The cause of acne is pretty simple: dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria goop together and clog your pores, causing an infection in the skin. Straight forward, right?
But why? Why are the skin cells getting stuck in your pores? Does diet matter? Is your face dirty? How can you prevent breakouts?
We have answers! Keep reading to learn where your breakouts are starting and what changes you can make to prevent them.
The Sciencey Stuff
You look in the mirror and see a white, pus-filled eyesore. It’s a zit. A common occurrence for you, but still an unwelcome addition. It seems like it appeared suddenly overnight, but that little (or big) guy has undergone quite the journey before he emerged out of your face.
Shrug on your lab coat, we’re about to get all scientific.
Acne thrives on inflammation. Your body resorts to inflammation to combat anything foreign or threatening.
Scientists are still trying to figure out what triggers acne, but one educated guess is that it starts with stress. Whether psychological or physical, stress gives your hormones the signal to start inflammation, remember that trusty defense mechanism?
Then you have to account for follicular hyperkeratinization, which is a fancy term for too much keratin in your pores. Essentially what’s happening is your cells are shedding real fast, and your body can’t get rid of them fast enough. The excess keratin makes them get sticky and trapped in your pores. Along with the inflammation, they effectively narrow the pore opening.
Next, we add sebum into the mix. Sebum is your naturally produced skin oil that is supposed to express from your pores to keep your face hydrated and protected. As many of us acne-prone individuals are familiar with, sometimes your skin produces too much sebum and acne really likes that.
So now, you have dead skin cells and inflammation gumming up your pores and trapping puddles of sebum inside. It doesn’t sound like a fun place to be, but bacteria called P. acnes are all about it. They thrive in a no-oxygen, high sebum environment.
P. acnes are microorganisms, or bacteria, that live on the skin of pretty much everyone. Just having P. acnes hanging out on your face isn’t enough to get a breakout. But when they’re growing in a clogged pore, they trigger your immune system to step up and get rid of them.
Only here’s the problem: the immune system resorts to its favorite defense, inflammation. There’s already a lot of inflammation going on in that teeny little pore, and when it increases, it ruptures.
All that stuff that was previously in the clogged pore is now all up in your skin. Guess what your body does to combat it. Oh, you know, just creates more inflammation. Of course. The additional inflammation creates a papule. Can someone tell the body to cool it with the inflammation already?
A papule is an inflamed blemish that doesn’t have any pus. Usually, pus develops from the gunk that exploded from the ruptured pore and turns the papule into a pustule or what you might refer to as a zit.
Baby, You’re Born With It
So, if acne comes from factors that are inherently present on most people: skin cell reproduction, sebum, P. acnes, stress, and inflammation, why isn’t everyone burdened with blemishes?
One possible reason is genetics. There’s a solid chance that if your parents had acne, you will too. Thanks, mom, and dad
Those of us who are acne-prone are more likely to have skin that reproduces too quickly. The excess skin cells make it hard for your body to function correctly and keep the skin cycle on-track. As you read above, an excess of skin cells is a huge factor in clogging your pores.
The Way You Spend Your Day
Believe it or not, your lifestyle habits also affect whether you’ll be prone to breakouts. Hormones like androgen, insulin, estrogen, and cortisol control sebum production. When your hormone levels are out of whack, you’re more likely to have too much sebum.
The amount of sebum that your skin produces is a significant factor in the development of acne. Too much sebum will get trapped in your pores and provide an excellent environment for bacteria to grow, which we now know leads to acne.
But wait, aren’t hormones genetic? Yes, but you can help balance your hormone levels through your diet and exercise.
Take insulin, for instance. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body use up the sugar that you consume. When you eat a lot of sugary foods, your insulin levels have to skyrocket to compensate. Increased insulin leads to increased levels of the androgen hormone. The androgen hormone makes your skin produce sebum. When androgen is increased, so is your sebum.
So moderating your intake of sugar can only help the situation.
Estrogen is another hormone that can control your sebum levels. Scientists are unsure of the exact correlation, but it explains why breakouts usually start during puberty when estrogen levels are all over the place.
Estrogen is also affected by your diet. Dairy, primarily milk, contains estrogen and other hormones. Consuming it regularly can throw off your levels.
Looking for a reason to take up meditation? Acne is the perfect excuse! Cortisol and endocrine hormones are triggered by your stress and, when elevated, tell your sebum to go into overdrive. Nothing a little meditation (and exercise, and possibly regular therapy) can’t take care of.
If you counteract your skin cell production with gentle exfoliation and balance your hormones with healthy habits and you still can’t kick your breakouts, unrelated medical concerns might be to blame.
Acne is a side effect of several prescription medications. It’s rare for medications to create acne, but they can definitely make it worse. You should never stop taking a prescription before consulting with your physician. When there aren’t alternatives to your medication regimen, your best bet is to treat your acne with safe, but effective products.
Some medications, like birth control, alter your hormone levels, and you need balanced hormones to maintain healthy, acne-free skin.
Hormone disorders like PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) also mess with hormones and tell your sebum production to pick up the pace. As we know, extra sebum is one of the critical ingredients in an acne cocktail. Looking for ways to heal your PCOS-caused acne, we explain it all here.
Change Your Complexion
It’s one thing to know why you’re getting acne; it’s another thing entirely to change your lifestyle to get rid of it. We get it. Committing to a healthy diet, rigorous skincare routine, or prescription overhaul is daunting.
Don’t worry, we have good news! We’ve worked out all the details so you can take a break from your rigorous research. Read all about How to Get Rid of Acne When Nothing Else is Working.
Your diet and exercise don’t have to be perfect, just find a balance of healthy habits. And the best part is, you don’t have to do this alone. We have a Facebook group that serves as a community of support and encouragement as you navigate your skincare journey.