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What is acne?

Acne is a common skin condition that is characterised by spots on the skin. These spots can be different in appearance and texture. Acne usually occurs on the face and the back, but can occur on other areas of the body, such as the chest, neck and shoulders. Visit our acne face map article to get a better understanding of what different spots in different areas mean. 

Below we’ve included links to additional resources that discuss specific areas that acne effects:

What causes acne?

Acne occurs when your hair follicles (very tiny holes in your skin) become blocked. Sebaceous glands, which produce an oily substance known as sebum, are attached to your hair follicles. 

The role of sebum is to provide moisture to the skin, so that it does not dry up and crack. However, when too much sebum is produced, it can mix with dead skin cells and cause the hair follicles or pores to become blocked. This can cause blackheads or whiteheads. If bacteria is able to get inside the blocked follicle, it can cause an infection resulting in pustules, papules, nodes or cysts.


Acne is common in those that are going through puberty. This is due to a change in hormone level, which stimulates the sebaceous glands to produce more of the oily substance called sebum. However, acne can also occur as an adult


Acne is more common in women, as they have fluctuating hormone levels caused by periods and pregnancy. These changes in hormones can cause more sebum to be produced, therefore, increasing the likelihood of sebum clogging up hair follicles resulting in acne. This is why acne is more common in women with 5 in 100 women experiencing acne over the age of 25, compared with 1 in 100 men.


Certain medications such as steroids, lithium and certain drugs used in the treatment of epilepsy can cause acne as a side-effect.


Studies have shown that stress is a contributing factor in causing acne. When you are stressed, your body produces certain hormones that have the capability of binding to the sebaceous gland, stimulating them to produce more sebum. This increase in oil production can contribute to acne.


Some research suggests that there is a link between smoking and adult acne. Stopping smoking may help to reduce acne and the general appearance of your skin.

Acne symptoms

Acne is usually characterised by spots that fit the criteria of blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules, nodules or cysts. Your age, sex and skin type will be taken into consideration when your doctor is assessing whether or not you have acne. Blackheads and whiteheads accompanied by a small number of pustules or papules will usually be classified as mild acne. 

Moderate acne usually follows a similar pattern, but with more spots covering a larger area. Lots of pustules and papules, or nodules and cysts is classified as severe acne. In the next section, we explore the types of acne in greater detail.

Types of acne

Acne comes in many different shapes, sizes and forms. Below we’ve identified the most common types experienced: 


These are small black spots that form when the hair follicles get clogged up with materials such as dirt, dead skin cells and oil. The black appearance is not due to the dirt however, but happens when the oil that plugs the hair follicle is exposed to air. 

This process is known as oxidization and is the reason why blackheads appear black in colour. Blackheads are common in teenagers and those going through changes in puberty, as their bodies are experiencing hormonal changes which can cause the skin to become oily. Oily skin increases the chances of the hair follicles becoming clogged with oil and causing blackheads.



Whiteheads are similar in appearance to blackheads, except white in colour. They contain oil and dead skin cells in the same way that blackheads do, except they are covered by a layer of skin, hence air is not able to come into contact with the oil and oxidise it (owing to its white appearance).



Papules are inflamed red bumps on the surface of the skin. They are usually painful and tender to touch. They are caused as a result of pores that are clogged, and have become inflamed due to irritation caused to the pores. Papules cannot be burst and will usually leave a red mark on the skin and the surrounding area of the spot if you try to remove it.



Pustules are red bumps on the skin that are filled with a yellowish substance that appears on the tip of the bump. This is caused by a build of white fluid known as pus. They form when your body is producing white blood cells in order to fight the bacteria that is causing acne. They are also as a result of the wall of the pores breaking due to irritation.


Nodules appear larger than regular spots and appear underneath the skin. They are painful and tender to touch and can have a white appearance underneath the outer layer of the skin. They are also caused by overactive oil glands, bacteria and a buildup of dead skin cells within the pores. They feel slightly harder to touch and can also be referred to as nodular acne.



This form of acne is also known as cystic acne. It is the most severe form of acne, and is the least common type of acne. They are large and inflamed pus-filled cysts (appearing underneath the skin), that are red in appearance. They are painful to touch and usually appear on the face. Cysts are similar to nodules but are usually larger and have an appearance similar to boils. They are softer to touch than nodules and require a stronger treatment (usually involving antibiotics). This is because the bacteria that is trapped inside the pores affects the deeper layers of the skin. 

How to prevent acne?

There are a few things you can try that may help in preventing or reducing acne. However, it is important to realise that acne is primarily a resulting factor of your genetic composition. Whilst there are things you can try, there is no guarantee they will work in preventing acne, and there is limited scientific research available that is able to verify many of the claims that are published in many articles.

  • Know your skin type and deal with it accordingly. Those who suffer from oily skin would benefit from a product that reduces excess oil produced by the skin. Be careful to ensure that you use such products in intervals to avoid drying your skin.
  • Cleanse your skin twice a day. You should try to look for cleansing products that are hypoallergenic and free from fragrances. Cleansing your skin can help to get rid of bacteria and dirt associated with causing acne. You should apply the most appropriate cream to your face after, depending on your skin type.
  • Make lifestyle changes. Tweaking your diet to include more water and vegetables, and less sugar could help to improve acne. Clinical research has suggested that certain foods which cause a spike in insulin levels, such as sugar, white rice, white bread can contribute to acne. Research has also demonstrated that foods high in saturated and trans fats and dairy products, can stimulate an overproduction of hormones that can contribute to acne. Getting a good night’s sleep and managing stress levels can keep your immune system healthy and also help in reducing acne.

What is the best treatment for acne?

There is no such thing as the “best acne treatment”, but you will be prescribed the most appropriate treatment by your prescriber, depending on the nature of your acne. 

Acne treatments can be broken down into the following treatments:

  • Benzoyl peroxide: Works to reduce bacteria that builds up on the skin (Epiduo Gel or Acnecide Gel, Acnecide Wash)
  • Retinoids: Retinoids remove dead skin cells through exfoliation of the skin, ensuring that pore aren’t able to be clogged (Differin Gel)
  • Azelaic acid: For sensitive skin. Kills off bacteria that builds up on the skin
  • Salicylic acid: A common ingredient that is often found in over-the-counter treatments. Salicylic acid works similarly to azelaic acid.
  • Topical antibiotic: sold as gels or locations, topical antibiotics kill bacteria that settles on the skin (Duac Gel, Treclin Gel, Zineryt Lotion)


Whiteheads and blackheads usually do not require antibiotic treatment, whereas pustules, papules, nodules and cysts will usually require antibiotic and antibacterial treatment. This is usually in the form of a cream, but can also be oral antibiotics. Many creams also contain other ingredients such as adapalene, which has anti-inflammatory properties. If one particular treatment isn’t working for you, there are alternatives and you should speak with your physician about what to do if you are not seeing the desired results.

Acne can be treated with certain over the counter and prescription only medication. Your physician will be able to advise you on the most appropriate treatment method, how long to use it for, and what to do if it isn’t working.

There are many different acne treatment options available and the treatment prescribed to you by your physician is the treatment you should use. Certain types of contraceptive pills including Co-Cyprindiol and the Dianette Pill, have been proven to be effective in helping with the treatment of acne for women if the cause of acne is attributed to a hormone imbalance.

How can I get prescription acne treatment?

You can order prescription acne treatment online using our registered service. To ensure the product is appropriate for you to use, you will need to have been diagnosed as having acne, and have used the treatment before.

How long does it take for acne treatment to work?

Some treatments may take a few weeks, whilst some may take a few months. It’s also very common for your skin to get worse before it gets better, this is often referred to as an acne purge.

It’s important that you make an appointment at regular intervals with your prescriber so that they can assess the effectiveness of your acne treatment, and provide advice on whether to carry on, stop, or change your treatment.


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