What causes acne? 10 reasons why you could be breaking out


causes of acne


What causes acne?

Acne is caused when the pores on your skin get blocked. Acne is frequently found on the face as well as the chest and back, and is probably a lot more common than you think. We’ve given our top tips for fighting acne when we explored how to get rid of strawberry legs.

Just under the surface of your skin are sebaceous glands. These release sebum, or oil. This is essential to keep your skin supple and hydrated. However, producing too much sebum can cause acne. The excess oil then gets mixed with dead skin cells, dirt and grime from daily life, and effectively clogs the pores.

When the pores are clogged, they can become infected. This results in a collection of pustules and papules (whiteheads and blackheads) as well as cysts, which is acne.

Acne can run in families and there definitely seems to be a genetic predisposition. 

Four factors come together to actually cause acne. These are too much sebum, pores getting clogged, bacteria causing an infection, and inflammation. However, the triggers for acne can be different for different people. It’s worth identifying your triggers so that you can figure out what causes your adult acne. 

Reasons why you might be breaking out

Your acne triggers are probably unique and you may have more than one. Assessing what’s going on when you have a breakout can help you pin down and avoid triggers. Common acne triggers include:

1. Hormones

One of the key reasons why acne often starts during puberty is because it is linked to sex hormones, particularly testosterone (in both sexes). Your sebaceous glands can be very sensitive to hormones, mistakenly producing too much sebum. 

Hormonal causes are some of the hardest triggers to manage because they can feel out of your control. In this case it is particularly important to combat factors such as dead skin cells sitting on your skin, so that your pores are less likely to become clogged. If hormones are causing your acne, you may also find the contraceptive pill to be beneficial. Speak to your doctor about whether this is the right route for you.

Women often experience adult acne due to hormonal concerns more than men because of their menstrual cycles. Hormone changes due to periods, pregnancy and menopause, as well as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are known triggers for adult acne.

2. Skincare products

If you have acne-prone skin, choosing non-comedogenic (non-clogging) products is essential, as is a good cleansing routine. Identify which skincare products cause problems for you and then combat these by developing a good routine which uses products that help to nourish your skin. 

Regular twice daily cleansing is important, as is exfoliation to remove the build-up of dead skin cells. We can’t stress this enough, always remove your makeup each evening before bed.

3. Medications

A number of medications are known to trigger acne. Common culprits are steroids. There are also some medications used to treat depression and mental health conditions (lithium) and epilepsy that can / are known to sometimes trigger acne. 

4. Smoking

Whilst researchers haven’t found a direct link between smoking and acne, many people report that smoking triggers their acne. This is likely due to a number of reasons. Smoking is associated with greater risk of inflammatory skin diseases, and acne is essentially fuelled by inflammation. Smoking also slows healing time and reduces blood flow to the skin. 

5. Diet

When it comes to acne and diet,  the link appears to be a very personal thing. Some people find that dietary changes make absolutely no difference to their skin. Others find that managing their diet can effectively cure their acne. Again, it may come down to trial and error.

Some studies have revealed that sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods (like bread or crisps) can make acne worse. Others have found that removing dairy products such as milk and cheese from the diet has been beneficial. 

It does seem to be true that eating an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich diet is good for helping to manage acne.

6. Constriction

As any chef will tell you, regularly having a hat or headband in place can be an acne trigger. It’s tempting to cover up but you may inadvertently be making your acne worse through constriction. This also applies to wearing a backpack if you experience acne on your shoulders and back. 

7. Touching

There seems to be some sense to acne being made worse by regular touching of the face. When you touch your face, you transfer dirt to the skin that can potentially clog pores. Scratching acne, or picking it, can also spread the infection to new pores, making it worse.

8. Stress

If you are acne-prone, it is possible that stress may be an acne-trigger for you. Learning how to reduce and manage stress in your life can help to reduce systemic inflammation and this can help to reduce acne. 

Stress can be quite a difficult acne trigger to pin down, and you may need to track your symptoms over a long period of time. 

9. Weather

Weather is a tricky trigger to understand. Some people find that the cold (and perhaps lots of being inside, or wearing a hat) can make acne worse. Others find the complete opposite. There does seem to be some good evidence that sunshine can actually help to calm acne. That said, getting too hot, particularly in a humid environment, seems to make it worse. This can be made harder by struggling to find a sunscreen that doesn’t clog your pores.

10. Tiredness

For similar reasons as stress being a trigger, many people find that tiredness is a reason why their acne gets worse. Perhaps there is some truth to the concept of beauty sleep! Choose natural fibre bed sheets and change these regularly, to ensure that your acne is not made worse by your time in bed. We also recommend trying silk pillowcases, as these have been shown to reduce acne.


Knowing what causes acne, or what triggers it, can help you to manage it and reduce its occurrence. Why not book in with our professionals for a luxury facial to help calm your skin?