What Is Acne? Why You Have Spots & How You Can Help

what is acne

Most people when asked what acne is would just say “lots of spots”, and probably just think it occurs on the face. While that isn’t necessarily wrong, and acne vulgaris (i.e. common acne) is more common on the face, there is a lot to understand about acne, including the fact that it can occur almost anywhere on the body. By understanding what it is and what can make it better or worse, you can help prevent the condition and hopefully clear your skin.

What Is Acne & How Is It Formed?

The skin has small holes, called pores, that connect to the oil glands beneath your skin via a follicle. These glands produce an oily substance called sebum, which is used to keep your skin soft and smooth. The sebum, along with a hair, passes through the follicle to reach the surface of the skin. But sometimes these pores can become blocked. These blockages aren’t all equal though, and the type of blockage leads to different types of spots and consequently different degrees of acne.

Mild/Moderate Acne

Less severe acne is caused by a small blockage of dead skin cells carried by the sebum, along with the thickening of skin at the surface of the pore. This leads to comedones of which there are two types. Open comedones occur when the follicle is partly blocked, and is referred to as a blackhead (due to the surface pigment, not dirt). Closed comedones arise when the follicle is completely blocked, and these are referred to as whiteheads.

Sometimes, the walls of the follicle break due a large build up of sebum, and this creates a larger pimple in the form of a papule. A papule has a rough texture and is hard to the touch.

blackheads and whiteheads acne

Moderate/Severe Acne

The trapped sebum provides a suitable environment for the bacterium Propionbacterium acnes to survive and multiply. This can trigger a reaction in the immune system causing inflammation and the development of pustules which are yellowish and puss-filled, often large and noticeable in appearance, and possibly painful. This could extend to small nodules and cysts, that can result in permanent scars.

severe acne nodules cysts

Acne Mechanica

As I mentioned earlier, acne vulgaris is often referred to as common acne as it is by far the most common form. However, there are other types of acne and acne mechanica is relatively similar in appearance but is caused from skin rubbing and hot conditions, often found on athletes or soldiers. Examples of some of the causes of acne mechanica include:

  • Carrying a backpack

  • Shoulder pads

  • Headbands

  • Chinstraps

  • Tight fitting clothes

People with acne vulgaris are more likely to have acne mechanica, and treatment is usually the same. However, if you can identify the cause then you might be able to prevent it. For example, a student who has acne mechanica on their back and shoulders might have it because they carry a backpack a lot. It’s likely that using a different method to carry books (a carrier bag for example) would help clear the acne mechanica.

acne mechanica rucksack rash

Only these two types of acne will be discussed on this page as they are the most common, and it is likely that you will only be interested in information regarding these types of acne. However, there are other more uncommon types of acne and if you believe you suffer from a different type of acne you may want to see a GP or a dermatologist (skin specialist).

Why Do People Get Different Types Of Acne?

The type of acne a particular person exhibits is due to numerous factors. For a start, no two people have exactly the same skin which plays a big role in whether someone is likely to get acne or not, and its severity. For example, those with more oily skin have a greater chance of breaking out due to their increased sebum levels, but someone with dry skin is still at risk. External factors can also play a role, such as those who sweat regularly due to sports for example, or by using a product on your skin that could actually trigger breakouts, or make an existing breakout worse.

Should I Be Worried About Acne?

Acne itself is generally harmless in the sense that it should not lead to any physical health problems. However, many people fail to understand the long terms effects acne can have both psychologically and also physically through scarring (generally only seen on those who have suffered moderate to severe acne). Both of these effects can have a detrimental effect on a persons wellbeing, and it’s important to be aware of this so you can understand and help either yourself or someone you know who is suffering.

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