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Acne - everything you need to know

Young girl with acne spots on face
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Worried that oily skin and spots on your face, chest and back might be acne? Read on for a guide to acne, as well as advice and support on how to get treated.

What is acne?

Acne is a common condition that affects the skin, causing spots to develop on the face and body. It’s most common in teenagers, but it can affect people in adulthood as well.

It’s normal to get the odd pimple, but if you’re regularly experiencing outbreaks of spots, especially if they’re red, painful and widespread, this could be a sign of acne.

The good news is that most people who have acne as a teenager find it improves in early adulthood. Even for people with severe acne, there are many different treatment options available to help tackle it, so you shouldn’t be reluctant to seek help. Our pharmacists are always on hand to help discuss your skin concerns as well as offer advice and treatment options.

What are the symptoms of acne?

Broadly speaking, acne has two key symptoms:

  • Oily skin that might also be hot, red and tender
  • Multiple spots on the face, back, shoulders and/or chest

There are some specific types of acne spot, and identifying these can help you to work out how severe your acne is.

Types of acne spot

  • Blackheads and whiteheads are small bumps on the skin (blackheads usually have a black centre).
  • Papules are small bumps on the skin that tend to be red, painful and tender.
  • Pustules are similar to papules but have a white centre, caused by a build-up of pus.
  • Nodules are large hard lumps under the skin that are often painful.
  • Cysts – the most severe type of acne spot – are large lumps filled with pus that look similar to boils. Nodules and cysts are prone to bursting, which can cause bleeding and scarring.

People with mild acne are mostly affected by blackheads and whiteheads, while people with moderate acne might have a lot of papules and pustules. In severe cases, the skin is affected by widespread papules and pustules, as well as nodules and cysts.

What causes acne?

The first thing to know is that acne is not caused by being unhygienic. Having the occasional spot can result from not cleaning your skin, but chronic acne results from biological reactions taking place beneath the skin.

In people with acne, the glands in the skin produce too much sebum, an oily substance that stops the skin drying out. When too much sebum is produced, it mixes with dead skin cells and blocks the hair follicles in your skin.

Blocked follicles create blackheads and whiteheads, which can later develop into papules, pustules, nodules and cysts if they become infected.

Changes in the skin that result in acne are often a result of hormones. For this reason, acne is most commonly associated with puberty, however it can also affect pregnant and menopausal women.

Teenagers and young adults are most likely to experience acne – 80% of people between 11 and 30 are affected (however only 5% of women and 1% of men have acne over the age of 25).

How is acne diagnosed?

If you’re worried about your symptoms, you shouldn’t hesitate to speak to a medical professional, visit your local LloydsPharmacy and speak to one of our Pharmacists for advice and support.

With mild symptoms – i.e. blackheads, whiteheads, and only a few papules or pustules – you may want to start by talking to a pharmacist. This is because mild acne symptoms can often be treated with over-the-counter products, which can be purchased with the advice of a pharmacist.

For more severe symptoms you should book an appointment with your GP, or make use of the free LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor acne assessment. Moderate or severe acne will usually need to be examined by a doctor, and may require prescription treatment.

How is acne treated?

While there is no cure for acne, there are all kinds of treatment options available to improve the condition. Read our guide to acne treatment to find out more about the full range of medication, creams and solutions available.

Treatment for mild acne

If your acne is mild you might find that using an over-the-counter treatment containing benzoyl peroxide helps your symptoms improve. These products normally come as creams or gels and must be applied to the skin once or twice a day.

If this non-prescription treatment doesn’t work you should speak to a doctor about your options.

Treatment for moderate or severe acne

For more severe acne, prescription treatment is often necessary. Common prescription treatments for acne include:

  • Topical retinoids and antibiotics
  • Azelaic acid
  • Antibiotic tablets
  • Combined contraceptive pills (for women only)
  • Isotretinoin tablets

Usually, treatment for severe acne begins with a combination of antibiotic tablets and topical treatments. You may be referred to a dermatologist if your symptoms are particularly bad.

You can also receive treatment for acne scarring, which occurs when large spots burst and damage the skin. Treatment for acne scarring includes dermabrasion and laser therapy.

Read our guide to acne treatment to find out more about the full range of medication and solutions available.

Acne treatment at Online Doctor

Living with acne

Acne can be a difficult condition to live with, as it can cause problems with self-esteem, anxiety and stress. In severe cases, acne can cause depression. If you’re struggling to cope with your acne, make sure you speak to your GP.

The best way to get to grips with your acne symptoms is to make sure you’re using the correct medication. Second to that, it can be a good idea to establish a skincare routine that includes any topical treatments recommended to you by a healthcare professional.

A skincare routine for acne should involve:

  • Gently cleaning your face twice a day with lukewarm water and a mild cleanser
  • Applying any topical treatments to the skin as directed
  • Keeping dry skin moisturised
  • Using makeup that is non-comedogenic (this means it won’t block the follicles)
  • Not squeezing or picking at spots as this can cause infection and scarring

Try to resist the urge to over-cleanse your face or scrub your skin too hard, as this can cause more damage and irritation. Remember that acne is not caused by being unclean. If you are still concerned about your acne, then visit your local LloydsPharmacy, our expert and friendly pharmacists will be happy to talk you through possible treatments available to you.

Is there such a thing as an acne diet?

You might have heard that eating greasy or sugary foods can be the cause of acne, but no need to worry about the occasional treat. The International Journal of Dermatology advises that, despite what you may hear, chocolate isn’t the cause of spots. So, you may not have to cut any foods out, but what should you be eating?

In the same way as you should be nourishing your body, you need to look after your skin as well. And, one of the best ways to do that is to eat a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veg. If you’re doing this, you shouldn’t have a problem getting all the vitamins you need to support your skin. The most important vitamins to make sure you’re eating for healthy skin are:

Vitamin A: Generally accepted as one of the main vitamins for skin health, vitamin A can be found in oily fish, eggs, milk and yoghurt.

Vitamin C: You may have heard that vitamin C is good to help maintain your body’s health, but did you know it’s though to help keep your skin firm and pliable? It’s found in a wide variety of fruit and veg, including peppers, kiwis, oranges and even broccoli.

Vitamin E: Vitamin E is becoming more common in skincare products. It’s thought to help prevent scarring, including from acne. You can find it in nuts, seeds and olive oil.

Our Online Doctor acne clinic

The LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor acne clinic offers a wide range of treatments and treatment combinations, aiming to tailor acne treatment to individual patients, taking into account their preferences and medical history.

The service is easy to use, patients fill out a free online consultation and upload photos of their acne. These are then reviewed by the clinicians, and if suitable, one of 18 treatment options are prescribed. Find out more and start you free consultation here.