Sofie Wise

Shannon Chapman

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About Author — Shannon enjoys breaking down technical subjects and giving others the tools to make informed decisions. Her interests include behavioral economics, sustainable living, meditation, and healthy cooking.

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog.

What Causes Acne?

For most adults, acne is just a part of growing up, but in actuality, acne can occur within all stages of life including, infanthood, adolescence, and pregnancy. While acne can develop across life stages, there are home remedies and general acne treatments to help with the condition. Acne is a condition characterized by clogged skin pores causing infection and inflammation. The skin contains many glands that produce oil to help protect your body from various irritants. These glands are located in your skin pores, where hair follicles grow. When a pore gets clogged by oil and bacteria, the body’s immune system responds by causing swelling. While most mild acne clear up on their own, medical treatments and home remedies can prove useful in lessening the skin blemishes and quickening the process. There are many reasons why a pore might get clogged and cause acne, learn some of these reasons below.

Understanding Acne Causes

Because acne can be so prominent, people want to understand all the causes of acne in order to prevent acne. The answer is that acne is not always preventable as sometimes hormone changes beyond our control can cause us to produce extra oils resulting in acne. However, some factors can aggravate the skin, so here are the most frequently asked questions about acne causes and their answers:

  • Does masturbation cause acne? No, masturbation does not cause acne and acne does not correlate to sexual activity in teens or others. Most likely started as a myth to dispel young people from premarital sex, acne can be caused by hormonal changes in the body during teenage years, but not by sex or masturbation itself.
  • Does stress cause acne? Unknown. Acne could be caused by stress or be caused by the activities we do when we are stressed. Eating or sleeping poorly as well as not washing your face could be the contributing factor. It is also possible that the stress directly causes acne since the stress hormone cortisol can be correlated with acne, but it is not known for certain.
  • What foods cause acne? Some foods can contribute to acne, though not as much as people believe. Often knowledge passed around is based on individual experience, not scientific research. It is true that good nutrition helps total body health, however, specific foods are harder to pinpoint. Sugar may be one of the foods that cause acne, as higher blood sugar content is associated with higher levels of acne. Is this evidence for “does chocolate cause acne?” Not necessarily, as there are many other factors that could be at play. An imbalance of fats, particularly for diets heavier in omega-6s than omega-3s may cause inflammation in the skin. Thus, eating more fish rich in omega-3s, such as salmon, and using less vegetable oil can help. Finally, gluten is often cited as causing acne, but this lacks scientific basis apart from individuals with celiac disease. You should consult a doctor if you decide to go on a new diet to ensure you are still getting proper nutrition.
  • Does dairy cause acne? Unknown, there are some studies that suggest a link between dairy and acne, but whether dairy consumption causes acne is unclear. It may help some individuals, but a dairy-free diet can reduce a person’s calcium and vitamin D intake so it is important to make sure you receive those nutrients through other means.
  • Does smoking weed cause acne? Most likely not. Smoking weed can lead to increased hormone levels that usually lead to acne, but the change is so minimal it is unlikely. It is more likely that diets associated with smoking weed are the cause. There is some evidence that marijuana is an anti-inflammatory and anti-aging agent, so it is unclear what effect it would have.
  • Does caffeine cause acne? Not exactly. Caffeine has no proven direct link to increased acne. However, caffeine can be associated with stress, diets, and other behaviors that can negatively affect the body and skin, so it should always be taken in moderation.
  • Does lack of sleep cause acne? Maybe. Getting a full night’s rest can improve your immune system, which can heal acne more quickly. Losing sleep could contribute to a weaker immune system and acne outbreaks, but lack of sleep cannot cause acne on it’s own and would need to be combined with a number of other factors.

Ultimately, your general well being contributes to the health and state of acne no matter your age, but no one lifestyle factor can determine or cause acne. The biggest contributing factors that increase your likelihood are genetics and your age, but even those can only sometimes determine if and when you will acne. Talking to a doctor is the best way to determine a treatment plan that best suits your unique health needs.

Your Age and Acne

There are three periods of life when acne is much more common: infancy, teenage years, and for women, pregnancy. Each of these are associated with their own factors:

Infant Acne

  • Baby acne is very common, and can be present at birth, though it usually appears a few weeks later and can last anywhere from a few days to a couple months. The acne tends to occur during a baby’s peak gas production and fussiness, around three to four weeks of age. It will be most prominent while the baby is hot or fussy due to increased blood flow, or when the skin is irritated.
  • The pimples themselves resemble teenage acne, and usually appear on the cheeks, forehead, chin, and sometimes back.
  • Baby acne is caused by the mother’s hormones circulating in the baby’s bloodstream, that stimulate the baby’s oil glands and cause pimples to appear. Acne can be irritated by spit-up or saliva that isn’t cleaned quickly enough, as well as fabric laundered using harsh detergents, or rough fabrics.
  • Infant acne will typically resolve on its own without treatment and without leaving a scar. Using soaps that are mild and moisturizing is usually best. Gently sweeping a soft soapy washcloth over the face using a circular motion is recommended.

Teenage Hormonal Acne

  • When puberty hits you during your teenage years, the body experiences a spike in sex hormones called androgens. A common side effect of androgen hormones is the overproduction of the sebum oils. Since androgen levels are at an all-time high during your teenage years, it’s incredibly common for teens to develop acne; in fact, 85% of teens experience some form of it.
  • Acne can be treated by both over-the-counter and prescription medications, depending on its severity. The most common over-the-counter medications include benzoyl-peroxide and salicylic acid.
  • Regardless of whether or not you have acne, it’s important to always take care of your skin by washing it every day and applying a non-oily moisturizer. If you think you may have a persistent form of acne, it is best to consult with your doctor for treatment options.


  • A very common cause of adult acne is when women experience acne during pregnancy. In fact, more than 50% of women experience acne during pregnancy.
  • Acne during pregnancy is likely to occur due to increased hormones levels, known as androgens, in the first and second trimester.
  • Acne during pregnancy can occur anytime, as well as the duration and severity of acne depending on the individual.
  • There are no differentiated or specific actions that women can take to prevent acne during pregnancy. However, there are certain ways to treat eruptions of acne while pregnant such as avoiding irritable washcloths to clean the face, washing the face with soap gently twice a day, using oil-free moisturizer, avoiding contact with pimples, using water based makeup products instead of oil based, and ensuring to consult a doctor before using medicated products.

There are also a number of natural remedies to consider that can help treat acne and decrease the chance of breakouts.

Birth Control and Acne

Some people ask, “does birth control cause acne?” On the contrary, birth control is often prescribed for women with acne and has been for decades. Birth control helps reduce acne by providing synthetic hormones that decrease androgen, which decreases the secretion of oil from skin glands. It is important to note the risks and benefits before taking any birth control for acne to be able to make informed decisions. It is advised to only be used by healthy women, and typically should be started after other acne treatments have failed. There are a large variety of birth control pills available for women, each containing its own variation of hormones. Studies have not proven a significant difference between pills to prove that there is one best birth control for acne. All combination birth control pills are expected to do an effective job in treating noninflammatory and inflammatory acne. Additionally, the level of effectiveness to decide the best birth control for acne is dependent on each individual’s body and a number of other varying factors. Thus, personal trials are likely the best method of determining effectiveness.

What Do I Do if I have Acne?

Acne occurs within all stages of life with varying levels of severity. It can be influenced by factors like your diet, sleep routine, stress levels, and other lifestyle factors, but most likely it is caused by your genetics or stage in life. If you have acne, there are a number of treatments you can consult your doctor about and determine what is best for you. Additionally, there are home remedies that some patients find useful. The most important part is patience and understanding that trying out different treatments take time. If you or a loved one is experiencing severe acne, you can make an appointment with your primary care physician or see an urgent care in order to consult with a doctor online.