Most people will admit to popping the odd spot every now and then, but having to deal with persistent acne can be frustrating and distressing.

Over the years, numerous theories have developed as to why some people get worse cases of acne than others. Some of these theories, as you might expect, have made it into everyday discourse, and become somewhat distorted in the process. The result of this is that many people may have a skewed view of what causes or exacerbates acne, and what measures can make it better. 

Of course, as we learn more about the human body and make advancements in science and medicine, theories are being proved and disproved all the time. So a particular idea someone might have heard long ago pertaining to acne might well no longer be scientific consensus (or have even, in fact, ever actually been scientific consensus at all).

Luckily, there are several options for those looking for relief from acne. Over the counter and prescription treatments can help to reduce the appearance of spots.

In this post, we’ll be discussing acne in more detail, looking at some of the different treatments available, as well as shedding some light on some of the more popular myths you may have heard.

First of all: what is acne?

Acne is a very common skin condition characterised by spots or pustules usually found on the face, back and chest.

Spots are formed when skin follicles in the skin become blocked. Our skin and hair are kept moisturised by a substance known as sebum, which is produced by the sebaceous gland found below the skin surface. Acne occurs when this gland produces too much sebum, thus clogging the follicles. The bacteria that usually lives unnoticed on the surface of our skin feeds on the sebum and, in doing so, creates waste products that irritate the glands; causing spots, and sometimes causing infections.

Most cases of acne can be linked to a change in hormones that triggers the excess production of sebum. For young people this tends to be during puberty, but for women acne flare-ups can be dictated by hormone levels around their menstrual cycle, pregnancy or menopause.

Your genes can also dictate whether or not you’re more likely to develop acne.

Popular acne myths

1. Chocolate

Myth: Eating chocolate causes acne.

Truth: Chocolate alone does not cause spots.

This is not exactly true. Chocolate hasn’t been found to specifically cause spots. However, a diet high in saturated fats or sugars can increase the skin’s production of sebum or oil, which in turn can lead to an inflammatory reaction. So, while chocolate consumption doesn’t directly cause acne, it may contribute to the conditions that lead to more spots.

If you happen to notice an increase in spots after you’ve eaten chocolate, it may be wise to take a look at your whole diet and see if you’re consuming too much sugar.

Interestingly, some theories have been developed recently regarding the health benefits of consuming small amounts of dark chocolate; including those on the skin. One study suggested that regularly eating a controlled amount of dark chocolate with ‘preserved high flavanol levels’ can benefit your skin by protecting it from harmful UV rays.

2. Toothpaste

Myth: Toothpaste can get rid of spots.

Truth: It doesn’t. In fact, it could harm your skin.

Some people believe that applying toothpaste to spots can help dry them out but, unfortunately, this is not the case. Our skin is delicate, especially facial skin. The ingredients in toothpaste irritate and dry the skin out, often leaving your skin in worse condition, especially if you have sensitive skin. Toothpaste should only be used on your teeth.

3. Teenagers only

Myth: Only teenagers get acne.

Truth: Acne can occur at any age.

Teenagers and young adults tend to bear the brunt of the condition (the majority of acne cases are reported by young people between 11 and 30). A large proportion of acne cases can be linked to hormonal changes caused by puberty.

However, this doesn’t mean that once you leave your teenage years behind you can look forward to a guaranteed spot-free life. Adults of all ages can be prone to acne outbreaks too. Women are more likely to develop acne in adulthood and it can often be linked to hormonal changes such as those caused by pregnancy or menopause.

4. Sunlight

Myth: The sun can cure acne.

Truth: Sun rays can permanently damage skin.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous acne myths is that the sun will help to clear it up. This one reportedly stems from research conducted in the 1950s, where doctors saw that sun rays would reduce the redness associated with spots.

However, this was later found to be because UV radiation suppresses the immune system; and this in turn reduces inflammation.

In the short term this may seem to improve your skin, as a tan can make your spots less noticeable. However, the heat from the sun can dehydrate your skin, which will cause the skin to counteract and produce more oil, thus potentially leading to a further acne breakout.

Furthermore, excessive levels of intense UV exposure can seriously compromise your skin’s health, and even lead to skin cancer.

Using adequate sun protection then is imperative in reducing skin cancer risk. People with acne may be put off wearing SPF on their face because of the potential for extra grease and oil; however, oil-free and non-comedogenic SPF products are available.

5. Popping your spots

Myth: Squeezing your spots gets rid of the bacteria.

Truth: Squeezing spots can make them worse and lead to scarring.

However tempting it may be to pop a bothersome spot, in reality you could be doing more harm than good.

Many people believe that by squeezing a spot, they’re getting the bacteria out of the skin. Unfortunately popping can have the opposite effect.

The squeezing action can sometimes drive the spot bacteria deeper into the skin. So even when it appears the spot has been burst, this might mean that some bacteria gets left behind. The presence of residual bacteria can then trigger an inflammatory response, causing the area to become swollen, red and sometimes painful.

In addition to this, the damage caused by squeezing a spot can lead to scarring, which is much harder for your skin to recover from.

So in the long term, it’s much better to resist the urge to pop your pimples, and instead speak to your doctor if your spots are becoming a problem.

Acne treatments

There is no cure for acne, but there are numerous over-the-counter and prescription treatments that can help to control the symptoms.

Acne treatments are not instant solutions. It can take several weeks of use before they produce noticeable results. In some cases you may need to continue with treatment when your spots have cleared up.

Over-the-counter

Skincare counters can be overwhelming places. The list of products boasting about how they can help you get beautiful skin may seem endless; but many of them may not be backed up with hard science.

If you are looking to purchase a non-prescription acne product, then you should speak to your pharmacist. They may suggest a product containing benzoyl peroxide.

This antiseptic substance helps to treat acne symptoms by attacking the spot-causing bacteria found on the skin, stopping dead skin cells blocking pores and reducing inflammation. It is typically administered once or twice a day.

However, this treatment should only ever be applied in strict moderation, as using too much can cause irritation. It can also make the skin more susceptible to UV rays, so extra precautions will need to be taken when it comes to sun protection.

On prescription 

Where over-the-counter solutions have failed, your doctor may be able to prescribe treatment; particularly if your acne is severe.

Antibiotics

Oral and topical antibiotics can be used to treat more severe cases of acne. They work by killing the bacteria infecting the skin follicles.

Topical retinoids

Gels applied directly to the site of the spot such as Isotrex and Differin work by getting rid of dead skin cells. This help to unblock pores, thereby stopping new spots forming and reducing inflammation.

Hormonal therapies

When other treatments have proven ineffective, women may be given the option of using oral contraceptives which also have acne-reducing properties.

The oral contraceptives Co-cyprindiol and Dianette can be used by some women to help treat acne. The active ingredients regulate hormone production so that the sebaceous glands stop producing too much sebum.

If you are experiencing acne which won’t respond to over-the-counter solutions, your doctor may be able to help. Make an appointment with them to find out more about the options available.