Acne myths

Busting the myths that surround acne

Myth Washing or scrubbing your face will help clear up acne


Reality Facial blemishes are not caused by dirt.1 Contrary to what you may have seen in commercials, pores do not get blocked from the top down due to "impurities." Rather, the walls of a pore stick together deep within the skin, starting acne formation. Far from preventing acne, frequent washing actually irritates pores, which can cause them to become clogged. A washcloth or any other cleansing device can add even more irritation. The best bet is to wash very gently with bare hands and only wash twice a day.2


Myth Stress causes acne


Reality Stress can affect hormones and can theoretically promote acne. However, an effective acne treatment regimen is more powerful than a bout of stress any day. Some psychiatric medications, notably lithium, which is often prescribed for bipolar disorder, may have acne as a side effect but stress itself is no big deal.3 Your time is better spent determining the right course of acne treatment rather than feeling guilt about stress.1,4


Myth Masturbation or sex causes acne


Reality This antiquated notion, originating as early as the 17th century to discourage young people from having premarital sex, is not based on scientific evidence.


Myth The sun will help get rid of acne


Reality 10-20 minutes per day of sun exposure for people with lighter skin and 20-30 minutes per day for people with darker skin may prove beneficial for acne symptoms, especially body acne. However, overly exposing your skin to the sun creates skin damage, which leaves the skin irritated. This irritation can result in more acne in the weeks following over exposure as the skin heals itself. If you notice a break out "out of the blue," ask yourself if you got sunburnt about two weeks ago. That may be the cause.1-2,5 Don’t be afraid of the sun but try not to get burnt.


Myth Diet and acne are related


Reality Available scientific evidence does not yet support a compelling case for a diet and acne connection. The bottom line is we need more research. We do know that people in some hunter/gatherer societies do not experience acne whatsoever across the entire population. This is in stark contrast to the widespread presence of acne throughout all modern society. It leaves us to ponder whether the indigenous people's unprocessed diet contributes to their acne-free skin or whether their clear skin is a result of genetics or some other factor. Discovering a dietary way of preventing acne may be a future reality. However, we may live so differently from our ancestors that it has become close to impossible to replicate our ancestral diet.1-2,6-8. Note: If you feel that you have cleared your acne using a particular diet or if you are planning on attempting a diet of some kind, please post your method on the Nutrition & holistic health forum. Keep in mind that almost any diet will appear to work in the short term because as your body loses weight, insulin and other hormones react and acne tends to recede. Then, as body weight levels out or increases, acne symptoms tend to return. Any legitimately effective anti-acne diet should continue working after the initial weight loss period.


Myth Only teens get acne


Reality So many adults now experience acne that some dermatologists refer to it as an “adult acne epidemic.” Exactly why this occurs is unknown but 50% of adult men and 25% of adult women now experience adult acne at some point.9-11 The good news is that it is treated the same way in an adult as in a teen.


Myth There is no cure for acne


Reality Accutane (isotretinoin) provides long-term remission of acne symptoms in approximately 2/3 of people who take an adequate dosage (1mg/kg).12-15 Since “cure” is defined as “a complete or permanent solution or remedy,” a strong case can be made that isotretinoin provides a cure for many people. However, since isotretinoin comes with such severe side effects, it is essential that anyone considering the drug enter into a careful decision-making process alongside a trusted physician.


Myth You should never pop a pimple


Reality If you search online, the vast majority of medical sources specifically warn against popping a pimple. However, this advice is never based on scientific evidence. While it is commonly agreed that attempting to pop pimples which are not yet ready and do not have a white or yellow center can cause the pimple to become more severe and potentially scar more severely, popping a zit which is ready and does in fact have a white or yellow center can actually eliminate the infection and initiate healing. Popping must be performed correctly to achieve the best result. Also, it is vital that popping never be combined with picking of the skin. Countless plastic surgeons who specialize in acne scar correction will tell you that picking the skin causes as much or more scarring than the initial acne lesion itself.


Myth Touching your face moves bacteria around and causes acne


Reality It is best to leave acne-prone skin relatively untouched. However, this is not because touching the skin moves bacteria around. Bacteria on the surface of your skin has nothing to do with acne. It is the bacteria deep within your pores (Propionibacterium acnes) that are part of the acne formation process. The reason it is important to leave your skin relatively untouched is because physically irritating the skin can cause breakouts and not because you are moving bacteria around.


Myth Dermatologists know everything there is to know about acne


Reality Even though acne is the #1 reason people see dermatologists, this does not mean that a dermatologist is a specialist in acne unless he/she specifically decided to focus his/her practice on this area. Becoming a dermatologist requires a person to study and understand a huge list of skin diseases, and acne is simply one of many. It is important that an acne sufferer be his own advocate when it comes to acne and learn everything he can about available treatments before speaking with a dermatologist to prevent a revolving door of prescriptions which very often do not provide adequate clearing of the skin.

  1. "Questions and Answers About Acne." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Jan. 2006. National Institutes of Health. 2001.
  2. Magin, P., D. Pond, W. Smith, and A. Watson. "A Systematic Review of the Evidence For 'Myths and Misconceptions' in Acne Management: Diet, Face-Washing and Sunlight." Family Practice. 22.1 (2005): 62-70.
  3. Hirsch, Glenn. "Guide to Psychiatric Medications for Children and Adolescents". AboutOurKids.org. 27 Feb. 2007.
  4. Green, J., and R.D. Sinclair. "Perceptions of Acne Vulgaris in Final Year Medical Student Written Exam Answers." The Australasian Journal of Dermatology 42.2 (2001): 98-101. Abstract. PubMed. 15 Apr. 2002.
  5. Gfesser, M., and W.I. Worret. "Seasonal Variations in the Severity of Acne Vulgaris." International Journal of Dermatology 35.2 (1996): 116-7. Abstract. PubMed. 15 Apr. 2002.
  6. "Diet best medicine for pimply problem - study". RMIT.edu. 2 Apr. 2007.
  7. Brand-Miller, Jennie, Loren Cordain, S. Boyd Eaton, Kim Hill, Magdalena Hurtado, and Staffan Lindeberg, "AcneVularis: A Disease of Western Civilization." Archives of Dermatology 138.12 (2002): 1584-1590.
  8. Cordain, Loren. "Implications for the Role of Diet in Acne." Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery 24 (2005): 84-91.
  9. Cunliffe WJ, Goulden V and Stables GI. "Prevalence of Facial Acne in Adults." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 1999; 41(4): 577-80.
  10. Knaggs HE, et al. "Post-adolescent acne." International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2004; 26(3): 129-38.
  11. Collier CN, et al. "The prevalence of acne in adults 20 years and older." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2008; 58(1): 56-59.
  12. Dhir R, et al. "Oral isotretinoin is as effective as a combination of oral isotretinoin and topical anti-acne agents in nodulocystic acne." Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology. 2008; 74(2): 187.
  13. Ng PP and Goh CL. "Treatment outcome of acne vulgaris with oral isotretinoin in 89 patients." International Journal of Dermatology. 1999; 38(3): 213-6.
  14. Quereux G, et al. "Prospective study of risk factors of relapse after treatment of acne with oral isotretinoin." Dermatology. 2006; 212(2): 168-76.
  15. Akman A, et al. "Treatment of acne vulgaris with intermittent and conventional isotretinoin: a randomized, controlled multicenter study." Archives of Dermatological Research. 2007; 299(10): 467-73.

Further Reading

  1. Adebamowo CA et al. "High school dietary dairy intake and teenage acne." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 52.2 (2005): 207-14. Abstract. PubMed. Feb. 2005.
  2. Fulton, James E. Acne Rx. James E. Fulton Jr., M.D., PhD: 2001.
  3. Kligman, Albert M., and Gerd Plewig. Acne and Rosacea. Berlin: Springer, 2000.