Every year, Americans spend more than $100 million on over-the-counter products to treat acne. That’s because this skin ailment is a frustrating and unsightly condition that affects about 85 percent of teenager and young adults, along with 12 percent of women and 3 percent of men until about age 44.

Acne occurs when hair follicles, the openings in which hairs grow, become clogged with oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. As a result, a lubricating substance called sebum that’s normally secreted from these openings blocks them, creating bumps called whiteheads. (If the plug is close to the skin’s surface, it can darken into a blackhead). Bacteria that reside on the surface of the skin can multiply and infect the area, resulting in inflammation. That’s what causes a red and swollen pimple.

The severity of acne depends on how deeply a follicle becomes clogged. Papules and pustules are red bumps with white pus just beneath the skin’s surface, while nodules are the more painful lumps resulting from buildup deep in the follicle. Cysts are boil-like bumps beneath the skin’s surface; these blemishes can lead to scarring.

Acne is often brought on by the increased levels of hormones, such as testosterone, that are generated ruing puberty. These hormones cause the skin to release excess sebum. Exposure to oily substances, such as cosmetics or heavy lotions, may also increase risk. For milk cases, over-the-counter topical treatments that kill bacteria and dry up oil are effective. More serious cases may be treated with antibiotics (to kill bacteria) and, for women, oral contraceptives (to regulate hormones). Newer therapies include isotretinoin, laser treatments, and ultraviolet light therapy.

Additional Facts

1. Acne often runs in families; if your parents had acne, it’s likely that you’ll have it as well.

2. Contrary to popular belief, what you eat doesn’t increase the likelihood of developing pimples.

3. Washing your face too frequently with harsh cleansers may actually set the stage for acne.

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