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Acne is a common skin problem that causes unsightly bumps to appear on the face, the neck, the back and the chest. These skin lesions may appear as red bumps (pimples) or larger, solid red lumps (cysts). This skin problem erupts when natural skin oils and dead skin cells clog the pores. Other names people use to describe acne include whiteheads, blackheads, blemishes, and zits.

What Causes Acne?

Contrary to popular belief, acne is not caused by eating greasy foods or having unclean or sweaty skin. Rather, it is caused by a combination of an overproduction of skin oil or sebum and shedding of dead cells in the skin, leading to irritation and plugging of the hair follicles. Growth of bacteria in the pores can worsen the lesions, leading to inflammation and pus formation.

Oil (sebaceous) glands connected to the hair follicles normally produce oil to keep the skin and hair moist. However, certain factors, such as a surge in hormone production, notably among adolescents and young adults, may increase oil production. At the same time, the skin normally sheds dead cells, which may plug the pores. Pimples develop as raised red bumps. When the blockage is combined with inflammation and involves hair follicles deep in the skin, red lumps or cysts may form. These may enlarge and become painful and tender.

Other factors that may increase your risk of developing acne include hormone fluctuations during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, medications such as steroids, use of oily skin care products, a family history of acne, and direct skin irritation from contact with items like helmets, cellphones, etc. Cleaning or scrubbing the skin vigorously can also cause irritation and trigger acne eruption.

Skin Conditions that Mimic Acne

Some skin conditions appear similar to acne and may be mistaken for it. These include:

  • Rosacea, a condition characterized by having lesions that look like pimples in the middle part of the face. Other symptoms include redness, flushing, and appearance of superficial blood vessels. Rosacea usually affects people ages 30 and older.

  • Pseudofolliculitis, or "razor bumps," which occur when you shave too close to the skin, so that growing hair twist back into the skin, producing tender bumps.

  • Folliculitis, which are not real acne pimples but inflamed follicles that may appear on other parts of the body.

Acne Treatment

It is important to keep the skin clean to control acne, but you must avoid skin care products that can clog the pores. Generally, gentle, mild, and "noncomedogenic" skin products are recommended. You must also avoid scrubbing or picking at your pimples to prevent scar formation. It also helps to keep your hair away from your face and avoiding other objects such as hats and telephone receivers.

Home treatments may include over-the-counter products that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. If your acne does not improve after using these for about three months, call a doctor for evaluation and treatment. For acne cysts, prescription medication such as isotretinoin may be used.

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