The Independent Pharmacy

What Causes Acne And How To Prevent It

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 13 Jun 2022

If you suffer from acne, then the question of what causes acne may often preoccupy you. Although acne is an extremely common skin condition which affects many of us at some point during our lives, it can leave us feeling stressed and self-conscious — as well as looking for successful ways to prevent it.

Luckily, there are ways that you can help prevent acne as well as treat it.

In the guide below, we’ll be looking into what causes acne, including acne myths around stress and makeup, as well as the best food for acne and any other lifestyle changes you can make to prevent acne.

What causes acne?

Acne is caused when tiny hair follicles in the skin become blocked. This happens because your skin begins to develop too much sebum — an oily substance which is produced naturally in the skin to stop it from drying out.

When too much sebum is produced, it mixes with dead skin cells and blocks the hair follicles in your skin, creating blocked pores and spots. There are lots of different acne spots that you can get, such as blackheads, whiteheads, pustules and cysts. These tend to primarily appear on the face, shoulders, chest and back, but can appear anywhere on the body where there are hair follicles.

Naturally occurring bacteria in the skin (which is normally harmless) can also exacerbate acne — mixing with sebum and dead skin cells to infect pores and make the condition worse.

But what causes acne to happen in the first place? Why does sebum production increase for some people and cause acne breakouts?

This can happen for a number of different reasons. Here are some factors that are thought to contribute to acne:

  • Hormonal changes during puberty: the hormonal fluctuations that naturally happen during puberty can result in the overproduction of sebum and trigger acne, which is why many teenagers experience acne problems
  • Female hormonal changes: menstruation and pregnancy can cause acne in adult women. Women are more likely to have adult acne than men
  • Genetics: acne can run in families, so if your parents had acne, you are more likely to have it too
  • Certain medications: some antidepressants, epilepsy medications and steroid medicines can cause acne to develop

Acne is not directly caused by having a poor diet, being dirty, stress, having poor hygiene, or sexual activity. These are all acne myths.

How to prevent acne

Unfortunately, if you’re someone who suffers from acne, there is no cure. However, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent flare-ups and reduce the risk of acne getting worse.

Here are some habits and routines you can adopt to help prevent acne:

  • Practise good skin hygiene by regularly washing your skin, washing straight after exercise or excessive sweating, using gentle cleansers rather than harsh products, removing make-up before bed, and not squeezing or picking spots
  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet and avoid foods that may trigger acne flare-ups
  • Avoid unnecessary sun exposure and protect your skin from the sun (which can exacerbate acne)
  • Keep your hair clean and off your skin (greasy hair and heavy hair products can sit on your skin, clog pores and make acne worse
  • Exercise regularly (although exercise won’t improve acne directly, it will help to alleviate stress, which may exacerbate acne)

If you want to know how to prevent acne, then the tips above will be great first steps towards improving your skin.

How to prevent acne with treatment

If you are following all of these steps and you find that your acne is not improving or your condition is getting worse, there are ways that you can control it using medication.

Seeking help and information from a pharmacist is a great start — they will be able to advise you on the most effective and suitable treatments for your acne, depending on the type and severity.

Here are some of the many acne medications we offer at The Independent Pharmacy:

There are many different types of acne treatment available that can help. If you’d like more information on each product, take a look at our guide on the best acne treatments to compare different treatment options in more detail.

What is Stress Acne?

To say that stress causes acne isn’t completely true. Although stress and acne are linked, stress doesn't cause acne directly. However, if you have the skin condition already, then feelings of stress and anxiety may make it worse.

If you are prone to acne, then you may find that you suffer from flare-ups when you are feeling stressed, such as before an exam or an important presentation at work, or even your wedding day.

This is because stress means an increase in the production of stress hormones in the body, which causes inflammation of the skin as well as more sebum secretion, exacerbating acne.

If one of your anxious habits is picking at your spots or pimples, this can also make acne spots worse and cause acne to last longer.

What does stress acne look like?

Stress acne doesn’t really have a particular appearance, but you may notice it as a more severe episode of your normal acne. For example, you might see an increased number of blackheads, whiteheads and pimples. You may also notice redness and itchiness.

Does makeup cause acne?

As we’ve mentioned before, no one factor causes acne. However, there are certain things that may trigger acne flare-ups and breakouts, such as certain cosmetic products.

Some make-up and skincare products can clog your pores and exacerbate skin conditions like acne. If a product blocks pores, it is known as ‘comedogenic’.

However, this is much less common now than it used to be, as most products are now tested and designed to ensure that they don’t trigger breakouts. If a product has been tested for this and doesn’t cause blocked pores, then it is labelled as non-comedogenic.

Best makeup for acne

If you wear makeup and you have acne, then it is best to choose makeup for sensitive skin and avoid oil-based products (which are likely to make your skin more oily and make acne worse).

When you’re choosing the best makeup for acne-prone skin, it is generally a good idea to go for water-based products instead of oil-based. If it isn’t clear whether a product is water-based, read the list of ingredients — if water is listed first or second (meaning it is the main ingredient), it is usually best. Likewise, if a product is labelled as ‘non-comedogenic’ then it shouldn’t block your pores.

Even if you choose makeup for non-comedogenic acne, it is still important to remember to remove makeup and wash your face thoroughly before you go to sleep. If you don’t, makeup and oil can build up on your skin and clog pores, triggering breakouts.

Makeup for acne scars

If you have suffered from acne in the past and it has left you with different types of acne scars, it can be distressing and make you feel self-conscious about your appearance.

Acne scars can fade and disappear on their own, but some people may find that they are long-lasting or even permanent. Fortunately, there are a number of ways regarding how to get rid of acne scars that can help you treat scars and reduce their appearance.

You may also want to cover up these scars with non-comedogenic makeup. There's nothing wrong with having acne scars, but if you do want to cover them up, there are ways you can blur scars out and even out skin tone using foundation and concealer.

Best food for acne

It is important to maintain a healthy, balanced diet for a number of reasons. What you eat can impact your body in a number of ways, including your skin.

There aren’t necessarily foods that prevent acne, but eating a well-balanced diet will help to keep your skin healthy and avoid exacerbating acne breakouts.

Here is some of the best food for acne that you should include in your diet:

  • Lots of fruit: a variety of fruit contains essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals that help with skin health
  • Vegetables: especially dark leafy greens like kale and spinach which are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals for healthy skin
  • Legumes: like chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, which will help to regulate your blood sugar levels, potentially reducing the risk of inflammation and acne flare-ups
  • ‘Good’ carbohydrates: brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta and brown bread are better for your general health and can help with skin too
  • Oily fish: like salmon and mackerel - rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to protect skin and keep skin hydrated

It is a good idea to make sure your diet contains the above food to help acne.

Foods that may cause acne

An unhealthy diet can affect our bodies in a variety of ways and this also includes our skin.

There aren’t really foods that cause acne — nothing you eat is going to ‘cause’ acne to appear if you don’t suffer from acne in the first place.

However, if you are prone to acne breakouts, then there are certain foods that may be triggers.

Further research needs to be done into food that causes acne flare-ups to occur, but here are some that are thought to trigger breakouts or worsen acne symptoms:

  • Sugary foods and drinks
  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • Highly processed foods
  • Dairy products

You’ll notice that greasy foods aren’t listed above. This is a common acne myth — there is not really any connection between eating greasy or fried food and acne.

Instead, dairy products have been shown in various studies to trigger or worsen acne flare-ups, particularly low-fat cow’s milk.

There is also evidence to suggest that foods that cause your blood sugar levels to spike dramatically will worsen acne — foods like white bread and pasta, sugary snacks and highly processed foods.

Lots of these same foods are also linked to increased inflammation, which is thought to play a role in acne.

Limiting your intake of these types of food could help to prevent acne breakouts from happening or getting worse.

Does exercise help acne?

Exercise has many benefits for skin health. Exercise increases blood flow to the skin which significantly improves your skin's complexion, as well as circulating nourishing oxygen and nutrients to your skin cells and carrying away waste products.

Regular exercise can also help to ease stress and improve our mental wellbeing too, so it can help to reduce stress-related acne as well.

Even the act of sweating during a workout can help to improve your skin, as it flushes out excess dead cells, dirt and bacteria that can cause infection.

However, it is crucial to shower straight away after exercise; letting sweat and grime sit on your skin (especially under tight-fitting, damp clothes) can clog your pores, as well as providing the perfect condition for bacteria to thrive and make your acne worse.

Keeping your skin clean by showering promptly after a gym session will help to prevent acne worsening, in turn helping your exercise prevent acne flare-ups.

How to prevent acne before your period

Some women may find that their acne gets worse before or around the time that their period is due. This is sometimes known as premenstrual acne.

This is because of the hormonal fluctuations just before your period starts — a rise in certain hormones triggers the sebaceous glands to secrete more sebum. As we’ve mentioned above, too much sebum mixed with dead skin cells can block pores and trigger acne spots.

These hormonal changes can also increase skin inflammation and compression of your skin's pores, all of which contribute to premenstrual acne.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really anything you can do about the relationship between acne and your period. However, you can make sure that you follow the steps we’ve mentioned above for preventing acne, paying special attention to your skincare regime and diet before your period is due.


Acne is a common skin condition that affects many people, particularly during their teenage years.

Acne is caused when your skin makes too much sebum, which mixes with dead skin cells and causes the tiny hair follicles in the skin to become blocked. This results in different types of acne spots, which can also become infected by naturally occurring bacteria in the skin.

There are a few different reasons why some people are more prone to having acne, from hormonal fluctuations during puberty to genetics.

Although this skin condition is common, it can be very distressing. However, there are many ways to prevent acne flare-ups from occurring or becoming worse, including lifestyle changes and treatment options.

The Independent Pharmacy offers a range of effective acne treatments, including topical and oral treatments. The most suitable treatment for you will depend on the severity of your condition.

If you have acne and you want to treat it successfully, you can get in touch with The Independent Pharmacy to start your free online consultation today. You’ll need to answer a short questionnaire, but once you do, one of our qualified prescribers can issue your medication for next working day delivery.


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