Acne (spots)

This fact sheet helps you to know what’s ‘normal’ and what you can expect to happen if you suffer from acne (spots). It also tells you when you should become concerned and seek advice from a health professional.

Useful facts

What is acne?
Acne tends to start at puberty and leads to greasy skin and ‘spots’. People may feel bad about themselves because of the way their skin looks, often at a time when they are already vulnerable.

How common is acne?
You are not alone – acne affects 8 out of 10 teenagers to some degree, and more frequently boys. Around one in three teenagers have acne bad enough to need treatment. In women and girls, acne is more common around the time of their monthly periods.

What causes it?
Acne is caused by inflamed skin glands on your face and upper trunk, often made worse by bacteria in the skin. In rare cases, acne may be caused by an underlying medical condition, such as polycystic ovary disease (PCO) or other hormonal disorders. It’s a myth that stress or certain foods (such as chocolate) cause acne – and acne is certainly not due to a lack of cleanliness!

What can I expect to happen?

Acne is a long-term condition that may need immediate treatment for treating severely affected skin, and maintenance therapy to keep spots from recurring. In seven out of ten people, acne stops within five years – but some people experience skin problems lasting into their 20s and, rarely, longer.

Acne can vary from being mild and localised to severe and widespread.

Impact on your life
Acne can severely affect people’s quality of life, regardless of how bad it is.

You won’t need any tests unless your doctor suspects an underlying medical cause.

What can I do to get myself better - now and in the future?

Wash your face only once or twice a day with lukewarm water. Avoid strong or abrasive soaps and excessive scrubbing. Be aware that hot water and rough flannels can make symptoms worse rather than better.

Avoid squeezing
No matter how tempting, try not to squeeze acne spots, as this may cause scarring.

Over the counter creams, gels and lotions
Effective treatments are available to reduce and improve spots. They can also prevent or reduce scarring if started early. Ask a member of your pharmacy team for advice on available preparations.

Make-Up and Skincare
When choosing make-up and sunscreens, choose “non-comedogenic’ (should not cause blackheads or whiteheads) or ‘non-acnegenic’ (should not cause acne) and always remove make up at the end of the day. Make-up experts, including pharmacists, can help advise.

When should I seek medical help?

Seek advice from a member of your pharmacy team or your surgery if initial treatment with over-the-counter preparations doesn’t work for you, if acne significantly impairs your quality of life, or if any of the following symptoms are present:

Your acne is really bad and you feel physically unwell because of it.

You develop painful spots that feel ‘deep’ in your skin.

You get distressed by your acne, and/or it affects your social life.

You notice the beginning of scarring despite treatment.

Possible underlying medical causes
You suspect that you may have an underlying medical condition that causes your acne – for example, if you have additional symptoms such as infrequent or absent periods, excessive hair growth, or hair loss.

Acne fulminans
Seek help from a health professional if you experience fever and joint stiffness associated with acne.

Where can I find out more?

A member of your pharmacy team can help you to assess your symptoms and provide advice on suitable treatment options.

You can also seek information from the following websites:
British Association of Dermatologists 
NHS Website 
NHS NI Direct, Northern Ireland 
NHS Inform, Scotland 
NHS111, Wales 

We review our health information every two years and this information is due to be updated in October 2024.  Here are details about how we develop and review our self care aware fact sheets.