What is acne and does everyone get it?

Sometimes, it’s better to go back to basics when you’re dealing with chronic conditions. Whether you live with acne, it pops up when you’re hormonal, or you are supporting someone with spotty skin - let’s start at the beginning. 

What is acne? How prevalent is it? And, does everyone get it? We’ve all asked ourselves these questions, or punched them into Google. So, here is the trusted, easy to understand, simple to remember information you need to know when it comes to acne. 

Before we take a deep dive, it’s important to remember that if you have spots you are far from alone. In fact, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says that ‘ 650 million people are affected by acne worldwide’.

So, what is acne? 

We’re all about definitions here at talkhealth, and the NHS states that acne is: ‘Acne is a common skin condition that affects most people at some point. It causes spots, oily skin and sometimes skin that's hot or painful to touch.’ 

Although lots of people experience acne on their face, it can also appear on your back and chest. 

People can have different degrees of the inflammatory condition, varying from mild to severe. A pharmacist or GP is able to tell the difference between which type of acne a patient has by the number and type of spots that are occurring. 

The severity of acne is often categorised as:

  • mild – mostly whiteheads and blackheads, with a few papules and pustules
  • moderate – more widespread whiteheads and blackheads, with many papules and pustules
  • severe – lots of large, painful papules, pustules, nodules or cysts; you might also have some scarring

Who gets acne? 

It doesn’t matter what race, gender or age you are - almost everyone will experience an acne breakout at some point in their life. 

However, there are a few things that can increase the risk of acne - these include hormones, genetics, where you live, and your lifestyle. 

Acne often rears its head in teenagers. In fact, up to 95% of adolescents in Western industrialised countries are affected by acne to some extent — 20 to 35% develop moderate or severe acne. This is because of the new hormones that are circulating in their bodies as they go through puberty. 

Teenage boys are more likely to experience acne in their teens as the overproduction of testosterone can lead to  excessive sebum production, which, in turn, may increase the risk of inflamed sebaceous glands and cause a breakout. Conversely, older women are more likely to get acne due to the menopause and the fluctuation in hormones at this time. 

Is puberty the only cause of acne? 

No, pollution and your genes can also have a part to play in your spots. NICE says that ‘people living in Western industrialised countries have much higher rates of acne than some non-industrialised countries’. And there have been a number of studies to show that people living in cities produce more sebum, which leads to more pores being clogged, and more spots. This has also been backed up by a recent survey, carried out by Superdrug, which highlights the acne hotspots in the UK. 

And, genes? Well, despite the fact that there is no specific ‘acne’ gene, the condition is known to run in families. This is because your genetics have a part to play in how well your immune system is warding off acne-causing bacteria, and whether your hair follicles are strong enough to protect against spots too. 

Does my diet leave me at risk of acne? 

You guessed it, yes! The food you eat has a part to play in sebum product, and therefore acne. Fast food like burgers, chips, chocolate, and sweets are all high in saturated fats which make your sebum thicker and can cause inflammation. This means that your skin is less able to unclog your pores. 

On the other hand, most fruits are high in vitamin C and antioxidants so they promote better reproduction and collagen production. We’re not saying go cold-turkey on the indulgences, just if you notice more spots than you’d like, make the simple switch. 

If you, or someone you know, needs support for their acne head to the talkacne hub. There, you will find loads of great resources to manage your condition. 

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 17 February 2023
Next review: 17 February 2025