Clearing Up Misconceptions About Acne

Certain beliefs about the cause, prevention, and treatment of acne can hurt more than help

If you didn’t know better, you might think nature was out to get you. Because it’s usually a big day—the first in the new school year, the night of the year’s biggest party, the job interview—that the pimples come out.

But acne isn’t bad karma. And contrary to popular belief, it isn’t your fault.

What Causes Acne?

“Acne is a medical condition caused by a combination of factors, including hormones, oil gland production in hair follicles, and bacteria,” explains board-certified dermatologist Claudia N. Gaughf, MD. “Often I will see parents with their child and they will say, ‘If he just washed his face a little bit more, it would go away.’ But the child didn’t cause this problem. He simply has acne.”

Dr. Gaughf adds that cleansing the face with an acne wash twice a day might improve mild cases, but if the acne is severe enough, only a prescribed treatment will make a difference.

Some other misconceptions that Dr. Gaughf hears often include:

“This rash can’t be acne because I never had it as a teenager.”  Patients in their twenties or older will sometimes be surprised to learn from Dr. Gaughf that they have acne. But acne can start at any time in life and some patients get their first case as an adult.

“I didn’t come in (or bring my child in) because I thought it would get better on its own.” Some patients don’t think of acne as a medical condition and may delay treatment until it gets severe. Dr. Gaughf notes that 50 million people in the U.S. have acne. Left untreated, it can not only have a negative psychological impact but also cause permanent scarring.

“I thought treatment would improve my acne within a couple of weeks.” Dr. Gaughf sometimes has to remind patients that acne is an inflammatory process that takes time to improve.  Treatments take at least two months to see if they are working.  Then, depending on the results, the treatment regimen is changed or treatments are added.

There is a preventative action, or more accurately non-action, that people can take to protect their skin when they have acne. Dr. Gaughf asks her patients not to pick at their pimples.

“People who squeeze or scratch their pimples are at risk for scarring,” Gaughf says. “This is a condition called acne excoriée. I’ve seen patients who take a few pimples that aren’t that bad and turn them into a bunch of scabs.”

The smarter choice is to see a dermatologist before trying to excessively wash or pick your pimples away.

“We have topical treatments as well as oral treatments such as Accutane for more severe acne,” Gaughf says. “But there are other treatments besides medication—such as chemical peels or extractions of white heads and black heads by an experienced technician or esthetician—that can help heal and protect your skin.”