Causes and Myths

By Charlie N. Gorichanaz
January 11th, 2002
The Causes and Myths of Acne


ac•ne ( k n )
An inflammatory disease of the sebaceous glands and hair follicles of the skin that is marked by the eruption of pimples or pustules, especially on the face.
[New Latin, probably from misreading of Greek akm , point, facial eruption. See acme.]

Acne is caused by a person’s hormones and the skin’s ability to slough off dead skin cells. These two factors are determined by the genes and are totally unrelated to diet and the number of times someone washes their face.
So how does acne form? Well it starts with the hair follicles, their oil producing glands, and the cells that line the follicle. Typically, when skin cells die and new cells are grown, the old cells muddle up with the natural oil created in the skin and are shed. However, this often isn’t the case. Many people do not loose the dead cells evenly, and the cells become “sticky” and form a bit of an edge.
This uneven, sticky edge holds the oil, forming a clot in the follicle, like a cork in a bottle. The “plug” holds in the naturally made oil along with the accumulating bacteria. This causes the follicle to swell. Because of the bacteria build-up, your very own white blood cells that fight your colds swarm around the hair follicle to eliminate the “invaders.” Even though your body means well, you then get a pimple, zit, or whatever you prefer. This is basically what we call acne.
As you grow, the rate that your skin produces oil fluctuates, which directly affects sloughing of dead cells. Your hormones determine this, and, therefore, heavily affects teens when their hormones start to kick in. This is a giant problem for adult women who have acne. Their hormone levels are often irregular and directly affect their acne. When your hormone levels change, acne is more likely to appear, or become worse. Women also tend to get more prevalent acne when they are premenstrual, which illustrates hormone’s role in acne. For all of these reasons, the ‘victim’ is not at fault for their acne. It is almost entirely based on genetics.
More Causes

Current literature shows that early breakouts (before reaching the age of ten) is a major sign that more severe acne will follow in the teen years, sometimes continuing throughout adulthood.
Genetics play a very strong role in the development and persistence of acne. For example, if someone’s father had severe acne, it is considerably more likely that that person’s acne will also be severe. Additionally, if someone’s parents have scars from former acne, the person should do their best to prevent it, because many times scarring may be more visible in certain families.
Stress tends to trigger acne because it raises the level of some hormones, especially cortisol, which causes greater levels of oil production in the skin and will probably lead to increased breakouts.
Although countless medical studies have indicated that diet, especially chocolate and fried foods, do not cause acne, most treatment centers advise that if a certain food flares up your acne, use common sense and avoid it.
Another trigger for acne, specifically the chest and back areas, is exercise. Cool cotton clothing will generally help this condition when exercising. Teens should avoid wearing tight fitting garments when working out or jogging.
Small amounts of sun exposure will initially improve your acne. However, consistent will increase plugging of the pores and comedones (blackheads and whiteheads) and thereby worsen acne. The small temporary benefit of sun exposure for acne compared with the long-term damage is just not worth the risk.
Starting or stopping taking birth control pills will also cause acne to worsen. It may take up to three months or more for the body to get regulated.
Anti-seizure medications such as Dilantin and drugs prescribed by psychiatrists such as Lithium may also worsen acne.
Dietary supplements that contain excessive amounts of iodine (greater than the RDA of 150 mcg) since this may worsen acne.
“Picking” acne leads to scarring and is strongly discouraged by experts.
Myths and the real facts from Face the Facts, Rodan and Fields

Myth: Acne is caused by dirt. Washing more will prevent acne.
Fact: Acne is caused by a combination of factors including hormones, bacteria, overabundance of oil, and plugging of skin pores. It is not caused by uncleanliness.
Myth: Acne is a stage of life and you will grow out of it.
Fact: Over 85% of people age 12-24 have acne. As many as 50% of adults have some form of acne. This is a function of hormones and most of us can expect breakouts into our forties.
Myth: Acne is caused by stress and lack of sleep.
Fact: Stress and lack of sleep may contribute to acne by increasing cortisol hormone levels. It is this increase that can help oil production and cause more plugging of the pores.


Acne is not curable, but highly preventable. Regular treatment over time will significantly improve, if not eliminate acne. Poor personal hygiene is not the cause of acne, and diet affects only 2% of people’s acne. Acne is not the person’s fault, and is almost entirely genetic.

Bibliography (2001). Acne. [On-Line] Accessed Dec. 29th, 2001.
Rodan, K., Fields, K. (1996). Face the Facts. Palm Desert, CA: Guthy-Renker Corporation.
(2001). [No Title] [On-Line].
(1999). Acne [Encarta Encyclopedia]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation.