Acne Prone Skin - Causes And Treatment

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

Acne is caused by some pretty basic factors that all of us encounter from day to day, but those of us with acne prone skin seem to be more affected by them than others whose skin is a bit more resilient. Still, there aren’t two kinds of skin, acne prone and acne free. 80% of people ages 11 to 30 experience some kind of acne, so even though acne prone skin sounds like a bad thing, it’s actually completely normal. It can be helpful to understand what acne prone skin is exactly, because then we can find ways to counteract it or to protect acne prone skin from actually developing acne. In this post, we want to get down to the basics of acne, from acne definitions to fundamental treatments to our best acne tips.

Close up picture of girls with acne prone skin
Everybody gets acne at least occasionally, but some of us seem to be more prone to acne than others.

First, Let’s Define Acne

Before we can talk about getting rid of acne, we need to define acne. Acne is an inflammatory skin condition that is influenced by oil production and a specific form of bacteria called p. acnes. Depending on how these three factors interact, four basic types of acne can form: blackheads and whiteheads, papules, pustules, and cysts and nodules.

Blackheads and Whiteheads:

Even though they have slightly different names, blackheads and whiteheads are incredibly similar. They both form when the skin becomes inflamed and excess oil gets trapped in the pores. The skin can become inflamed for any number of reasons, from illness to allergens to minor abrasions, and said inflammation causes the pores to constrict, trapping any excess oil or dead skin cells in the pore. If the inflammation is so strong that the pore closes entirely, trapping the oil and dead skin cells beneath the surface, a whitehead forms. If the pore remains open, then a blackhead forms instead. This open pore is actually how blackheads get their dark color—the air oxidizes the oil in much the same way as an apple that turns brown once it’s been sliced up. The best treatment for blackheads and whiteheads is gentle exfoliation and improved skin barrier functioning, but we’ll get into that more later.


If you have acne, you’ve definitely heard of blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, maybe even cysts, but have you heard of papules? Papules are a form of acne that are created by a combination of inflammation and p. acnes bacteria. When the skin becomes inflamed, sometimes p. acnes will get trapped in a pore. Isolated to such a small space, the quickly-multiplying bacteria have nowhere to go, so their increasing numbers generate a minor infection. Our immune system senses this infection and tries to nip it in the bud—with more inflammation. Since inflammation causes acne in the first place, it might seem counterintuitive to use more inflammation to stop acne, but there are actually two main benefits. First, inflammation can help isolate the infection and prevent it from spreading. Second, immune system cells can help fight the infection, and the quickest way to get them there is through increased blood flow, which in turn causes inflammation. Papules are the result of initial inflammation, infection, and the further inflammation that follows the infection. Papules typically look like slightly raised bumps, larger than a blackhead or a whitehead, but smaller than a full-blown pimple, and they don’t have a clearly defined “head” like a pimple does, though they may be yellow or white in color. The best treatment for papules is inflammation reduction and antibacterial measures.


Pustules are another name for pimples, and they form exactly the same way as papules. In fact, papules almost always lead to pustules as the immune system fights off the infection. When immune system cells kill bacterial cells, they often end up dying in the process as well. All of this dead cell matter forms the yellow-white substance called pus which gives papules and pustules their coloring. Once the infection has been mostly or completely defeated, the body will try to get rid of the pus and it will rise to the surface of the skin, forming a “head.” Once this head forms, it is no longer considered a papule and is categorized as a full pimple. Pimples typically benefit from the same treatment as papules since they’re so similar.

Cysts and Nodules:

Generally considered the most severe form of acne, cysts and nodules form when this typical acne process veers out of control in some way. Instead of defeating the p. acnes infection, the immune system gets tricked into fighting our own skin cells instead, thanks to a toxin p. acnes can release and attach to skin cells. When the immune system breaks down skin cells, this can allow the p. acnes infection to travel beyond just one pore. This is why cysts and nodules don’t have a head like pimples do, because the infection is spreading wide and deep instead of being pushed toward the surface. Dermatologists aren’t sure why some people get cysts and nodules while others get pimples and papules, but excess oil production seems to play more of a role in these types of acne, and excessive inflammation is often involved too. Cysts are wide, inflamed lesions that are typically soft to the touch, while nodules are often hard. Over-the-counter products rarely work in treating nodular-cystic acne, and dermatologist intervention is typically needed.

The Many Faces of “Acne Prone”

Acne prone can mean a lot of things. There is no one type of acne prone skin because acne can thrive in so many different environments. All skin types, from oily to dry and everything in between, can be prone to acne.

Oily skin is prone to acne because when we produce too much oil, it can easily get clogged in the pores, but also because p. acnes bacteria consume the oil our skin produces as their main food source, so extra oil means extra food for them, and thus extra bacteria as well. Still, we can’t strip our skin from all its oil or acne can form that way too, which is why people with dry skin can be just as acne prone as people with oily skin.

Our skin has something called an epidermal barrier, which is essentially a protective layer of oil. Our skin is very easily irritated and without a fine layer of oil to protect it, even the smallest things can cause irritation, which is a very bad thing for acne. When our skin is irritated, it produces a burst of extra oil and triggers the inflammation response at the same time, so the extra oil immediately gets caught in an inflamed pore and forms some type of acne. Too much oil causes acne, but not enough oil can cause acne too.

Then there are those of us with sensitive skin, where our skin produces plenty of oil, but it is easily irritated nonetheless, meaning we get the worst of both worlds. The only upside is people with sensitive skin often just need to find the right products that don’t irritate their skin to significantly reduce their acne, while those with acne related to oily or dry skin typically have to search around for the perfect acne treatment product to handle their acne.

What Exactly Are Acne Breakouts?

So now we know what acne is, we know what types of skin are prone to acne, but we still haven’t talked about acne breakouts. What’s the difference between regular acne and an acne breakout? Who gets acne breakouts? Are they treated any differently?

Like all things acne-related, there’s no one answer. Essentially, acne breakouts are when several pimples, blackheads, or other kinds of acne turn up all at once, typically in the same area, but not everyone with acne really gets acne breakouts. Some people have consistent acne that doesn’t really come or go in bursts, but steadily appears and fades away so that they always have acne. Others never have acne except for when they experience a breakout, and others can have a combination of the two: consistent acne with extra breakouts thrown in.

Some people claim that breakouts are caused by specific factors, like eating a chocolate bar or touching your face more than once throughout the day. While diet and touching your face might have an impact on your acne, they are definitely not solely responsible for any acne breakouts. Most breakouts are caused by a combination of factors, but one of the most common factors in breakouts is hormonal shifts, which could be related to menstruation, stress, or hormonal conditions like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). When our hormones fluctuate, our bodies sometimes start producing excess oil, which leads to a breakout.

Acne breakouts in general can be treated exactly the same as acne that appears more gradually instead of all at once, but if your acne breakouts are related to hormonal fluctuations, there are a few hormonal treatments that we’ll discuss in a moment that might be worth a shot.

What Your Acne Means: Understanding the Intricacies of Your Skin

Finding out what your acne means is tricky, because not all acne has a clear meaning. If an article tries to tell you that acne in your ear means you have problems with your kidney, or acne on your chin is indicative of a fatty liver, they are way off base and you should try a different source.

Woman sittle by a table pondering
As nice as it would be to know the exact trigger for every type of acne, the truth is that we just don’t understand acne well enough yet.

The truth is, we don’t understand acne well enough to be that specific, and based on what we know so far, acne may not have such specific “meanings” at all. Some studies have found that acne is highly genetic, meaning sometimes we just get acne because our skin is acne prone. Still, just because we don’t know everything, that doesn’t mean that we know nothing at all. The best way to determine what your acne means is to remember that acne has multiple factors and focusing on only one factor will likely lead to poor treatment and management.

First, as we just discussed, if you experience increased acne during or right before your period, it means your hormones are fluctuating and causing increased oil production, causing clogged pores and p. acnes growth. The second situation where your acne could be telling you something is if it appears in small clusters all at the same time, and each whitehead or pimple looks very similar. Normally, acne is much more random, so when acne appears this way, there’s a good chance it’s actually fungal acne, which is caused by a type of yeast called malassezia rather than p. acnes bacteria. Third, the jawline, temples, and chin are all typically much drier than the rest of the face, so harsh acne products could irritate the skin and actually make acne worse. Acne in these areas usually means you need a better moisturizer or you need to use gentler acne products.

How to Clear Acne: The Basics

It’s all well and good to understand how acne forms and where it comes from, but at the end of the day, we all just want to know how to clear acne. The good news is that no matter what type of acne you have, no matter what causes are behind it, you can get clear skin.

There are a lot of different acne treatment strategies out there, but there are really only three principles you need to know: prevention is always better than treatment, slow and steady wins the race, and look for ingredients, not brand names. Follow these guidelines, and you will definitely find a path to clear skin that works for you.

The Best Way to Clear Acne is to Prevent It

There are countless acne treatments out there, but the best way to clear acne is to prevent it from forming in the first place. It’s like if you have a leaky faucet: you can find a million ways to fix the sound of the dripping, but the best way to get rid of the sound is to stop the leak at its source.

Now that we know that acne is primarily caused by inflammation, oil production, and p. acnes bacteria, we can find ways to prevent those factors from combining in ways that cause acne. All acne, from blackheads to cysts, involve inflammation, so the best preventative acne products are those that can reduce inflammation. These can be topical products that soothe the skin, but there are also a variety of anti-inflammatory foods and supplements that could decrease inflammation throughout the body.

If you have a lot of blackheads and whiteheads, oil production could be a major issue for you, so the best preventative measures for you would involve reducing your oil production. Instead of focusing on products that get rid of excess oil, try products that prevent you from producing so much oil in the first place. Combined oral contraceptives, spironolactone, and other anti-androgen medications can help reduce oil production related to hormones, and red light therapy can help reduce activity in your oil production glands regardless of the reason for their overstimulation.

If you have pimples or cysts, you definitely want to focus on preventing the overgrowth of p. acnes bacteria. Some people do this through antibiotics, but thanks to antibiotic resistance, they are a short-term solution with mediocre results. Instead, we recommend two tactics: first, reduce oil production, since p. acnes feed on the oil we produce, and second, apply a mild antibacterial every day to keep p. acnes growth in control.

What Helps Acne Right Away Probably Won’t Help Acne in the Long Run

The second principle is slow and steady, which means that what helps acne right away may not be the best option for your skin. A lot of big name acne treatment products promise a huge change in your acne in just a few weeks or even a few days, but the truth is, the best acne treatments take longer than that.

There are quick fixes out there that can clear a lot of your acne in just a week or two, but at the end of the day, they cause just as much acne as they cure. This is because in order to clear your acne right away, they have to be extraordinarily harsh. Harsh products are terrible for acne because they cause irritation, which as we’ve discussed, causes a problematic combination of inflammation and increased oil production. Rather than trying to clear all your acne up right away, we recommend taking a slower, gentler path.

The word “gentle” might sound completely wrong for a discussion about acne, but that’s only because the marketing surrounding acne has made us believe acne is an enemy to be defeated through the most extreme means necessary. In reality, acne is just a normal skin condition, and our skin is very delicate, so acne should be treated delicately. “Fighting” acne with “powerful” products basically means you’re fighting your own skin, which only leads to more problems.

Even if you have the best, gentlest acne products in the world, perfectly tailored for your skin, they only work if you use them. If you know that you’re bad with keeping up with routines, make your skin care routine as short and sweet as possible, or find ways to make it fun and easy to remember. Make someone your accountability partner or set alarms on your phone to remind you.

Woman facing the mirror wearing white blouse
When looking for the right products for your acne, make sure you can consistently do the routine every single day.

How Do I Find the Best Ingredients to Solve My Acne?

You may be wondering, if I’m not supposed to trust brand names, then which ingredients should I be looking for to solve my acne? Never fear, we have a great list of ingredients to look for (and ingredients to avoid) based on skin type and acne type.

Top 5 Ingredients to Avoid

Let’s start with ingredients you should avoid if you have acne. These ingredients will only serve to make your acne worse and there are almost no situations in which you should buy any product containing these ingredients. When you’re shopping for acne treatment products, check the ingredient label and automatically disqualify any products containing these ingredients.

  • Cocoa butter. It smells amazing and feels luxurious, but it’s terrible for acne prone skin. It ranks as a 4 out of 5 on the comedogenicity scale, a ranking system that determines how likely various substances are to clog pores.
  • Coconut oil. We know, another bummer. This is another popular homemade skin care product right now, but it also rates as a 4 out of 5 and will almost definitely cause more acne than it solves.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate. This is a popular ingredient in many skin care products, but we can’t imagine why. It’s incredibly harsh and will almost certainly cause irritation. Beware of other, similar ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate or sodium myreth sulfate.
  • Alcohol. Okay, we lied a little, having alcohol in your skin care products isn’t the end of the world, but it definitely should not be one of the first five ingredients. Alcohol only serves to dry out the skin and cause irritation.
  • Scrubbing brushes. This isn’t technically an ingredient, but we’re including it anyway because it’s that important to avoid. Scrubbing brushes might remove a little extra oil or dead skin cells, but they also cause an immense amount of irritation and are all but guaranteed to cause more acne.

The Best 3 Ingredients to Clear Up Acne in Dry Skin

If you have dry skin, the ingredients that are most likely to clear up acne for you may differ from people with oily skin. The trick for clearing up your acne is to moisturize the skin without clogging pores, and if you have pimples or cysts, then there’s the added challenge of killing p. acnes bacteria without drying out your skin even more. There are lots of ingredients out there that might help clear up acne in dry skin, but these are the three ingredients we trust the most.

  • Glycerin. This ingredient is present in many moisturizers because it draws moisture into the top layer of our skin. It isn’t oily, it doesn’t clog pores, and it isn’t irritating, so it’s the perfect ingredient for dry skin.
  • Urea. If that sounds vaguely familiar from your days in a science classroom, that’s because urea is present in urine, which might sound gross, but it’s also naturally present in our skin, and it can play a vital role in maintaining our epidermal barrier and keeping acne-causing irritation at bay.
  • Lactic acid. Lactic acid can help moisturize the skin, but it’s also an exfoliant, meaning it can help clear away dead skin cells and clear up clogged pores.

The Best 3 Ingredients for Treating Acne in Oily Skin

Most acne products on the market are designed for oily skin, so you will probably have an easier time finding the best product for you than those with dry or sensitive skin. Still, you don’t want to get those overpowered products because no matter how oily your skin is, you don’t want to strip it of oil completely.

Man applying undereye cream
Even though most acne products are made with oily skin in mind, you still need to be careful and make sure the products aren’t too strong.
  • Salicylic acid. This is a classic exfoliant that is available in a wide variety of concentrations. At the lower end, around 0.5%, it can be used for very minorly oily skin (maybe even dry skin, if you use it every other day) but it is also available in concentrations like 1%, 2%, or 5%. We recommend working your way up to see which concentration is best for you.
  • Sulfur. Yep, this is that element that smells like rotten eggs, but don’t worry, most people who use sulfur acne products say it only has a slight smell. Sulfur is a great ingredient for oily skin because it absorbs the oil gently rather than ripping it from the skin, which can cause irritation. Again, concentration is very important, but anything from 3% to 10% should be safe for most people.
  • Retinoids. This ingredient comes in many forms, but all of them are basically concentrated derivatives of vitamin A, and they help reduce acne by regulating the life cycle of our skin cells. Retinoids keep the skin cells producing and dying at the best rates to avoid clogged pores, and this constant regeneration also helps reduce oil buildup. Most retinoids are only available as prescriptions, and they should be used in the lowest concentrations possible because they can be very harsh.

The Worst 3 Ingredients for Acne Treatment in Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin is characterized by heightened reactions to various substances, so that minor things that don’t bother most people can cause serious irritation for sensitive skin. Because of that, it’s usually less about looking for the right ingredients when it comes to buying acne products for sensitive skin and more about avoiding the wrong ones. These are ingredients that might not be an issue for other skin types, but could be giving you trouble if you have sensitive skin.

  • Fragrance. Most skin care products contain fragrances made in a laboratory, especially products that contain ingredients with unpleasant odors, like sulfur, but these fragrances can easily irritate sensitive skin.
  • Dyes. Like fragrances, dyes are lab-made chemicals that aren’t a problem for most people, but might be a problem for sensitive skin. Generally, you want products with as few unnecessary ingredients as possible.
  • High concentrations of active ingredients. This isn’t a specific ingredient, but it is one of the most important things to look out for if you have sensitive skin. Always use the lowest concentration available, at least to start. If your skin is taking it okay but you want more improvement with your acne, you can always up the concentration from there.

The Best 3 Ingredients for Acne Bumps, AKA, Blackheads and Whiteheads

The small, fine dots that appear on some people’s skin are sometimes called acne bumps, but they are actually blackheads and whiteheads, and there are several ingredients that can help get rid of them. If you have oily skin, you’ll want to use strong concentrations of these ingredients, and if you have dry or sensitive skin, you’ll want to use the lowest concentration.

  • Salicylic acid. We already listed this one under acne products for oily skin, but we had to list it again here, because it really is one of the best treatments for blackheads and whiteheads.
  • Glycolic acid. Like salicylic acid, glycolic acid is an excellent exfoliant that removes oil and dead skin cells that are clogging the pores. Since blackheads and whiteheads are basically seriously clogged pores, this is the perfect treatment.
  • Citric acid. This can be found in several skin care products, but it’s also found in regular citrus like lemon juice. Like glycolic and salicylic acid, citric acid is an exfoliant and helps prevent oil and dead skin buildup that might cause blackheads or whiteheads.

The Best 3 Ingredients for Pimples, Nodules, and Cysts

The best ingredients to treat pimples, nodules, and cysts are ones that can kill p. acnes bacteria, since all of these forms of acne involve a p. acnes infection. Antibiotics are not a good choice for killing acne bacteria, but there are plenty of other great options.

Woman struggling with acne
Pimples, nodules, and cysts are all various forms of an inflamed p. acnes infection, so the best treatments are typically antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.
  • Benzoyl peroxide. This is probably the most popular treatment for acne caused by p. acnes. It works by drawing oxygen below the surface of the skin which kills the bacteria because p. acnes bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they can’t survive very long in the presence of oxygen.
  • Tea tree oil. This essential oil can’t be applied directly to the skin, but it can be diluted into carrier oils like jojoba oil, argan oil, or even olive oil. Tea tree oil can kill p. acnes bacteria, reduce inflammation, and reduce how much oil our skin produces, and studies show that it is an effective treatment for cystic acne specifically.
  • Retinoids. We already mentioned these and how well they work for oily skin, but they’re also one of the primary treatment options for cystic acne.

Exposed Skin Care Products Can Provide Some Acne Help

At Exposed Skin Care, we’ve designed our products to follow all three of our basic principles of acne treatment to provide the best acne help. Our products are gentle, they help prevent acne formation, and they contain only the best ingredients. Best of all, they’re suitable for all skin types.

If you’re looking for a new, low-maintenance skin care routine that won’t irritate your skin but will finally get rid of your stubborn acne, we recommend our Basic Kit. It contains a Facial Cleanser, Clearing Tonic, Acne Treatment Serum, and Clear Pore Serum. As with all of our products, they each contain a combination of natural and scientific active ingredients. For instance, our Acne Treatment Serum contains a low concentration of both benzoyl peroxide and tea tree oil, which combine to kill as much p. acnes bacteria as possible.

If you actively enjoy skin care and want to make sure you are treating your acne through every available option, we recommend our Ultimate Kit. It comes with everything in the Basic Kit, but it also contains our signature Moisture Complex, a Microderm Scrub, a Clarifying Mask, and a Probiotic Complex. These products prevent and treat acne so you can maintain your clear skin.

When All Else Fails: How to Cover Up Acne

Sometimes you’ve done all you can to prevent and treat your acne, but at the end of the day you’re still left wondering how to cover up acne. For those of us with acne prone skin, the occasional breakout is inevitable, so it’s nice to know how to cover it up effectively.

If you’re looking to cover up acne in a hurry, we recommend using green tea ice cubes to reduce the inflammation as much as possible, then applying some makeup. You can make green tea ice cubes by brewing a pot of green tea, allowing it to cool, then pouring it into an ice tray. You can keep these in your freezer for last-second pimple emergencies, and all you have to do is press a green tea ice cube to your acne for 3-5 minutes. Both the ice and the green tea help reduce inflammation to make your acne less visible and less painful.

Once you’ve reduced the inflammation, it’s time to apply some makeup to help cover it up throughout the day. If you aren’t into makeup, there are some subtle concealers that you can apply just to your acne and gently blend it into your surrounding skin tone. If you like makeup or don’t feel like concealer is enough, you can also apply a series of foundations and powders to help hide your acne. Some of the best makeup for acne actually contains acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid so it can work on reducing your acne while it covers it.

Our Top 5 Acne Tips

Hopefully if you have acne prone skin, you understand your skin a bit better now, but if you’re looking for even more acne tips, we have five more that might be able to help you out.

  • Honey! Honey is one of our favorite acne tips because of its versatility. Honey is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and it helps promote faster wound healing. Apply a thin layer of honey to your face for 20 minutes every couple of days and you’ll be amazed at how quickly it clears up.
  • Sunscreen. A lot of people with acne are wary of using sunscreen because they’re afraid it’ll clog their pores, but sunscreen is an integral part of good acne care. Harmful rays from the sun can cause minor skin damage that can lead to inflammation, which increases acne. Plus, many acne treatment products make the skin more sensitive to sun, making it more likely to burn. Just make sure you look for sunscreen that’s oil-free.
  • Stress. Chronic stress can lead to heightened levels of inflammation throughout the body, which causes chronic acne along with other health side effects. Meditation, better organization, and soothing essential oils, like lavender, could all help reduce chronic stress and improve your skin (and your life).
  • Laundry. Make sure you’re washing your sheets once a week (or twice a month, at minimum). Oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria from your face transfer to your pillowcase and sheets at night, and after a while, they start to build up and can transfer back to your skin, creating an acne loop that can only be broken by regularly washing your sheets and pillowcases.
  • Self-Love. Learn to love your skin. This one might feel ridiculous, since this whole article has been about how to get rid of acne and get clear skin, but working toward clear skin doesn’t mean you have to hate the skin you have. Most advertising surrounding acne is overwhelmingly negative, and it tries to make us ashamed of our skin the way it is. Speaking as someone who had acne from a young age and still has it today, in my mid-20s, I can honestly say this: it doesn’t matter. Acne sucks, sure, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone I’ve ever met has had acne at some point, and I know tons of people who have chronic acne or acne prone skin. It might feel like it now, but trust me, you aren’t weird. Everybody has acne. Don’t listen to the advertisements, you aren’t dirty, and you aren’t ugly, you’re just a person and that’s okay. You and your skin are just fine the way you are.
Black woman smiling and looking up at the sky
We know it can be hard to love your skin when you have acne, but just remember, a perfectly normal skin condition is nothing to be ashamed of.