Acne is a common skin condition that affects most people at some point. It causes spots, oily skin and sometimes skin that’s hot or painful to touch.
Acne most commonly develops on the:
face – this affects almost everyone with acne
back – this affects more than half of people with acne
chest – this affects about 15% of people with acne
Picture of acne spots
Types of spots
There are six main types of spot caused by acne:
blackheads – small black or yellowish bumps that develop on the skin; they’re not filled with dirt, but are black because the inner lining of the hair follicle produces pigmentation (colouring)
whiteheads – have a similar appearance to blackheads, but may be firmer and won’t empty when squeezed
papules – small red bumps that may feel tender or sore
pustules – similar to papules, but have a white tip in the centre, caused by a build-up of pus
nodules – large hard lumps that build up beneath the surface of the skin and can be painful
cysts – the most severe type of spot caused by acne; they’re large pus-filled lumps that look similar to boils and carry the greatest risk of causing permanent scarring
What can I do if I have acne?
These self-help techniques may be useful:
Don’t wash affected areas of skin more than twice a day. Frequent washing can irritate the skin and make symptoms worse.
Wash the affected area with a mild soap or cleanser and lukewarm water. Very hot or cold water can make acne worse.
Don’t try to “clean out” blackheads or squeeze spots. This can make them worse and cause permanent scarring.
Avoid using too much make-up and cosmetics. Use water-based products that are described as non-comedogenic (this means the product is less likely to block the pores in your skin).
Completely remove make-up before going to bed.
If dry skin is a problem, use a fragrance-free, water-based emollient.
Regular exercise can’t improve your acne, but it can boost your mood and improve your self-esteem. Shower as soon as possible once you finish exercising, as sweat can irritate your acne.
Wash your hair regularly and try to avoid letting your hair fall across your face.
Although acne can’t be cured, it can be controlled with treatment. Several creams, lotions and gels for treating spots are available at pharmacies.
If you develop acne, it’s a good idea to speak to your pharmacist for advice. Products containing a low concentration of benzoyl peroxide may be recommended – but be careful, as this can bleach clothing.
If your acne is severe or appears on your chest and back, it may need to be treated with antibiotics or stronger creams that are only available on prescription.
When to seek medical advice
Treatments can take up to three months to work, so don’t expect results overnight. Once they do start to work, the results are usually good.
Acne is very common in teenagers and younger adults. About 80% of people aged 11 to 30 are affected by acne.
Most people have acne on and off for several years before their symptoms start to improve as they get older. Acne often disappears when a person is in their mid-twenties.
Your GP can diagnose acne by looking at your skin. This involves examining your face, chest and back for the different types of spot, such as blackheads or sore, red nodules.
How many spots you have and how painful and inflamed they are will help determine how severe your acne is. This is important in planning your treatment.
Four grades can be used to measure the severity of acne:
grade 1 (mild) – acne is mostly confined to whiteheads and blackheads, with just a few papules and pustules
grade 2 (moderate) – there are multiple papules and pustules, which are mostly confined to the face
grade 3 (moderately severe) – there’s a large number of papules and pustules, as well as the occasional inflamed nodule, and the back and chest are also affected by acne
grade 4 (severe) – there’s a large number of large, painful pustules and nodules
Acne in women
There’s a range of informally run message boards and blogs about acne on the web. You may find it supportive to read about other people’s experience of living with acne.
For example, talkhealth provides a free acne support and information community.
The Mix (formerly Get Connected) also has a website and helpline for teenagers and young people with emotional and other difficulties.
Make-up can help cover up scars and can be particularly useful for facial scars.
Camouflage make-up specially designed to cover up scars is available over the counter at pharmacies. You can also ask your GP for advice.
If you’re interested in learning more about covering a mark, scar, non-infectious skin condition or a tattoo, you can also visit the Changing Faces skin camouflage service or call 0300 012 0276.