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Skin Overview: What is Acne?

As part of the MedSci overview of chronic skin diseases, we’d pulled together some basic information about acne and its causes.


Acne is a very common skin condition characterised by non-inflammatory lesions called comedones (blackheads and whiteheads), and inflammatory lesions such as papules (pimples - red and swollen) and pustules (pus-filled spots), usually distributed on the face, neck, chest and/or back.

It usually starts in puberty and varies in severity. Acne is most commonly seen in puberty where hormone secretion increases leading to an alteration of the skin lipid profile called dys-seborrhoea. For most people it tends to resolve by the late teens or early twenties, but can persist for longer in some. Acne can develop for the first time in your late twenties or thirties. It occasionally occurs in young children as blackheads and/or pustules on the cheeks or nose.


Acne is caused by a combination of several factors including increased sebum (oil) production of the skin, inflammation, abundance of Propionibacterium acnes and clogging of pores.

Sebaceous glands are sack-like glands in the skin attached to the hair shaft, producing sebum (an oily, waxy matter). In both sexes, testosterone is secreted into the body and eventually enters the sebaceous gland through the bloodstream. The increase in testosterone stimulates an increase in sebum production. A combination of an excess amount of sebum production and dead skin cells not being shed properly, clog up the follicles. The sebaceous gland continues producing oil which results in a buildup of oil, producing blackheads (where a darkened plug of oil and dead skin is visible), whiteheads and/or pimples.

The acne bacterium (known as Propionibacterium acnes) lives on everyone’s skin, usually without problems, but in those prone to acne, the build-up of oil creates an ideal environment in which these bacteria can multiply. This triggers inflammation and the formation of red or pus-filled spots. 2.

Other causes of acne could be:

  • Medication e.g contraceptives or other hormones
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Irritation of the skin
  • Stress
  • Cosmetics  
  • Dietary factors - can no longer be ignored as a possible trigger of acne in some


  1. http://www.bad.org.uk/for-the-public/patient-information-leaflets/acne/?showmore=1&returnlink=http%3a%2f%2fwww.bad.org.uk%2ffor-the-public%2fpatient-information-leaflets#.We3YDEw63O0
  2. http://www.bad.org.uk/for-the-public/patient-information-leaflets/acne/?showmore=1&returnlink=http%3a%2f%2fwww.bad.org.uk%2ffor-the-public%2fpatient-information-leaflets#.Wlyem5M-dGx
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