Acne is a skin condition causing spots and blemishes. Although commonly associated with teenagers, acne can affect adults of all ages.
What is acne?
Acne happens when hair follicles in the skin become blocked by excess sebum and dead skin cells. Sebum is naturally produced by the body’s hair glands to lubricate the hair, but when too much sebum is produced, it can block the hair follicles and trap dead skin. This then causes pimples, usually in the form of blackheads or whiteheads.
When bacteria from the skin’s surface also get into this blocked hair follicle, it causes painful inflamed lumps and pustules within the skin – which is why good hygiene is so important if you have acne.
There are several things that can potentially make acne worse:
Age (acne is most common in teenagers)
Hormonal changes (puberty, and specifically for acne in women, around the time of the period or early pregnancy)
Genetics (acne can run in families)
Areas of pressure or friction (like a headband, tight collar or backpack)
Certain medications (particularly those containing corticosteroids)
Symptoms of acne
- Blackheads and/or whiteheads
- Papules (a small red lump in the skin)
- Pustules (a red bump that has a white tip in the centre – a sign of pus within the lump)
- Nodules (harder lumps that develop under the surface of the skin and can be painful and sore)
- Cysts (a larger form of pustule that looks similar to a boil)
How to treat acne
Topical acne treatments containing the ingredient benzoyl peroxide are effective in most cases of mild acne. These products can be found at a pharmacy.
For moderate acne, there are various prescription creams available. These often take a few weeks to work and need daily application.
If acne is not responding to topical treatments, or is more severe, then oral antibiotics may be issued. Again, these must be taken daily for several weeks to see an improvement.
Women could also consider taking the combined contraceptive pill. This can be very effective against hormonal acne.
If acne has not cleared up with topical treatments and oral antibiotics, or if it’s very severe (particularly if there are painful nodules and cysts, or the skin has become scarred) then a GP can organise a referral to a dermatologist. Oral isotretinoin is an effective acne treatment which can only be prescribed by a dermatologist.
When to see a GP
- If your acne is not responding to products bought over the counter containing benzoyl peroxide
- If your acne involves painful nodules or cysts
- If your acne is leaving scars on you skin
- If your acne is causing you psychological distress or affecting your daily life
A GP can also refer you to a dermatologist.
- Last updated:
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi