Acne is one of the most common skin concerns that people deal with—and hope to treat. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that acne affects up to 50 million people in the United States, and it can happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender. But what causes acne?

The truth is a number of factors can cause blemishes. Luckily, you can take steps to minimize bumps and redness and help prevent acne from coming back in the future. Read on to get a better understanding of what causes acne and how to tackle and prevent breakouts. The road to clearer skin begins here!

What Is Acne?

Acne results from clogged pores. There are four main types of acne: whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, and cysts, and they each have distinct causes and treatments. An effective skin care routine starts with identifying which type of acne you have.


Whiteheads form when excess oil and dead skin cells build up and clog pores, resulting in a white or flesh-colored raised blemish.


Blackheads also result from excess oil and dead skin cell buildup, but the pore widens and the buildup oxidizes into a black-colored blemish.


Excess oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria clog and get trapped in a pore and become inflamed.

Cysts or Acne Nodules

Excess oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria fill the pore deeply, resulting in swelling, inflammation, and sometimes discomfort or tenderness. Cysts become filled with pus, unlike nodules, which may feel harder to the touch.

What Causes Acne?

As mentioned earlier, the answer to what causes acne may involve one or several different triggers. According to the AAD, the most common causes of acne include:

  • Insufficient sleep
  • Certain foods
  • Oily makeup
  • Comedogenic skin care products
  • Hair products

Other causes include your hormones and your diet. Your hormone levels can encourage your oil glands to produce more oil, which clogs your pores and results in acne. If you have a period, this might look like increased breakouts about a week before your menstrual cycle.

And while it's widely believed that stress causes acne, no existing studies have proven this to be true. The AAD says stress can worsen existing acne, though.

What Foods Cause Acne?

As for the food you eat, sugar is known to cause acne due to inflammation and increased sebum production caused by spikes in blood sugar. Cow's milk has also been linked to acne. The AAD explains that, in one study, women who drank two or more glasses of milk each day were 44 percent more likely to have acne than other participants.

How Can You Treat Acne?

If you're dealing with an acne breakout, don't fret. There are plenty of ways to reduce blemishes, starting with a regular skin care routine. Here are some additional suggestions based on the type of acne you have:


Look for products with Benzoyl Peroxide, which will help get rid of bacteria and excess oil and calm inflammation. Salicylic Acid is another ingredient that eliminates dead skin cells and clears pores.


While products with Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid can be helpful, look for topical retinoids as well. These formulas help keep your pores free of debris.


Treat your skin to ingredients like Tea Tree Oil and Witch Hazel, which are known to fight bacteria and reduce inflammation. Just be sure to follow up with a noncomedogenic moisturizer like EltaMD Skin Recovery Light Moisturizer, as they can dry out your skin. If you have sensitive skin, try a patch test first.

Cysts or Acne Nodules

These blemishes can be tender and painful. If this is the case, your Dermatologist may suggest an in-office cortisone injection, which quickly reduces inflammation.

Can You Prevent Acne?

When it comes to preventing acne, stick to your basic skin care routine. Always wash your face before you go to bed, and use a gentle cleanser like the EltaMD Oil-In-Gel Cleanser, which not only melts away makeup, sunscreen, and sebum but also supports the skin barrier to keep your skin hydrated and protected. From there, make sure you're eating healthy, using noncomedogenic makeup, and getting enough rest. Wearing sunscreen every day is also key, as ultraviolet rays can trigger breakouts. Choose a formula that's compatible with acne-prone skin, like EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46.

Acne can be annoying to deal with, but you can take action to minimize blemishes and even prevent them from happening in the first place. Start by identifying what might be causing your acne to figure out the best game plan. From there, with a little consistency and patience, your skin will glow as bright as the sun.


  • Audrey Noble

    Audrey Noble is a New York City-based reporter specializing in features, celebrity profiles, and beauty topics. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Harper's BAZAAR, Allure, Vanity Fair, Refinery29, and more. She is a University of Southern California alumna with bachelor's degrees in print journalism and creative writing.