What Is Acne?

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Acne is one of the most troublesome and common skin-care problems for people around the world—and emotionally one of the most debilitating and embarrassing skin disorders to experience. Although most often associated with teenagers and the onset of puberty, the truth is that you can get acne at any age, which makes it even more frustrating.

So, what is acne anyway? Here we identify this self-esteem-crushing problem and the different ways it can show up. Knowing what causes acne is your first step in learning how to take control so you can get rid of breakouts and get back to having clear skin!

What Is Acne?

Most of us are familiar with acne, even if we don’t know the specifics of what makes it acne and not some other skin problem. Acne’s textbook definition is that it’s a skin disorder that occurs when hair follicles (every pore on your face is actually part of a follicle) become plugged with dead skin cells and oil. That mixture of oil and cells allows the bacteria responsible for acne, Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), to flourish inside the follicle instead of remaining on skin’s surface, where it normally resides without causing much trouble.

The bacteria feasts on the follicle’s contents, which starts a domino effect by producing inflammatory chemicals and enzymes. This process attracts white blood cells to combat the bacteria, which leads to inflammation. Acne is first and foremost an inflammatory disorder, and it’s important to remember that when treating it! Anything you can do to reduce inflammation will help acne heal faster—the reverse is true as well, making the inflammation worse will make the acne worse!

The last of the “precursor” stages in the development of acne is when the wall of the plugged follicle breaks down, spilling everything inside to nearby skin-leading to lesions or pimples.

Forms of Acne

Acne can show up on many areas of the body, including the face, neck, chest, back, shoulders, and arms. While the classic pustule form (if such a thing can be called classic!) is what many people typically think of when acne comes to mind, it can actually take several forms, as described below.

  • Comedones: This form of acne presents itself in two ways: whiteheads or blackheads. According to the Mayo Clinic, comedones are the non-inflammatory version of acne. When these lesions are closed at the skin’s surface, they are flesh-colored, slightly raised bumps called whiteheads. When they’re open, the exposure to air allows the plugs in the hair follicle to oxidize, resulting in a dark or black spot on skin called a blackhead. That dark spot is not dirt showing beneath the surface of skin!
  • Papules: These are small, raised bumps that indicate inflammation is occurring in hair follicles.
  • Pustules: Larger than papules, these red, tender bumps have white pus at their tips and are a sign of a more advanced, deeper inflammation.
  • Nodules: One of the most painful forms of acne, these bumps remain below the surface of the skin and are large and solid. They develop when buildup occurs deep within hair follicles that are severely clogged.
  • Cysts: Painful, pus-filled lumps that form beneath the skin, and that present an increased risk of scarring due to their depth and collagen-destroying potential. You can learn more about how cysts form - and how to treat them - in our article Cystic Acne Agony.

The Bottom Line

So now that you know what acne is, and what it can look like, what can you do to treat it? The good news is that there is a wealth of information about the different ways to treat acne and bring it under control. We invite you to check out our articles that tackle every aspect of acne, including the factors that cause it, how to prevent it, myths that could be making your skin worse, prescription treatments, over-the-counter treatments, and even alternative treatments that could help when other options fail. This is a battle that can be won—and the feeling of happiness when you finally have clear skin again is among the best ever!

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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