Pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, cysts - very few of us manage to sail through life without a single blemish. Whether serious or mild, acne will affect almost all of us at some stage in our life. It can be an embarrassing and traumatic experience, often hitting us when we’re most vulnerable - in our teenage years.

But adults can get acne too. It’s not uncommon for people in their 20s and 30s to have acne. And some people continue to have acne in their 40s and 50s. Women can also experience mild to moderate acne from hormonal changes during pregnancy, menstrual cycles and starting or stopping birth control pills. Although acne is rarely a serious health problem, the emotional distress and skin scarring it causes can be a concern. Luckily, with the right treatment, acne can usually be kept under control.

Why do I get acne?

You get acne when your skin’s hair follicles become plugged up with oil and dead skin cells. Usually, when the cells lining the hair follicle are replaced, they get carried to the skin by sebum (an oil produced by your body).

At times (often during puberty), your body’s change in hormone levels can lead to an over production of dead skin cells and sebum. An increase in dead skin cells makes the lining cells thicker. This, and the extra sebum, can lead to blockages and swelling of the hair follicle to form a soft, white plug.

This plug may block the pore, causing the follicle wall to bulge and produce a whitehead. If enough sebum builds up behind the plug to push it to the skin’s surface, it will darken and become a blackhead. A blackhead darkens when it’s exposed to light because of the melanin skin pigment it contains (not because of dirt).

With more sebum being produced, bacteria in the hair follicle multiply to break down the oil. This causes inflammation and small, red raised bumps to pop up. The follicle can become red and fill with pus, forming a pimple. Pimples can burst, releasing their contents from under the skin. But trying to make them burst by squeezing the skin at this stage can damage the skin around it.