Acne is a skin condition that affects areas containing the largest oil glands, including the nose, forehead, cheeks, chin, back, and trunk. It is caused by a disorder of the oil glands that results in clogged pores and outbreaks of lesions commonly known as pimples. Acne affects between 17 million and 45 million people, making it the most common skin disease in the United States. While it tends to last longer in females, males are more likely to get acne and tend to have more severe cases than do females. Some infants may develop acne, but it is most common in adolescents and it generally disappears by age 30. Although it is not a serious health threat, severe acne can be painful and may cause permanent scarring, which can be upsetting for people who suffer from the condition. An estimated $100 million is spent annually on over-the-counter products to treat acne and reduce the pain, scarring, and emotional distress that can be associated with it.

Signs and Symptoms

There are various types of acne lesions: Lesions can cause scars ranging from small, depressed pits to large elevated blemishes, depending on the severity of the condition and the individual's skin type.


Acne is a disorder of the skin's oil glands. Oil glands make an substance called sebum that normally rises up through a hair-containing canal called a follicle and empties onto the skin surface. The precise cause of acne in newborns is not known, but some researchers speculate that it may be due to the transfer through the placenta of hormones from the mother or of acne-causing medication (such as lithium and phenytoin) that the mother may have been taking. During adolescence, rising hormone levels are thought to increase the number of oil glands and the amount of sebum they produce. The increased production of sebum causes blockage of hair follicles, leading to the formation of small bacteria-filled cysts called comedones. If these comedones remain intact and no not rupture, they can progress into open comedones (whiteheads) or closed comedones (blackheads). When comedones rupture, an inflammatory reaction occurs and can spread into the surrounding tissue. Papules, pustules, cysts, and nodules are all forms of inflammatory lesions.

Risk Factors

The following may cause or worsen acne: Although still controversial, some researchers believe that stress and sun exposure can also cause or aggravate existing acne. This may be due to the use of oily sunscreens however, as some people with acne actually experience improvement in symptoms with exposure to the sun.


Acne has a characteristic appearance and is not difficult to diagnose. General practitioners, pediatricians, and internists can treat most individuals with mild and moderate forms of acne. People with more severe cases of acne however, are often referred to a dermatologist or a skin disease specialist. The practitioner will take a complete medical history that includes questions about skin care, cosmetic use, and diet; factors that trigger flare-ups; medication use; occupational and environmental exposures; and prior treatment. The practitioner will also examine the face, chest, back, and other areas for blemishes, lesions, and scars. Several factors, including the size of the blemishes and whether or not they are inflamed, help a practitioner determine the most appropriate treatment.

Treatment Approach

The main goals of acne treatment are to prevent scarring, reduce the number of painful lesions, and minimize the stress and embarrassment related to the condition. The basic principle of skin care is to wash the affected area no more than one to two times per day with a mild, nondrying soap. Frequent washing and the use of harsh soaps can actually make the condition worse. Healthcare practitioners will often recommend topical medications as their first choice for treating acne (generally either benzoyl peroxide or a class of drugs known as retinoids). These are designed to wear away the top layer of skin (exfoliate) as well as to reduce abnormal clumping of cells in the follicles, oil and bacteria production, and inflammation. Additionally, facial steaming with accompanying manual extraction of the comedones (such as by a professional aesthetician) is valuable for exfoliation as well. Although more research is needed to investigate the safety and effectiveness of alternative remedies for acne, people with mild cases of acne may experience an improvement in symptoms from herbs, Ayurveda, or homeopathy. Mind/body techniques such as biofeedback or hypnosis may also help to alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression that some individuals experience with this skin condition. Expect to use medications and/or complementary and alternative remedies for at least 6 to 8 weeks before seeing a noticeable improvement in symptoms. Seek medical care if infantile acne does not improve within three months.



Topical medications (those applied directly to the skin) are available in many forms including gels, lotions, creams, soaps, or pads. The most commonly used topical medications for acne include:

In some cases, healthcare practitioners may recommend a combination of topical medications, such as benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin. Other topical acne medications available by prescription include sodium sulfacetamide and azelaic acid.


Healthcare practitioners may prescribe oral (taken by mouth) antibiotics either alone or in addition to topical medications for individuals with moderate to severe acne. For those with severe, inflammatory acne that does not improve with other medications, healthcare practitioners may prescribe an oral retinoid called isotretinoin. Further information about these medications is discussed below:

In some cases, healthcare practitioners may also prescribe certain oral contraceptives in addition to acne medications.

Surgery and Other Procedures

Individuals with severe acne scars may require surgery or other procedures to improve the appearance of their skin. Dermatologists can perform skin resurfacing techniques such as dermabrasion (a procedure that uses a rapidly rotating brush to remove acne scars or pits) or chemical peeling (a chemical solution is applied to the skin that causes it to blister and eventually peel off). Dermatologic surgeons can also perform scar excisions (a technique in which the scar is removed and the surrounding healthy skin is joined together) and punch grafting (a method in which the surgeon punches a hole in the skin, removes the scar, and replaces it with a small plug of new skin) to correct deep acne scars.

Nutrition and Dietary Supplements


Some people with acne report that certain drinks and foods (particularly nuts) worsen their symptoms. Studies have yet to confirm a scientific link between diet and acne, but people with this skin condition should avoid substances that appear to aggravate their symptoms.


Studies indicate that the mineral zinc may be an effective treatment for inflammatory acne. In two studies of about 60 people with inflammatory acne, those who took zinc gluconate daily for roughly two months had a significant reduction in the number and severity of inflammatory lesions compared to those who took placebo for the same period of time. Despite these promising findings, differences in the type of zinc preparations as well as variations in the amount and duration of treatment, make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions from these two studies. In addition, certain topical medications such as erythromycin ointment may contain zinc oxide. It is possible, but not entirely clear, that the zinc contained in the ointment may contribute to the effectiveness of the product.


Researchers in Greece showed that a large group of people who had side effects from isotretinoin got better when taking L-carnitine compared to those who took a placebo.


The following herbs have anti-inflammatory properties that may be helpful in the treatment of skin conditions including acne:

Tea Tree Oil

Some plants contain antimicrobial substances that may help eliminate Propionibacterium acnes (the bacterial strain associated with acne), thereby potentially reducing inflammation associated with the skin condition. Preliminary evidence suggests that tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternafolia) may have antimicrobial effects. One study compared the effectiveness of tea tree oil gel with benzoyl peroxide lotion in 119 people with mild to moderate acne. Individuals in both treatment groups showed a significant reduction in the number of inflamed and noninflamed lesions over a 3-month period. Seventy-nine percent of the benzoyl peroxide group compared to 44% of the tea tree oil group reported side effects included stinging, itching, burning, and dryness. A laboratory study also found that tea tree oil as well as certain active components of tea tree oil effectively slows the growth of P. acnes.


There have been few studies examining the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for acne based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person's constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.


In one well-designed trial, 82 people with moderate acne were randomly assigned to receive either placebo or one of four Ayurvedic preparations. Only one formulation, Sunder Vati, significantly reduced the number of both inflammatory and non-inflammatory lesions. The herbs in the Sunder Vati preparation include:


Some healthcare practitioners have reported that Keigai-rengyo-to (TJ-50), a Japanese Kampo medicine, may be effective in the treatment of acne. Researchers speculate that the therapeutic effects of this medication may be due to the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activity of its components. The formulation contains 17 herbs, including:

Other Considerations


Pregnant women should avoid all retinoids (oral and topical), isotretinoin, and the antibiotics tetracycline, minocycline, doxycycline because they can be harmful to the fetus. The antibiotic erythromycin (in both topical and oral forms) is safe to use during pregnancy.

Prognosis and Complications

Acne is not a serious health threat, but severe acne can be painful, emotionally upsetting, and may cause permanent scarring. Squeezing lesions can rupture comedones and cause inflammation. Infants with acne have an increased risk of developing acne in adolescence. Symptoms generally diminish after adolescence and disappear by age 30. However, the incidence of adult acne, especially in women, seems to be increasing and is not unusual in women in their 30s and 40s.


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