Everything you need to know about acne vulgaris

Acne vulgaris is the medical name for acne.

Written by
Kate Iselin
Medically reviewed by
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Acne — almost everyone gets it, but this common skin condition remains pretty mysterious. What causes acne? How can we get rid of it? Is it contagious? And what does ‘vulgaris’ mean, anyway?

In this comprehensive guide, we set out to explain everything you need to know about acne and bust some really common acne myths along the way. Let's dive into it.

What does acne vulgaris mean?

Acne vulgaris is the medical name for acne. ‘Vulgaris’ doesn’t mean gross, or vulgar, or anything like that — it’s the medical term for ‘common’ [1].

Almost 90% of adolescents will develop acne, and heaps of adults will too, so acne is indeed one of the most common skin conditions out there [2].

What's the difference between pimples and acne?

Pimples are individual acne lesions.

Everyone gets them once in a while, but when there are a lot of pimples on the face or body that don’t go away easily, it’s considered acne.

There are a few different kinds of pimple:

  • Comedones: blackheads (open comedones) or whiteheads (closed comedones)
  • Papules: small red bumps
  • Pustules: larger red bumps with white or yellow ‘heads’
  • Nodules: solid red bumps that do not contain pus
  • Pseudocysts: solid red bumps that contain pus [3].

Papules, pustules, nodules, and pseudocysts are all considered ‘inflammatory’ acne because of the redness and swelling that accompanies them.

What's considered 'severe' acne?

Acne is measured from mild to severe. The severity of acne depends on two things: the amount of lesions you have and the type of lesions.

The following information, from DermNet New Zealand [1], explains it well:

Mild acne

  • Less than 20 comedones (blackheads or whiteheads)
  • Less than 15 inflammatory lesions
  • Less than 30 lesions overall

Moderate acne

  • 20-100 comedones
  • 15-50 inflammatory lesions
  • Between 30-125 lesions overall

Severe acne

  • More than 5 pseudocysts
  • More than 100 comedones
  • More than 50 inflammatory lesions
  • More than 125 lesions overall.

If you see a healthcare provider for help, your acne severity will be taken into account when deciding on the best possible treatment for it.

How do pimples form?

Pimples form when skin oils and bacteria get caught inside our hair follicles.

Our follicles are usually pretty good at self-cleaning thanks to something called the sebaceous gland, which exists in each follicle and produces an oily substance called sebum.

Sebum carries out any impurities or foreign matter and expels it through the pore, at the top of the hair follicle [4]. This process occurs over and over again in our bodies every day, and it usually happens without any problems — but sometimes the follicle gets clogged.

The sebaceous gland continues producing sebum, which builds up inside the follicle and creates a breeding ground for a skin bacteria called propionibacterium acnes [5].

As this bacteria multiplies, the body’s immune system is triggered and the skin around the area becomes inflamed as the body tries to heal the new pimple.

White blood cells can sometimes be used by the body to help heal the pimple, and these are later expelled as pus [7].

What causes acne vulgaris?

There are a few things that can cause acne, but the biggest cause is the increase of certain hormones, which can cause a surge in our body’s production of sebum and create acne.

The relationship between hormones and acne explains why many teenagers get acne as they start puberty, and it also explains why acne is so common for:

Some women may also notice an increase in acne during certain stages of their menstrual cycle, and this too is related to hormones [9].

Aside from hormones, acne can also be caused by certain kinds of cosmetics and some facial or head coverings.

There have been some studies done that have revealed tenuous links between diet and acne, and stress and acne, but we believe more research needs to be done in this area before any conclusions can be drawn from it.

Why do some people get severe acne and some don't?

We all have that one friend who never gets acne, and it can be frustrating to think that they’ve found some secret to good skin that we don’t know about.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet know why some people get severe acne, some only get a mild case, and others get none at all.

One research paper has suggested that there are different strains of the p. acnes bacteria that could play a role in how severe an individual’s case of acne is and even though this idea is interesting, it needs more research before we can know for sure whether it makes a difference [10].

In the meantime, it’s important to know that your likelihood of getting acne isn’t something you can control initially.

No matter how severe your acne may be, it’s not your fault that you have it.

However, with advice from a health practitioner (and a few clinically proven ingredients, which we'll get to shortly), you can work towards giving your skin the best opportunity to combat this annoyingly common condition.

Is acne unhygienic?

Acne is not unhygienic.

While skin bacteria does play a role in acne, this bacteria is found on everyone’s faces and is natural to our bodies. Having acne is not a sign that someone needs to bathe or shower more, or that they are ‘dirty’ or unclean in any way.

In fact, showering or washing our face too much can cause acne to get worse, rather than better. Oh, and acne is also not contagious, either.

Can you treat acne?

Yes, there are treatments available for acne.

Even the most severe acne can be treated and managed. We believe it’s important to seek treatment for acne once you believe it’s becoming a problem.

There are over-the-counter products you can try and when looking for the best ones, there are a few key ingredients to keep an eye out for. These include:

  • Azelaic acid. One of the most effective acne treatments available on the market, azelaic acid not only reduces active breakouts but prevents new ones from occurring and assists with the healing process to reduce scarring.
  • Retinoids. Retinoids stimulate the growth of new skin cells and are often used as a 'first line' treatment to help manage mild acne.
  • Salicylic acid. A type of BHA, salicylic acid is able to penetrate deep into the skin, which makes it an excellent ingredient for treating superficial acne. It gets right into your pores to dissolve dead skin cells and oils that would otherwise clog your pores, while also slowing down sebum production.
  • Niacinamide. Though often used for its anti-ageing benefits, niacinamide also helps address acne by reducing oil production and retaining skin moisture.
  • Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria that causes acne vulgaris and it is quite a strong ingredient, so it's typically used for severe cases of acne.

Software's Acne Kit features a lot of these ingredients (and more) to banish your breakouts for good. It comes packed with 4 products that target acne at all stages:

  • Acne Supplement to clear the skin from the inside out with a unique blend of acne-fighting vitamins and minerals.
  • Salicylic Foaming Wash to slough away debris, dead skin cells and acne-causing bacteria.
  • AHA/BHA Pimple Patches to eliminate bacteria deep within the follicle, stopping breakouts in their tracks.
  • Ceramide Repair Balm to deeply hydrate, nourish and repair the skin for a stronger skin barrier.

Will acne go away on its own?

Acne can go away on its own but it can take years, so treating it is worth it.

Successful treatment of acne won’t just target the pimples themselves, it will also improve the quality of your skin in general and make it so that pimples are highly unlikely to return.

If your acne has an underlying cause — for example, a hormonal imbalance — a doctor may be able to diagnose and manage that as part of your acne treatment. It’s important to know that leaving more severe cases of acne to heal on their own can cause scarring, which can damage the condition of your skin.

Acne scars can be treated, but as with acne itself, the sooner you access treatment, the better.

What's the best acne treatment for me?

The best acne treatment for you is simply the one that works — and a dermatologist or health practitioner can help you find it.

There are several things they will take into account when prescribing you an acne treatment, including:

  • Which skincare products you have used before
  • Any allergies you may have
  • Any other skin conditions you would like to treat
  • The sensitivity of your skin.

This, of course, means that there’s no one single acne treatment that works for everyone.

A good acne treatment will be tailor-made just for you and your skin. This is why Software's health practitioners create formulas personalised for your skin type and concern.

All you need to do is upload selfies and share your skin goals with your online practitioner. Then, a pharmacist creates your custom bottle, which is shopping straight to you. You also get access to professional, personalised advice on your skin, as well as ongoing, follow-up support from your practitioner as you use your treatment.

What's the best treatment when a pimple pops up?

Even with an acne-fighting skincare routine, the odd pimple can still appear.

When this happens, it helps to have blemish-busting spot treatments in your arsenal so you can nip the zit in the bud.

Software's AHA/BHA Pimple Patches, which we mentioned before, target newly forming breakouts above and below the skin. The microdarts embedded in every patch penetrate pimples and kill off bacteria deep within the follicle, which helps contain the spread.

Simply pop a patch on the affected area and remove it after 2 hours to reveal a pimple that is less inflamed and visibly reduced.

Plus, these handy patches prevent you from touching or squeezing the zit, allowing the combination of AHAs and BHAs to tackle the breakout, head-on.

What does a successful treatment do?

Successful acne treatment may take weeks or even months to start visibly working.

However, once it does, it should reduce the amount of visible acne lesions on your skin, along with any swelling, inflammation, and redness that comes with them.

After most acne lesions have healed, you might begin treatments that help restore your skin’s health and appearance, and reduce any scars that are left over from having acne.

No treatment will work overnight, and treating acne does require time, patience, and faith that it will work. It might also include a period of skin purging but try not to worry as this will subside.

Image credit: Getty Images

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