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Facing Facts About Acne

Though it's often portrayed as a scourge of the teen years, acne can affect people of all ages. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 80 percent of people between the ages of 11 and 30 have outbreaks of the skin disorder at some point.

"Many see their acne go away by the time they reach their 30s," says Jane Liedtka, a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). "But for some, acne persists into their 40s and 50s."

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Spurred by inflammation of skin glands and of tiny, narrow canals in the skin known as hair follicles, acne is marked by pimples and other lesions. It commonly appears on the face, neck, back, chest, and shoulders.

Acne is not usually a serious health condition. "But it can cause significant emotional distress, as well as permanent scarring of skin tissue," says Liedtka, who has 15 years of clinical experience treating acne. She now works in CDER's Division of Dermatology and Dental Products.

A Disease of the PSUs

Clinically, acne is described as a disease of features known as pilosebaceous units (PSUs). Found just under the skin, PSUs are numerous on the face, upper back, and chest, and contain sebaceous glands that are connected to hair follicles. The sebaceous glands produce sebum, an oily substance that empties onto the skin via the hair follicle.

Liedtka explains, "it is known that acne is partly the result of the action of hormones on the skin's oil glands and the hair follicles," she says. "The earliest lesion of acne is a plugging of the pores of the skin."

Factors believed to be related to acne formation include

  • increases in sex hormones called androgens that occur in both boys and girls during puberty. Androgens cause sebaceous glands to enlarge and make more sebum in hair follicles
  • hormonal changes related to pregnancy or to starting or stopping use of birth control pills
  • genetics

Beware of Myths

"There are many misconceptions out there about how acne forms, as well as on how to treat the condition," says Liedtka.

Here are some facts about acne:

  • There is no known way to prevent the development of acne.
  • Acne is not caused by poor hygiene, sweating, or not washing. "These factors do not cause the clogged pores that contribute to acne development," says Liedtka. While medicated washes containing benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, and sulfur are one form of treatment for acne, simple soap and water does not treat the condition, she adds.
  • Acne is not caused by diet. No scientific connection has been found between diet and acne. No food—not chocolate, fries, pizza, or any other food—has been shown to cause acne.
  • Acne does not need to be allowed to run its course. "The condition can be treated," says Liedtka. "There are prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) products for it. If products you have tried haven’t worked, consider seeing a dermatologist."

Types of Acne