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The Science Behind Acne

by Isabella Madamba on April 18, 2021

New year, new me – that's the essence of every New Year's resolution, right?


However, not everything is under our control, especially when it comes to our skin.


Your goal may have been to #GlowUpIn2021, but your skin isn't cooperating...and in the worst way possible – it reveals an acne breakout, or multiple breakouts.


Unless you're extremely lucky, your face (especially the areas that face masks cover, such as your cheeks, nose, and chin) and your body (especially your back) are affected by pimples or other skin issues.


Instead of fighting your skin, why not learn more about why it's acting up, then use what you've learned to take better care of it?


If you want to understand the science behind pimples and make the science work for you rather than against you, read on.

Note: skip to the last section if you only want to learn how to treat acne.

What is acne?

Acne, also known as acne vulgaris, is one of the most common skin conditions out there. In fact, acne affects around 90% of all people in some time during their life!


Acne commonly starts during puberty, which is when sebum production increases because of a spike in hormone production.


Sebum is the yellow, oily substance that your body's sebaceous glands produce in order to protect you from bacterial and fungal infections and excessive dryness. It is a combination of glycerides, free fatty acids, wax esters, squalane, cholesterol esters, and cholesterol (yep, that thing your titos and titas always complain about after eating lechon). Each lipid has a special role in protecting the body. For example, squalane keeps moisture from escaping the skin's barrier, which keeps skin moisturized. Free fatty acids and hydrolyzed triglycerides are antibacterial, and protect against infection. Sebum is a necessary part of your skin's barrier. Without it, skin would be itchy, flaky, dry, and red.


It's estimated that 70% of the human population experiences some form and degree of acne during their teenage years. Other statistics show that 85% of 16 to 18 year olds are affected.


However, evidence shows that males tend to get acne earlier than females, and they can experience more severe forms of it too. Acne can also occur in children and adults of all ages. Fun.


What causes acne?

Acne is mainly caused by follicular occlusion and inflammation.


Follicular occlusion is a phenomenon wherein a follicle, such as a hair follicle, accumulates dead skin cells, dirt, and other debris – including foreign intruders like bacteria. When sebum combines with dirt, debris, and bacteria, a glue-like compound forms and clogs the follicle. Inflammation is an immune reaction that causes swelling, heat, pain, and redness. It is your body's reaction to foreign intruders such as bacteria.


TLDR, acne happens when:

  1. A hair follicle gets clogged by dirt and skin cells
  2. The clogged follicle ruptures
  3. The rupture becomes inflamed due to bacterial infection

This means wherever there are hair follicles, acne can also appear. Affected parts of the body include the face, neck, chest, and back.


Follicles can be more prone to clogging during puberty, as sebum production is higher during this life stage.


High sebum production usually leads to oilier skin, but not all people who have acne also have oily skin.


A number of other factors can also come into play.

  • Genetics determine the size of your sebaceous glands and how they are controlled by hormones. If you have relatives who have acne, you're unfortunately more likely to get it as well.
  • If you have a hormonal imbalance, you could be more prone to acne. Hormones control sebum production, and more sebum increases the chances of follicular occlusion, and also, acne.
  • If you live in a hotter and more humid climate, your body tries to manage the heat by producing more sweat and oil. When these things clog your pores, you can get pimples.
  • If you work out regularly, you may be more prone to acne, not just on your face, but also on your back. Excessive sweating, plus the buildup of bacteria, oil, and dirt, can clog pores and result in acne. Yep, even bacne.
  • If you are exposed to the sun for more than 15 minutes, your skin can become dry, and then compensate by producing more oil. This can lead to clogged pores and acne.
  • If you are a frontliner and wear masks regularly and for longer periods of time, you may be prone to maskne. Masks insulate the sweat, oil, and heat and humidity when you talk. Combined with the friction from the mask, this is a perfect environment for acne-causing bacteria and other microorganisms to grow. The result: maskne.


How can I treat acne?

Acne is treated by dermatologists using a variety of methods such as over-the-counter topical creams, oral medications, and hormonal treatments.


However, no matter what treatment method it is important to complement these treatments with a proper skincare routine.

Method 1: Cleanse regularly (but not too much) 

Your pores are amazing self-cleaning machines.


However, for those who have combination or oily skin, you need to start with a cleansing method that helps remove excess sebum.


The catch is that you should not cleanse your skin too frequently. It's tempting when you see that extra shine on your skin, but don't do it.


Over-cleansing can actually damage your skin and draw out an inflammatory response.


This causes stored oil to be released onto the surface of the skin, instead of being absorbed into it.


So keeping a happy medium between oily and dry is key.


Oil cleansing is one way in which those with combination/normal skin can remove excess sebum.


Oil cleansing is a cleansing method wherein oil cleansers are applied to the face and massaged into the skin to remove excess oil. The principle behind this cleansing method is "like dissolves like" a term used in Chemistry which means that only substances with similar chemical characteristics will dissolve in each other. Example: salt will dissolve in water because they have similar chemical characteristics. But oil will not dissolve in water because they are not chemically similar.


For those with oily skin, using gentle, moisturizing cleansers is a recommended way to remove excess sebum and control bacteria growth.


Method 2: Exfoliate gently

Exfoliation is another thing that you can integrate into your anti-acne skincare routine.


Exfoliation removes the dead skin cells on the surface of your skin that are hanging around longer than they should. This can help prevent follicular occlusion, which often leads to acne.


For bacne and pimples on the body, physical exfoliation using body scrub can be helpful, as it is effective at removing dead skin cells.


Be sure to use it only on healed skin, though, because physical exfoliants could irritate inflamed skin.


For facial acne, chemical exfoliants are often recommended because they are not abrasive.


Chemical exfoliants such as alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid, beta hydroxy acids, and retinoids are helpful for removing dead skin cells from the skin's surface.


Still, chemical exfoliants can be drying or irritating, so be sure to moisturize skin properly when you use these.


If you're still unsure about which exfoliation method to try, consult your dermatologist or general practitioner.


Method 3: Maintain proper hygiene

Now that you know that excessive sweating and hot/humid climates can cause acne, be sure to shower as soon as possible after a workout.


Wearing clean clothes prior to a workout is also important, as the dirt, debris, and dead skin cells in used clothes, plus friction from the clothes themselves, can lead to bacne.


Wearing light makeup and cleansing it properly before sleeping are also recommended.


Method 4: Choose your face mask carefully


Maskne is a real thing. With COVID-19’s impact in the world today, masks have become an integral part of our daily lives. We can go into detail as to why face masks cause acne and other skin issues but long story short, maskne is the result of clogged pores. 

Substances like oil and dead skin build up when you wear a mask and these block your pores which in turn, may cause maskne. More than that, the mask traps heat and humidity while you breathe, increasing the risk of maskne even more. 

That’s why it’s extremely important to choose your face mask carefully. That means finding a face mask that’s kind to your skin without sacrificing its effectiveness. And if you use disposable face masks, it’s a good idea to throw them away after each use.  


Method 5: Mask regularly

Skincare is personal. Since we all have different skin types, it’s important to find masks that are kind to yours. For example, if you have oily and acne-prone skin then you should try using clay and mud masks instead of cream. That said, we recommend trying different types to see how your skin reacts to it. Once you find a mask that works with your skin and not against it, incorporate it into your skin care routine. 

Masking regularly helps remove impurities and deal with acne. While it’s not something you should do everyday, masking once a week can do wonders for your skin like give it a glowing appearance or soothe inflammation or irritation.

What’s next after knowing how to treat acne?

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of acne, its causes, and how to treat it. But what comes after that? The response is to stick to a consistent skincare routine.

Find skincare products that work in harmony with your skin and stick with them. 

When your skin reacts negatively to any product, take note and learn what caused it. This will give you a better idea of what ingredients or formulas to avoid. It’s going to take time, effort, and probably a few mistakes but don’t let that discourage you from giving your skin the care it needs, especially if you want acne-free skin. 

As we said, skincare is personal so don’t be discouraged when skincare products don’t give you the results you want. Instead, take it as a learning experience. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll learn about your skin (and yourself) as you go through your skincare journey, so don’t stop! Just remember to be kind to yourself, and most importantly, enjoy the process.

Cheers to healthier, acne-free skin this 2021!

Disclaimer: This post is not a substitute for medical advice. Our goal is to make the science behind skin conditions simpler so anyone can understand it and manage them better. Please see your dermatologist or general practitioner regarding the proper treatment of any skin conditions you may have.




[1] Marks, R., & Motley, R. (2011). Common skin conditions (11th ed.). England: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd.


[2] Oakley, A. (2017). Dermatology made easy. New Zealand: Scion Publishing Ltd.


[3] Picardo, M., Ottaviani, M., Camera, E., & Mastrofrancesco, A. (2009). Sebaceous gland lipids. Dermatoendocrinol 1(2), 68-71. DOI: 10.4161%2Fderm.1.2.8472


[4] Tanghetti, E. A. (2013). The role of inflammation in the pathology of acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 6(9), 27-35. DOI: