Acne can be compared to the least favorite members of your family: They pop up just when you’re trying to have fun. Or just when you’re about to try out your newly purchased makeup products. Sigh.

Acne breakouts aren’t something one grows out of, and it’s a rare adult who never experiences a zit again after leaving adolescence. This is true whether or not you have a skincare routine down pat. So what causes acne to form? Are there beauty products that can instantly take care of an outbreak? Or perhaps an extra step in your already 10 step skincare process that you never heard of that you should be picking up on? How can you handle outbreaks when they occur?

Let’s delve deep into the basics.

What causes acne breakouts?

Our bodies have created a natural form of protection for our skin. This is through oil (aka sebum) secreted from your sebaceous glands plus the moisture from your sweat glands. These two excretions mix together on the skin’s surface to protect your skin from germs and waterproof it, too.

Occasionally, your sebaceous glands will overproduce sebum, which can lead to a blockage of the sebaceous duct, causing blackheads or whiteheads to form. Acne occurs when bacteria cause these blackheads or whiteheads to become infected. You’ve seen the difference right? Blackheads or whiteheads by themselves have little heads of white or black. Whereas acne is that red bump with a white or black head sitting on top.

If too much sebum is half the problem, what causes this overproduction?

When your hormone levels fluctuate, this directly affects the production of sebum on your face. Hormones are created in the endocrine glands and can be likened to your body’s messenger system that tells your body what it needs. For example, if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, your hormone messenger system tells your body to increase blood flow to your muscles and increase your heart output for your body’s fight-or-flight response. So the hormones get it right most of the time, but then sometimes there’s the unwelcome side effect of hormone levels changing too much. And when that happens there are other side effects, such as increased oil production in the sebaceous gland.

Times when your hormone levels are likely to fluctuate are pre-menstruation and when your body is working overtime to help you handle stress, lack of sleep, or some other emotionally charged event.

What are treatment and prevention tips I can use?

To recap, there are two main points regarding acne formation that will help you know how to move forward. First, sebaceous glands overproducing sebum just by itself is not so much a problem outside of having a rather oily shine to your face. Second, it’s when the pores get clogged and bacteria forms and becomes infected that results in acne.

There are two approaches that we will focus on here for handling acne at any age.

  1. Monitor your hormone levels. Gain a better understanding of when and why your hormones are going to take you for a joyride. You can do your part to minimize hormone fluctuation by shunning stress and prioritizing sleep. If you still battle with breakouts after trying this approach and the one mentioned below, discuss with your doctor a hormone therapy treatment.

No skin care product is advanced enough to halt hormone levels from fluctuating. But perhaps where some people have a leg up on others is in their skincare routine, they double cleanse.

  1. Keep acne bacteria at bay. A good approach is to focus on both aspects of what causes acne to develop, which means to not forget the acne-causing bacterium, Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes. This is where facial scrubs and other topical elements come in. Look for facial washes that contain salicylic acid. This acid has an antibacterial effect. It also serves to smooth away dead skin cells that clog pores and decrease inflammation. Benzoyl peroxide is another ingredient to look for. It targets acne bacteria on a stronger level.

A couple other points: Unwashed makeup brushes are a breeding ground for bacteria. And going to bed with makeup still on your face is a huge no-no. Up to a week before menstruation or at other times when you know you are prone to hormonal fluctuations, take extra care to cleanse your face 2-3 times a day to make your face less prone to a breakout.

Diets high in refined sugars have also been shown to feed bacteria. Along with foods that increase inflammation in the body, such as baked sweets, fried foods, saturated fats, and anything with refined flour or vegetable oil. So minimize these, too, for clearer skin.

Your makeup routine should rely on a foundation of healthy skin. The next time you’re feeling discouraged that a troublesome zit has interfered with your beauty plans, remember that prevention is better than treatment. With this knowledge and a little effort on your part, you will be able to better weather the acne blues by forming preventative habits versus just learning about treatments.

Tomoko Matsuoka

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