The Science Behind Acne, And How To Treat It

Acne is one of the most complicated skin conditions out there, despite the fact it’s extremely common. The Journal of Dermatology estimates that acne affects 85 per cent of people aged 12 to 24, and is the most frequently presented skin concern in patients aged between 15 and 40.  

Physical symptoms aside (we see you bumps, redness, texture and scarring), acne can also be pretty debilitating emotionally. Which is why understanding its causes and developing a professional, targeted treatment plan are super important.  

At Skinstitut, we believe everyone deserves to feel good in their own skin, so we’ve put together an expert guide on all there is to know about the science behind this tricky condition, from triggers to treatment options.  

What Exactly Is Acne? 

Acne is a chronic skin condition that occurs when pores become clogged with sebum – oily secretions of the sebaceous glands – bacteria and dead skin cells, resulting in lesions most commonly referred to as pimples.  

While it can crop up all over the body, acne is most common in areas of concentrated oil flow, such as the face, chest and back. It’s appearance and severity will vary from person to person, but acne can be broken down into a few different categories. We’ll explain these further below: 


Open and Closed Comedones: Non-inflammatory pimples are caused by blocked follicles. Closed comedones, or whiteheads, are blocked follicles that haven’t been exposed to air. They are small with no obvious head, and often look like flesh-coloured bumps. Open comedones are called blackheads and have dilated openings, allowing oxidation of the debris inside — hence the darker colour. They tend to be concentrated in areas of thick oil flow, such as the nose and chin.  


Papules and Pustules: Inflamed pimples come in two forms: papules are raised, red bumps, whereas pustules are filled with pus (they are also known as whiteheads). These guys are what usually springs to mind when someone says the word ‘acne’.   

Cysts: Cysts are deeper and more inflamed than other breakouts. They’re usually large, painful and can take weeks to heal. Cysts are also prone to scarring, so it’s essential not to pick at them, despite the temptation)  

What Causes Acne? 

While most common during puberty, acne can strike at any age (ain’t life grand?).  

The exact cause of the condition is vague, but we do know that there are four contributing factors at play:  

  1. A build-up of dead skin cells (also called retention hyperkeratosis).  
  2. Sebaceous overactivity.  
  3. Bacteria proliferation, specifically the presence of Propionibacterium acnes or P. acnes, also known as Cutibacterium acnes. 
  4. Inflammation. 

To put it simply, acne happens when sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria mingle within a pore, initiating an inflammatory response – and thus a pimple.  

We bet you’re also wondering if lifestyle factors play a role, and the answer is… sort of.  

It’s a disputed topic in the medical field, but there is evidence to show that a diet high in refined sugar can contribute to acne, as can high stress levels, lack of sleep, and alcohol. Most of these habits interfere with our hormonal balance, and it’s our hormones that play a role in regulating oil production: too much oil means a higher incidence of acne. So, there are some lifestyle changes that are worth considering if you’re in the grips of persistent breakouts:  

  • Eat a diet rich in vegetables, lean protein, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, and fruit. 
  • Reduce your consumption of dairy and foods high in refined sugars. 
  • Avoid smoking and limit your alcohol consumption.  
  • Reduce stress levels, where possible.  
  • Use oil-free, lightweight makeup products.  

Cosmeceutical Ingredients That Work 

Now for some good news. There are plenty of clinically proven topical ingredients that can work to improve acne symptoms. In the spirit of sharing (and achieving skin health) we’ve compiled a few of our favourites:  

Retinol: A derivative of Vitamin A, Retinol is a well-researched ingredient that’s proven to speed up cellular turnover. What it does is prevent a build-up of expired cells, reducing the likelihood of congestion, plus Retinol also brightens up the look of pesky post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation – those dark marks that linger after a particularly tricky breakout.  

Try: Retinol Serum 

This 1.25% encapsulated Retinol treatment also boasts peptides to improve skin strength, clarity and resilience.  

Glycolic Acid: Glycolic Acid is an Alpha-Hydroxy Acid that dissolves the ‘glue’ holding dead skin cells together. With regular use, it kick-starts the desquamation – or skin-peeling – process, reducing the risk of clogged pores.  

Try: Glycolic Scrub 9%

Made with Glycolic Acid and biodegradable Silica beads, this hybrid chemical/ manual exfoliant works to refine and retexturise the skin.  

Try: Expert Glycolic AHA Toner  

This leave-on treatment combines a 5 per cent Glycolic Acid concentration with Witch Hazel, Aloe Vera and Green Tea to exfoliate, brighten and smooth acne-prone skin.  

Lactic Acid: Lactic Acid is another Alpha-Hydroxy Acid, but its molecular size is larger, meaning it works on the upper layers of the skin only. Because the effects aren’t as intense, it’s a great choice for acne suffers who also have sensitive skin. 

Try: L-Lactic Cleanser  

Gentle but effective, L-Lactic Cleanser sweeps away dirt, sebum and superficial skin cells to refine and rehydrate. With ongoing use, it will keep potentially pore-clogging debris away.  

For even more acne tips, check out our Clearing Range — it details all the Skinstitut products and steps that are designed to improve persistent breakouts. And if you want your very own Skinstitut routine to target symptoms, jump on over to our extremely detailed (and helpful!) skin quiz.  

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