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9-minute read

Key facts

  • Acne is a common skin condition that causes spots or pimples on your face, neck, back or chest.
  • Acne most commonly affects people between 16 and 18 years of age.
  • There are different types of acne — it can be mild, moderate or severe.
  • Untreated acne can leave you with skin scars — it is important to get treatment.
  • If your acne is severe, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist (skin specialist), who may prescribe medicines.

What is acne?

Acne is a common skin condition that causes spots.

Some people have a mild form of acne, with only occasional spots or outbreaks. Others have more severe acne, with large areas of the face and body affected.

Acne is more severe in males, but more likely to be ongoing in females. Acne most commonly affects people aged between 16 and 18 years. Acne also affects people whose skin is naturally oilier.

Acne can affect how you feel about your appearance and cause poor self-esteem.

Acne can be mild, moderate or severe. Severe acne can cause scarring.

There are different types of acne:

  • acne vulgaris
  • adult acne

Acne vulgaris

Acne vulgaris generally affects teenagers, and lasts for 3 to 5 years. Sometimes it can carry on for longer.

Adult acne

Adult acne is also called hormonal acne. This is acne that continues past the age of around 18 to 20 years. It can also start when you in adulthood.

What are the symptoms of acne?

The symptoms of acne include:

  • whiteheads — small white spots under the surface of the skin
  • blackheads — small, blocked pores with a black ‘plug’
  • pimples — inflamed red spots which can have yellow pus in the middle
  • nodules — large red bumps under the skin which can be painful

These symptoms are most often seen on the face, but acne can also affect your:

  • back
  • chest
  • shoulders
  • neck

Occasional spots or pimples are not considered to be acne.

An example of acne
An example of a whitehead, which are small, hard bumps with a white centre.

What causes acne?

Acne can be caused by different factors.

Acne is caused by a build-up of dead skin cells and oil. This then forms a pimple or nodule in the skin. Bacteria can then grow in blocked pores, causing inflammation and redness.

Androgen hormones may also make your skin produce more oil. But, hormones only cause acne in a very small minority of people, such as people with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Hormone levels also increase during puberty in teenagers and young adults.

There are other things that can trigger acne, such as:

  • stress
  • family history
  • diet
  • some medicines
  • being overweight

When should I see my doctor?

You should speak with your doctor if you have acne, and it is bothering you.

You should see your doctor if:

  • your acne is severe and causing you concern
  • your acne does not improve after using the treatment recommended by your pharmacist

Untreated acne can leave you with skin scars. If you think you have acne, it is important to get treatment.

Your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist (a skin specialist) if your acne is severe. They can help you decide which treatment is best for you.

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How is acne diagnosed?

To diagnose acne, your doctor will check your skin for signs of acne. Sometimes, they might order a blood test to check your hormone levels.

How is acne treated?

There are many different treatments available for acne, including:

  • face washes or cleansers
  • creams
  • ointments
  • oral treatments, like tablets

Your pharmacist can recommend over-the-counter treatments for your acne.

Some treatments require a doctor’s prescription. These can help with more severe acne, or when your acne doesn’t get better with other treatments. These include:

It is important to remember that treating acne takes time. It will often take 2 to 3 months of treatment to see an improvement. Even if you don’t see your acne getting better right away, keep following the instructions for your treatment.

If your acne doesn’t improve after this time, you can ask your pharmacist or doctor about other treatments.

Washing your face

Keeping your skin clean is an important way to treat and prevent acne.

You can use a gentle, soap-free pH balanced face wash. Wash your face with warm water twice a day.

Be careful not to wash your skin too often since this may make your acne worse. If your skin still feels oily after washing, speak to your pharmacist.

Other treatments

Other treatments can help with mild acne, such as:

These may need to be repeated regularly and are not suitable for people with severe acne.

Some natural ingredients can also help acne, such as:

These can also irritate your skin or interfere with other medicines you might be taking. Discuss natural acne treatments with your doctor or pharmacist before using them.

How do I prevent acne?

If you have acne, there are ways to help:

  • prevent new spots appearing
  • prevent acne scars from forming

The following will help prevent spots from becoming inflamed or causing scars:

Things to avoid include:

  • oil-based makeup or greasy sunscreen
  • washing your face too often, or using harsh soaps
  • tight clothing over areas where you have acne
  • squeezing or picking spots or pimples

What complications can come with acne?

Acne can impact you both physically and mentally.

Acne scars

If left untreated, severe acne can leave life-long scars on your skin. To prevent scars, it is important to take care of your skin and treat your acne.

Treating your acne can stop it from getting infected, which can cause scarring.

Acne and self-esteem

Acne also impacts the appearance of your skin. Acne can make you feel self-conscious and affect your self-esteem. This can impact your social life and mental health.

See your doctor if you find yourself:

  • worrying about how you look
  • avoiding social situations
  • feeling down or upset

Your doctor can help you get the best possible treatment, advise you about body image and help you find support.

Resources and support

To learn more about acne, you can visit the A-Z of skin, hosted by the Australasian College of Dermatologists

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2023

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