Young Adult Health
Visit website  
Home › Health Topics › Healthy Body > 

Acne (pimples, zits)

acne; pimples; young; people; youth; zits; skin; cigarettes; smoking; tobacco; zit; dandruff; face; hair; cream; makeup; oil; pores; black; head; white; lump; cyst; puberty;


Why do they always come up at the worst time? Acne (pimples) can be a slight embarassment or a big problem that causes you to be very self conscious. But the good news is that there are some things that you can do to make it a lot better.

What is acne?

Acne, pimples or zits – those red lumps in or under the skin that many young people get when their hormones start getting active around puberty. It is usually at its worst between 11 and 18 years of age, but in a few people it can last until they are in their mid 20s.

Acne can involve mild to severe outbreaks of pimples and cysts on the face and sometimes on the back, shoulders and chest.

  • Cysts are lumps under the skin that have pus and other tissue in them, and they can be red, swollen and sore – but they do not come to a head like pimples do.
  • Pimples are the ones that form a head, sometimes with a white head of pus that may "erupt" if squeezed (which you shouldn't do!).
  • Pimples usually heal without scars, but cysts can cause scarring and blotchy, uneven skin colour.

How do you get acne?

  • As you enter puberty, a lot of hormones start to be produced by your body. Some of these hormones are called 'androgens' – both men and women have them, but men have more of them. These androgens can affect oil glands in the skin of the face, neck, back, shoulders and chest.
    • The glands get bigger and produce more oil (sebum).
    • Bacteria (germs) that are commonly found on the skin make this oil thicken so that the skin's pores become blocked and the oil cannot get out.
    • Blocked pores can become blackheads, white-heads, pimples and cysts.
  • You can mainly blame your genes (heredity) for acne.
    • If a parent had bad acne as a teenager, you are more likely to get it too.
    • But even in the same family, some people can get worse acne than others.
  • Girls tend to get it younger than boys.
  • For girls, it can get worse or break out at certain times of their menstrual cycle when hormone levels change (usually just before they have a period).
  • Boys will often have more outbreaks than girls, and they often seem to get worse pimples and more cysts.

Acne attack!

  • Unfortunately, acne hits young people at a time when they most want to look their best – acne can make you feel embarrassed and feel bad about yourself. It's like a really bad joke is being played on us - when we start to think about sexual relationships our bodies are all lanky, boys' voices crack, and we all get pimples.
  • Parents and older people might tell you that pimples are a part of growing up, and that you just shouldn't worry about them, but if your acne or pimples are making you miserable, you should speak to your doctor because there are medical treatments that can help a lot.

Can you wash acne away?

  • The short answer is “No” – acne is not caused by dirty skin. Some people who do not take care of their skin do not have trouble with acne, and others who take a lot of care of their skin still get bad acne. Acne is not fair!
  • Wash the areas where you get acne with soap and water only 2 or 3 times each day. Any more can dry your skin too much. Try a soap substitute that moisturises your skin as an alternative (such as sorbolene).

Do acne treatments work?

  • Many acne treatments can be bought over the counter at chemists or supermarkets, and some of these can be helpful.
  • It is a good idea to talk to the chemist to find out which are the most useful.
  • Be aware that what worked for a friend may not work for you.
  • If you are using any form of treatment and your skin becomes very dry or irritated, stop using it straight away.
  • People who get dandruff can have flaky skin on their face. Some of the medication for dandruff may help this and acne. Check out the topic 'Dandruff' to learn more.
  • Some of the treatments make your skin very sensitive to sunlight. Check if you need to use a sun block as well.

Acne can appear overnight. Unfortunately acne treatments do not work so fast!

  • It can take several weeks before you can see much difference in your acne.
  • If a pimple starts to appear just before something important, none of the treatments will make it go away in just one or two days.
  • You could try makeup that conceals it (young men can use this too), and also remember that no-one else will notice as much as you do.

Should you see your doctor?

  • If the acne is bad, your doctor may prescribe medication or refer you to a dermatologist (skin specialist).
  • Medical treatment can include antibiotics to kill the germs which are part of the cause, or medications which can reduce the amount of oil being produced, or the amount of androgen in your body.
  • These treatments can lead to huge improvements in how your skin looks, and can reduce the number of new pimples.
  • The treatment can, however, have some unwanted effects. Ask your doctor how the medications work and what effects you might experience.
  • These treatments also need to be taken for many months to make a major difference.

What about make-up?

  • If you wear make-up, it may be better to use water-based, oil-free products. Oil-free foundations are available in most brands and in a full range of skin tones.
  • If you wear make-up during the day, it is important to remove it at night. Soap and water is usually enough for this – you don't need expensive cleaning products.
  • Men and women can use a tinted anti-acne cream that will help to dry out pimples while disguising them - at least from a distance.

To squeeze or not to squeeze?

  • Some people try to see how much ooze and goo they can squeeze out of a pimple. As fascinating as this is, no matter how much you are tempted, try to not pick or squeeze pimples.
  • Squeezing can spread germs into the skin around the pimple and make things a lot worse. It can lead to scarring of the skin.

What about smoking?

  • Although smoking doesn't cause acne, the skin of a smoker is less healthy and looks older – this is because the nicotine in tobacco smoke reduces the blood circulation to your skin and the amount of oxygen your skin gets.


  • We can’t prove that stress causes an outbreak of pimples, but it's amazing how pimples just 'magically' appear on the day when you have something important on, such as a special date, or when you have an exam?
  • If you have something really important coming up in several weeks time, this could be a good time for you to go to your doctor to see if some different treatment for your acne might be helpful.

Should you give up chocolate (and all the other good stuff that you like)?

  • Many people think that eating lollies or chocolate or ‘junk’ food causes pimples.
  • Research has not been able to prove any direct link, but some people do find that chocolate or lollies or ‘junk’ food and pimples seem linked for them – perhaps some people eat chocolate or whatever when they are under a lot of stress or a period is due, and that it is these which trigger the pimples.
  • If you get acne, healthy eating certainly won't hurt you, and it may even help if your overall health improves.

Where to get help

If you are concerned about skin problems or skin care, you should talk to either your local doctor or chemist/pharmacy for information about possible treatments. If you are feeling really down, it might be a good idea to talk to a counsellor.

Oxygen web site - South Australian Smoking and Health Project, Smarter than Smoking Project (WA) and Quit Victoria.

Further information

Medline Plus (National Library of Medicine, USA)

back to top
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
Home › Health Topics › Healthy Body >