What Causes Acne?

Written by Michelle Rostamian — August 19, 2020

What Causes Acne?

Fact: Acne affects up to 50 million people in America. That means that while you may feel be struggling with finding ways to combat it, you’re definitely not alone on your quest for smooth, picture-perfect skin. That said, whether it pops up on your forehead or your back, acne is one of those skincare woes that makes you wonder if you’ve traveled back in time to your prepubescent self. Adult acne is equal parts confusing and frustrating and can take a toll on anyone, from deciphering its cause to masking its appearance, to actually treating it.


Acne is known to impact those with oily skin, but it doesn’t discriminate against skin type—dry as well as combination skin types aren’t necessarily in the clear. Thankfully, in addition to over-the-counter treatments, there is a slew of natural acne remedies available for all. We’ve rounded up six of our favorites below, from ingredients to incorporate into your skincare regimen to self-care face masks that tackle pimples head-on. Keep reading for more.


Common Causes of Acne

Whether it be during the scorching hot days of summer (a time when acne and clogged pores go hand in hand) or when your skin is in hibernation mode during the winter (think: dry skin that heeds excess sebum secretion)—anyone dealing with acne knows that a blemish can rear its head at any time. It can even get triggered by a certain food you’re sensitive to, a new cosmetic ingredient you’ve introduced into your routine, stress, or traveling. Because acne is an umbrella term for any skin condition that involves clogged hair follicles (aka pores), it can take on many types—cystic acne, blackheads, papules, and pustules, just to name a few. Bluntly put: It may take some investigating to figure out what’s causing your onset of breakouts as well as the type of acne you have.


How to Prevent Acne Breakouts

While acne has a lot to do with genetics and hormonal changes, there are still some things you can do to keep breakouts at bay. Using a cleanser to wash your face and remove all traces of makeup every night, for one, helps get rid of pore-clogging dirt and oil that could lead to flare-ups. Also try to avoid picking, prodding, popping, and touching your skin (especially your breakouts), as this can not only introduce bacteria and cause inflammation, but it can also leave behind a parting gift on already broken out skin (ahem, scarring). Another way to prevent acne is to keep your skin properly hydrated with a moisturizer (yes, even if you have oily skin)—this sends a signal to your skin that it doesn’t need to speed up oil production. Finally, the overall health of your skin depends on limiting sun exposure and protecting with sunscreen lotions, and this rings true when it comes to preventing acne too. Spending too much time in the sun can cause dehydration and cause oil glands to produce more sebum.


6 Acne Treatments

From salicylic acid to charcoal, find our favorite acne-busting ingredients and tips below.


1. Hydrate with a rose mask

Skin that’s prone to acne may also experience unbalanced moisture levels. What causes these imbalances? Removing the protective oils from the skin's surface and then applying pore-clogging creams or balms. We know you would never do this intentionally, but sometimes it just happens naturally because of sun exposure and other pollutants in your environment. That’s where rose comes in (yep, the flower). Rose is particularly effective for those with skin that skews sensitive (which is likely acne-prone, too), as it contains soothing properties, is a natural hydrator, and helps skin recuperate lost nourishment. To make a rose face mask, combine six rose petals, a teaspoon of honey, a teaspoon and a half of rose water, and enough yogurt to create a paste. Apply all over the skin and let sit for 10 minutes before rinsing.


2. Stimulate circulation to reduce redness

If you find yourself losing the battle against inflamed, painful breakouts, a dose of cold therapy may be the answer you’ve been searching for. Not only can it offer immediate relief by easing the pain associated with certain types of severe acne (think: cystic), but it has the added benefit of reducing wrinkles. Try SiO Beauty’s Cryodrop, a skin-toning tool made of medical-grade steel that offers the beauty benefits of both cold therapy and skin massaging. For those who are acne-prone, a chilling product like this also works to stimulate circulation in the skin, which reduces the signs of inflammation, improves skin texture, and eases stressed skin—all things acne sufferers can benefit from.


3. Purify with activated charcoal

Not to be confused with the charcoal you’d use for your summer bonfire, activated charcoal (aka activated carbon) is a finely-milled black powder derived from charcoal when it’s burned at a high temperature. Thanks to its antimicrobial properties, activated charcoal can help calm acne-prone skin by removing pimple-causing dirt and bacteria from the skin. The result is a healthier, smoother-looking complexion. One caveat: If you’re incorporating an activated charcoal face mask into your routine, avoid over-using, as this can tear off the top layer of skin and the sebaceous glands that protect it. Make your own charcoal mask by blending a teaspoon of activated charcoal powder with two teaspoons of water, a drop of tea tree oil, and half a teaspoon of raw honey. Apply liberally to the skin and let sit for 10 minutes before rinsing off.


4. Draw out toxins with a clay mask

Clay is to acne-prone skin what hyaluronic acid is to dry skin. Not only do clay masks work to absorb any excess oil that would otherwise cause buildup and ultimately, acne, but clay has the ability to pull out toxins from the pores, thus making them appear smaller. Like activated charcoal, clay has detoxifying properties that help minimize shine. Plus, it’s loaded with minerals that balance the skin without drying it out. Bentonite clay, in particular, has an alkalizing effect on the skin, and when combined with antibacterial ingredients like honey, it can work wonders on flare-ups. Scout skincare products that list these ingredients as their MVP’s, or (if you're the DIY type), you can make your own. To do this, mix equal parts bentonite clay, water, and raw honey until it reaches a smooth, paste-like consistency. Apply all over the skin (or use as a spot treatment) and let sit for 10 minutes before washing off with warm water.


5. Treat with salicylic acid

Salicylic acid has long been an ingredient turned to for fighting acne—and for good reason. The acid is a type of BHA exfoliant that penetrates both the surface of the skin as well as the layer beneath the pores. The result? Blackhead and whitehead-free skin and clearer pores. If you’re a heavy makeup wearer, skincare products with salicylic acid can be an effective ingredient to help cleanse the skin, prevent breakouts, and slough away dead skin cells that may have turned into acne.


6. Combat scarring with niacinamide

Acne is part of the problem, but making sure they don’t get inflamed or leave behind a scar is another. Enter niacinamide, aka vitamin B3, a powerful nutrient that essentially makes the skin’s barrier bulletproof by improving texture, fending off dark spots, strengthening, and brightening. Best part? All skin types can benefit from the ingredient’s anti-inflammatory properties (dry and sensitive included) without any side effects.



While dealing with acne can be a vicious cycle of trial and error, it’s important to be equipped with the know-how on the ingredients that can help combat it. If you're struggling with a case of severe acne or a skin disease that you can't figure out an at-home treatment for, a visit to your dermatologist can help you figure out a proper acne treatment. Whether you’re looking to prevent pimples from appearing with a vengeance or zap them after they’ve already formed, try these six powerful, tried-and-true home remedies to make zits a thing of the past.


what causes acne