A Guide To Acne
Written by Scott McDougall
Acne can take an emotional toll on anyone who struggles with it. But for many men with acne, the challenge is more than skin deep, as they also face societal stigma and misunderstanding. Despite acne being a common condition, many men feel uneasy seeking treatment. It can be disheartening when persistent breakouts don't seem to go away, but there are effective ways to manage them.
The first key is learning how to analyse and recognise the most common acne symptoms men experience. This includes whiteheads, blackheads, small red tender bumps called papules, pustules which have pus at the tips, and large painful nodules or cysts under the skin.
Most importantly, over-the-counter acne solutions with ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can tackle mild to moderate inflammatory acne. Topical retinoids and antibiotic creams may be prescribed for more stubborn papules and pustules. Severe nodular cystic acne (large, painful lumps under the skin) usually requires oral antibiotics and seeing a dermatologist.
In this guide, we’ll help you understand the basics of acne (excess oil and dead skin cells) and the types of acne treatment that are recommended for men suffering from anything from mild acne to severe acne.
Regain comfort and confidence by starting your acne treatment journey today with the right solutions.
Put simply, acne forms when excess oil (sebum) and dead skin cells plug up hair follicles and pores, leading to breakouts. This happens when oily skin results in clogged pores and blockages under the surface, trapping layers of skin that swell into visible pimples.
For men, changes in hormones such as testosterone can contribute to acne. 80% of young adults between 11 and 30 years of age deal with breakouts tied to hormonal changes during puberty and growth spurts. Even into adulthood, around 3% of men battle adult acne flare-ups triggered by testosterone stimulating greater sebum (oil) production from overactive oil glands. This combination of extra oil and dead skin can be frustrating, as it creates an environment where acne-causing bacteria thrive.
Furthermore, habits like sweating while wearing helmets and backpacks can worsen acne by irritating skin and clogging pores. Letting dead skin cell buildup or hair from shaving become trapped can add to inflammation and sensitive acne-prone skin. It's important to remember that genetics plays a role, too, and it's not your fault if you have a skin type that is more prone to acne. So, while hormones and lifestyle choices contribute, managing any external skin stressors is key alongside medical treatment.
While adult acne always produces reddened, irritated skin in the short term, the types of spots that manifest come in six core categories. They are:
What causes these different types of pimples to form? As explained previously, the root is sebum and dead skin cells plugging up hair follicles, allowing breeding grounds for acne bacteria when trapped underneath. This manifests first as non-inflamed blackheads and whiteheads on the surface.
However, for men, sweat and friction from backpacks, helmets and other items you use daily can further irritate and rub skin raw. Inflammation turns simple clogged pores into painful, fluid-filled pustules without proper treatment. Furthermore, shaving opens lesions deep under the skin for bacteria to penetrate, and hormone shifts can trigger entire areas to become sensitive acne zones.
With so many factors causing acne, solutions need to address root causes and skin type considerations simultaneously. Fortunately, treatment pathways are now available for every severity level.
Over-the-counter options like cleansers with acne-fighting ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can provide mild exfoliation and anti-bacterial protection. Light chemical peels with gentle acids get deeper into pores to displace built-up oil and skin cell debris while also lowering surface skin inflammation. Always start with lower concentrations to test skin sensitivity first.
However, more stubborn inflammatory acne often requires prescription-strength remedies informed by a dermatologist based on your specific symptoms. Strong acne creams with antibiotics are used to fight the bacteria that cause painful lumps and cysts deep under the skin. Retinoids, which come from Vitamin A, help to clear blocked pores and reduce oil on the skin.
If you’re dealing with moderate adult acne (meaning you have over 30 spots), you’ll need to take oral antibiotics. The following products are among the best acne treatments for men in this situation (check out our piece on tetralysal uses to learn more):
Oral medications might be warranted concurrently to address the excessive sebum (oil) production and hormone level dysfunction contributing to acne. Though taking antibiotics orally long-term has downsides, short-regulated courses paired with topical treatments can get severe acne under control.
With customised therapeutic regimens now available for every level of acne vulgaris, creating an appropriate multi-pronged treatment plan is crucial. Men's acne treatments can be categorised into 4 acne severity levels:
If experiencing minimal to mild symptoms of occasional whiteheads and blackheads, the following over-the-counter acne spot treatments with active keratolytic and anti-inflammatory ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or Beta Hydroxy Acids often suffice. In this case, you could use Acnecide, which gently exfoliates your skin with benzoyl peroxide.
Start with cleansers and creams before considering more concentrated serums with higher percentages of salicylic acid, which can dry skin.
If you have blackheads or whiteheads that aren’t inflamed, you may be better served by seeking a prescription from The Independent Pharmacy or your doctor for one of the following treatments:
For those who have spots that are inflamed or have papules, the following treatments are viable:
While medical and oral treatments tackle acne from the inside out, maintaining healthy skin barrier function is key to avoiding worsening factors like irritation, inflammation and sensitivity.
Gentle cleansers with soothing natural ingredients cleanse skin without completely stripping it of moisture, while lightweight oil-free moisturisers provide hydration that combats excess sebum production. Look for water-based gels versus heavy creams. Exfoliating toner pads with alpha and beta hydroxy acids remove dead skin cell buildup and debris without abrasive microbeads that can clog pores.
Also, consider adding serums with niacinamide, green tea extracts or aloe vera - compounds proven to reduce redness and improve skin texture over time with daily use after initial acne clearing. Limit washing to twice per day at most and avoid hot water, which dries skin further. Partner medical treatment with this basic skincare routine to better control acne while keeping skin healthy.
While regular men's acne treatments you can buy without a prescription work for mild to moderate acne, you should see a specialist if your severe acne doesn't get better after trying these treatments.
Seeing a skin specialist (dermatologist) allows you to use advanced treatments for severe cystic acne. Hormonal therapies can regulate internal testosterone production that over-stimulates skin oil glands. Powerful topical vitamin A creams contain high doses of active retinoids to accelerate skin turnover and cell regeneration. Special lamps and lasers use light to kill acne bacteria that live deep in follicles, especially after applying certain light-sensitive solutions. Research also shows strong ties between chronic inflammation and gut health.
In some cases, low-dose isotretinoin pills may be prescribed short-term for severe nodular cysts, which are painful and hidden under the skin, unresponsive to other interventions. While very effective, strict supervision is mandatory due to risks like depression. After treatment, maintaining results relies on diligent skincare and trigger avoidance. Getting referred early to a dermatology specialist is key when inflammatory acne becomes widespread or persistent.
While most acne solutions focus on medical and topical treatments, several complementary lifestyle measures can support skin health and reduce flare triggers.
Sticking to a nutritious, whole-food diet promotes skin cell regeneration and fights inflammation stemming from acidic, sugary and processed choices. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water - a lack of fluids shows skin dryness and a propensity for irritation. Add omega-3-rich foods like salmon and walnuts, or consider supplements to reinforce the barrier protecting skin. Finally, find healthy stress relief outlets like meditation, yoga or journaling when possible to minimise hormone-elevating anxiety and depression.
Beyond diet and stress management, use natural skin care products free of pore-clogging mineral oils. Cleanse gently only twice daily, and choose oil-free products that won’t trap debris and sebum (excess oil). While lifestyle measures alone cannot treat acne directly, they provide a critical supporting role in holistic management.
It can feel overwhelming to address persistent adult acne, especially when societal misconceptions label it as just a 'woman’s issue', but your concerns are valid and deserve attention. Allowing embarrassment to deter you from seeking solutions only worsens suffering and scarring over time. The key is arming yourself with the facts about your specific symptoms and proactively partnering with acne experts to create a tailored action plan.
With advanced over-the-counter solutions, prescription medications and cutting-edge dermatological therapies now available, significant improvements and even complete acne clearance are achievable goals for men of any age. Start by identifying your unique acne type and severity grade, so informed decisions can be made, weighing the pros and cons of treatment options. Set reasonable expectations around timeframes as well, giving new regimens at least 6-12 weeks before judging effectiveness.
Resources like The Independent Pharmacy provide safe, fast access to approved acne products while also offering professional guidance if symptoms fail to resolve or worsen. All you need to get started is to fill in your self-assessment or get in touch with our team. You're not alone in this journey. Armed with the right information and support, you can find effective treatments tailored to men's skin needs and take steps towards healing both your skin and your confidence. The first step is making the decision to prioritise self-care. Your comfort, confidence and quality of life depend on it.
There is a common belief that acne severity directly correlates with testosterone levels, but medical research disputes this assumption. While the androgen hormones predominantly found in males during puberty do stimulate greater sebum oil gland production that exacerbates acne, elevated sex hormones do not always cause worse blemishes to form in adults. Acne also stems from pore-clogging dead skin cells and the proliferation of acne bacteria.
While medical therapy proves most effective for moderate to severe acne, some lifestyle adjustments can supplement treatment for a man with acne. Natural options include applying tea tree oil, green tea extracts, aloe vera gel or diluted apple cider vinegar as anti-inflammatories. Avoid greasy foods and minimise stress triggers where possible. However, solely relying on home remedies rarely resolves widespread whiteheads or cystic acne on its own.
Consuming adequate water supports overall skin health and may help reduce the incidence of surface-level acne by boosting the circulation of nutrients, removing toxins and preventing dehydration that dries the skin. However, the notion that water intake alone “flushes out” or clears up inflamed breakouts is not backed by research. Hydration is great for general wellness but best paired with other acne treatments.
Scott is one of the two founders of The Independent Pharmacy. He is a registered pharmacist and the registered manager of our service with the CQC.
Dan is an experienced pharmacist having spent time working in both primary and secondary care. He currently supports our clinical team by providing robust clinical governance review of our internal processes and information.