. Your dermatologist can prescribe oral antibiotics and oral contraceptives. Large inflamed cysts can be treated with an injection of a drug that lessens the redness, swelling, and irritation, and promotes healing.
Your dermatologist may prescribe Accutane®, if other treatments have not worked. This is a strong medicine that can help prevent scarring and treat active disease. But, Accutane also can cause birth defects. It is important that you are not pregnant and do not plan to get pregnant while taking this medicine. You must use two methods of birth control at the same time. This is done for one month before treatment begins, during treatment, and for a full month after stopping the drug. Talk with your dermatologist about when it's safe to get pregnant. Other side effects of this drug may include dry eyes, itching, mood changes, and changes in the blood and liver. You and your dermatologist can decide whether this medicine is right for you based on the pros and cons. Use any prescribed medicine exactly as you are advised. Taking more medicine than you are supposed to take may make acne or your general health worse. Ask your doctor what to do if you miss a dose.
Some large cysts do not respond to medication and may need to be drained or removed. Your dermatologist is the only person who should drain or remove these. You should never try to drain or remove your acne by squeezing or picking. This can lead to infection, worsen your acne, and cause scarring.
Overall, if you don't see a change in your skin in six to eight weeks, talk with your doctor about your treatment plan.
For women who break out mainly around their menstrual cycle, some birth control pills can help. Research shows that these pills can clear acne by slowing down overactive oil glands in the skin. Sometimes, birth control pills are used along with a drug called spironolactone to treat acne in adult females. This medication lowers levels of the hormone androgen in the body. Androgen stimulates the skin's oil glands. Side effects of this drug include irregular menstruation, breast tenderness, headache and fatigue. Spironolactone is not appropriate therapy for all patients.
If you have scarring, your dermatologist may suggest surgery to help heal acne lesions and remove scarring. A laser can reshape scar tissue and reduce redness. Dermabrasion is a type of surgery that can remove surface scars and reduce the depth of deep scars. Another option is to transfer fat from one part of the body to the face. In some cases, a single treatment can help scarring. But for lasting results, several are often needed. There are also topical treatments for acne scarring.
Photodynamic therapy is a new acne treatment. It begins with light microdermabrasion. This is used to remove dead skin cells on the face's surface. Then, an acid is put on the skin for 30 to 60 minutes. After this period, the acid is taken off. Lastly, the skin is treated with a laser. This treatment is still being researched, but seems to give positive long-term results.
You can help prevent acne flare-ups and scars by taking good care of your skin:
Rosacea (ro-ZAY-she-ah) is a common skin problem often called "adult acne." Faired skinned and menopausal women are more likely to have rosacea. Rosacea also seems to run in families. It causes redness in the center parts of the face and pimples. Blood vessels under the skin of the face may enlarge and show through the skin as small red lines. The skin may be swollen and feel warm.
Women with rosacea don't have the same lesions as seen with common acne. They may have flushing of the face, when they are hot, drink alcohol or hot drinks, or eat spicy foods. This flushing causes the face to appear red. In the most severe form, this redness does not go away. The eyes may become swollen and nodules in the skin may be painful.
You can help keep rosacea under control by keeping a record of things that cause it to flare up. Try to avoid or limit these triggers as much as you can. Antibiotic lotions or gels can also help. Sometimes, you may need to take antibiotic pills. Your dermatologist may treat you with laser surgery. If you think you have rosacea, talk with your doctor about these treatments.
For more information about acne, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
Acne fact sheet was reviewed by:
Diane Berson, M.D.
Weill Medical College of Cornell University
Content last updated July 16, 2012.
Resources last updated July 16, 2009.