Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Acne Health Center

Font Size

Acne Causes

What causes acne?

No one factor causes acne. Acne happens when oil (sebaceous) glands are activated at puberty, stimulated by male hormones from the adrenal glands in both boys and girls. Oil is a natural substance which lubricates and protects the skin. Under certain circumstances, cells that are close to the surface block the openings of sebaceous glands and cause a buildup of oil underneath. This oil stimulates bacteria, which live in everyone's skin and generally cause no problems, to multiply and cause surrounding tissues to become inflamed.

If the inflammation is right near the surface, you get a pustule; if it's deeper, a papule (pimple); deeper still and it's a cyst. If the oil breaks though to the surface, the result is a "whitehead." If the oil becomes oxidized (that is, acted on by oxygen in the air), the oil changes from white to black, and the result is a "blackhead."

Recommended Related to Acne

Can Foods Make You Break Out?

By now, it’s common knowledge that certain nutrients help specific body parts work better. Healthy bones require calcium and vitamin D. Our hearts may do better when we eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. And for healthy skin we should eat, well, hmmm, that’s a good question. If you’re not sure which foods are good for your skin and which ones are harmful, you’re certainly not alone. Little research has shown a connection between particular foods and skin health, says Cheryl Karcher, MD, a New...

Read the Can Foods Make You Break Out? article > >

  • Heredity: With the exception of very severe acne, most people do not have the problem exactly as their parents did. Almost everyone has some acne at some point in life.
  • Food: All over the world, parents tell teens to avoid pizza, chocolate, greasy and fried foods, and junk food. While these foods may not be good for overall health, they don't cause acne or make it worse. Studies show dairy products and high glycemic foods, however, can trigger acne.  
  • Dirt: Some individuals have more "oily" skin than others (as mentioned above, "blackheads" are oxidized oil, not dirt). Sweat does not cause acne; therefore, it is not necessary to shower instantly after exercise for fear that sweat will clog pores. On the other hand, excessive washing can dry and irritate the skin.
  • Hormones:  Most women break out cyclically. Some oral contraceptive pills help relieve acne.
  • Cosmetics: Most cosmetic and skin care products are not pore-clogging (“comedogenic.”) Of the many available brands, those which are listed as “water-based” or “oil-free” (non-comedogenic) are a better choice.

In occasional patients, contributing factors may be:

  • Pressure: In some patients, pressure from helmets, chinstraps, collars, and the like can aggravate acne.
  • Drugs: Some medications may cause or worsen acne, such as those containing iodides, bromides, or oral or injected steroids (either the medically prescribed prednisone or the steroids bodybuilders or athletes take). Most cases of acne, however, are not drug-related.
  • Occupations: In some jobs, exposure to industrial products like cutting oils may produce acne.

 

WebMD Medical Reference from MedicineNet

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on November 01, 2013

Today on WebMD

Girl with acne
See if you know how to control your acne.
happy woman with clear skin
Triggers and treatments for blackheads, whiteheads, and cystic acne.
 
Bride with acne
Dos and don’ts for hiding breakouts.
close-up of a young man soaping his face
Why adults get acne and how to treat it.
 
Doctors
Article
Boy cleaning acne face
Quiz
 
HPV Vaccine Future
Video
beauty cream
Article
 
Bride with acne
Slideshow
Woman applying mineral makeup
Slideshow
 
69x75_mineral_makeup.jpg
Video
Arrows pointing on teen girl blemish
Quiz
 

WebMD Special Sections