Acne/spots/blemishes/pimples, whichever word you use, you don't want them on your face. But according to skincare boffs, more and more of us will experience flare ups later in life due to increased levels of stress and hormone disruptors like wine and sugar, with acne emerging at "any age - and on any skin type," as a result, says Kristi Shuba, co-founder of Katherine Daniels Cosmetics.
For a bespoke cleanser recommendation that'll help you banish blemishes for good, Powder may just be your beauty fairy godmother.
While treating the spot itself is probably high up on your list of priorities when you've got an active break out, once it's subsided and you feel ready to face the world again, it's crucial to unearth the real cause and make adjustments so that bouts crop up less often - and so that they're less violent when they do erupt. That's where we come in with this definitive list of the most common causes of acne, tips on how to treat each spot, and a shopping list when you’ve unearthed the root cause…
Firstly, what actually causes acne?
‘Acne comes in two forms. Non-inflammatory blackheads and whiteheads occyr where pores become blocked and sebum is trapped under skin,' explains Vicki Smith, Aesthetics Director and Skin Practitioner at Absolute Aesthetics. 'These are what you'd call spots or blemishes.'
Then there’s the inflammatory kind: ‘this is when the bacteria blockage ruptures onto the surface of the skin and the contents become hot and infected.’ Cue the scary words like cysts and nodules, pustules and the tell-tale intense red heat under skin. ‘Cystic acne is more readily spread and scabs over. It often starts as hard bumps, like a red lump under the skin and there’s nothing to squeeze.’
So which factors may be playing a part in creating the acne?
This varies hugely from person to person - the trick is finding our what our acne triggers are. Here are some common ones:
The gut is a huge talking point in beauty and wellness at the moment as more and more links to inflammation in the gut causing a host of issues elsewhere in the body are discovered. Dr Terry Loong, Integrative Cosmetic & Skin Doctor suggests working on upping immunity and reducing inflammation to see if this is the root cause.
A good way to investigate causes of inflammation as a result of your diet is to strip back what you're eating to bland foods (think lots of steamed veggies and lean protein) and then to reintroduce food groups that are known to cause sensitivity like gluten, sugar and dairy after a week, noting how your body responds. Taking a good quality probiotic - we rate Symprove and Optibac - can also help.
The whole inflammation factor can also be managed through diet, with the main factor experts talk about here being sugar: “Balancing sugar will calm, hydrate and clarify skin,” says Loong, with Nutritionist Ella Allred going further and saying that “the single worst thing for your skin, which you should remove from your diet, is sugar - it causes inflammation within your body, which will then display itself on your face. Trans-fats and refined grains such as white rice or pasta are also a no-no.”. Also, introduce anti-inflammatories - Allred recommends “turmeric, tea extracts and fish oils.”
Wonder why you always get a break out before a big date? “Stress releases hormones such as cortisol which increases oil production and inflammation,” explains Specialist Derm, Dr Stefanie Williams. The good news if this is the cause of your acne? Alleviating it will help you out practically every area of your life. Find what does it for you - whether yoga, HIIT, long walks with a dog, or bubble baths before bed. And then do it often enough to reduce your stress levels.
Although women do get breakouts in line with their menstrual cycle, this is just fluctuating hormones and not actual acne (for that you'll need the 10 best spot treatments); acne is when you have papules and pustules that are consistently occurring.
Hormonal imbalances can often lead to acne, so tackling this may reduce yours. “Every hormone that your body makes needs to be processed by the liver," says Allred. "If your liver is struggling and functioning sub-optimally, this may reflect on your skin as acne. I’d prescribe some zinc, which is required for the enzymes which make hormones less toxic and potent. Other substances which aid detoxification and may help include amino acids such as glutathione, NAC and methionine, as well as a few herbs such a milk thistle, dandelion and beetroot,” advises Allred.
If you can’t find another cause, there’s every chance your acne may simply be down to sleeping on a pillow covering in bacteria nightly. Dermatologist Dr Lancer suggests changing your pillowcase every few nights to avoid causing acne through bacteria, and also cautions against using fabric softeners: “they can clog pores and cause irritation.”
Apply the same rule to your towels and flannels, and remember that your phone carries bacteria, so give it a wipe with an antibacterial gel before you press it to your face.
Finally, wash your make-up brushes. A poll of 2,000 women by Superdrug beauty line B. Revealed that 38% had never washed their make-up brushes, with just 4% washing them after each use. It may be a faff, but if you don’t wash your brushes after each use, you risk leaving them to be a multiplying ground for bacteria, which you’ll then just transfer to your face - and make-up palettes - whenever you use them. Check out our guide to the best makeup brushes.
… And here are some of our top acne treatments, plus some of the best foundations for acne if you want to cover yours:
Your skin MUST be clean before you hit the pillow if you want to reduce your acne. The word clean does not mean a quick face wipe rubbed over skin before bed. It means cleansing properly twice - once to remove make-up and dirt, and a second time to actually clean skin. It also means introducing an active that’ll help to gently unclog pores. AHAs are good as they’ll help to slough off the top layer of dead skin, lessening the chances of clogs, while BHA salicylic acid goes a step further and will penetrate the pore, helping to break down the blockage.
Also, don’t skip hydration - while a heavy moisturiser may well sit on the surface of your skin and lead to further clogs, a serum or lightweight moisturiser will feed the skin and help to stop the cycle of overproducing oil.
If you’re looking for balance and want to try the alternative route, Chinese medicine may be a good way to go - they interpret acne as the effect of an imbalance of the organs that are related to the health of the skin. In this model, the skin is affected by overwhelming fluctuations of hormones affecting sebum production as well as the pH of skin triggering bacteria growth and clogged pores. The actual skin has no problem; however it reflects the internal imbalances.
LED light-emitting diode (LED) technology, inspired by NASA research, will activate an anti-inflammatory response that’s vital for the skin mechanisms and will address the irregularities from a cellular level . Specific wavelengths of light target the strain of bacteria that plays a pivotal role in causing acne for many people. Book in for an LED facial with Debbie Thomas, or get your hands on Neutrogena’s new Light Therapy Acne Mask and use it at home.
Below are the best anti-acne products that we've tried:
1. Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
This is unique because the AHAs slough off the surface dead skin cells, while the BHA dissolves clogs.
2. Foreo ESPADA Acne-Clearing Pen
This clever tool zaps spot-causing bacteria with blue light, eliminating the issue at its root for long-lasting results.
3. Neutrogena Light Therapy Mask
This mask sold out within weeks of it hitting stores, and for good reason. Bacteria-killing red and blue wavelengths penetrate at light-speed to kill off acne before it starts, plus donning it makes for one hell of a Snapchat...
4. Neostrata Foaming Glycolic Wash
This foam isn’t watery and puny - it’s brilliant, thick and tingly and really, really effective at helping to gently keep the surface of skin healthy.
5. Skyn ICELAND Blemish Dots
These innovative gel patches effectively seal in your blemishes, protecting them from nasty external bacteria and reducing inflammation. Pop one on overnight so it can work its magic by morning.
Nexcare | £18
6. Mario Badescu AHA Botanical Body Soap
Alpha hydroxy acid helps break down skin cells, while the ginseng rejuvenates troubled skin and oat protein soothes it. Plus, it’s light scented to avoid further irritation.
Dial | £9
7. Yes to Tomatoes Clear Skin Daily Balancing Moisturiser Lotion
This basic moisturizer hydrates acne-prone complexions without causing further irritations or breakouts, and has a pleasant vanilla scent—not tomato as one might think.
8. Burt’s Bees Natural Acne Solutions Targeted Spot Treatment
Battle blemishes naturally with Burt’s Bees spot treatment. Its main ingredient, tea tree oil, is a powerful acne fighter that quickly clears up isolated pimples.
Burt's Bees | £11
9. HealGel Intensive
Amongst its bevy of uses, HealGel is an effective way to treat acne scars left behind from previous breakouts. It was designed by top UK plastic surgeons to heal post-surgery scars, so it'll work perfectly well on your post-blemish marks.
Bio Oil | £38