You can call them blackheads, pimples or zits, but by any name, acne can really ruin your day. Waking up to find a giant pimple in the middle of your forehead or chin, especially if it's picture day at school, or you have a big date, can be a real bummer.
So, what causes acne?
All over your skin you've got tiny little holes called pores. These holes are openings to your hair follicles. Each hole also contains an oil gland. The oil helps keep your skin lubricated and removes dead skin cells.
Sometimes your oil glands work overtime, producing too much of the slimy stuff. The extra oil can fill up and block your pores, causing a backup of dirt, bacteria, and cells. At the top of the blockage sits a plug. If the top of the plug is white, you've got a whitehead, the type of pimple many of us are so tempted to pop. If the top of the plug is dark, you've got a blackhead. If the plug bursts open, you'll have a swollen red bump.
The most common place to find acne is on your face. But you can also get breakouts on your shoulders, arms, legs, back, and buttocks.
Although acne is known as a teenage affliction, you can get pimples at any age, especially if you sweat a lot, use greasy cosmetics, or eat a high-sugar diet. Hormones can also trigger acne outbreaks. Women who are just starting their period may notice more pimples than usual. You may also discover a few pimples on the day of a big test or presentation, because stress can lead to breakouts.
So, you may ask, how do you get rid of acne?
First, here's something you should never do when you've got acne. Don't squeeze or pick at the bumps. In fact, try not to touch your face at all. You'll just make the acne worse, and you could leave permanent scars.
To treat acne, the first step is gently cleaning your face twice a day with a pH balanced cleanser, such as Cetaphil or Dove. Use warm (not hot) water, and pat dry. Aggressive scrubbing may make acne worse. Many people benefit from adding an over-the-counter acne medicine that contains ingredients like benzoyl peroxide. These creams dry up the extra oil in your skin and kill bacteria. They may make your skin a little red or cause it to peel, but they work pretty well at clearing up breakouts.
If over-the-counter treatments don't work, see your doctor or a dermatologist. Prescription creams or gels are stronger and may be more effective at clearing up stubborn acne. Many will prescribe antibiotics such as tetracycline, erythromycin, or doxycycline. You can either take these by mouth, or rub them on your skin. Another option is to have a laser treatment or skin peel. Talk to your doctor about these treatments if medicines haven't cleared up your acne.
Acne is a rite of passage for teenagers, but pimples can plague people well into their 30s or 40s. You don't have to live with acne, because there are several very effective treatments for it. See your doctor or a dermatologist to discuss your options. Also make an appointment if your acne is getting worse even with treatment, or you've got scarring where your acne used to be.
Review Date: 5/20/2019
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.