Blemishes have the maddening ability to make us feel at any age like dirty-faced adolescents, but breaking out actually has little to do with hygiene. In fact, where we find them on our faces can tell us more about their triggers than we realize.
The Real Acne Culprits
Most people assume that breakouts are caused by a lack of cleanliness or an abundance of fried foods or chocolate in one’s diet. The truth is that neither one is to blame. The roots of our acne problems are actually at the roots of our hair—hair follicles get plugged up by skin cell debris and excess oil produced by neighboring sebaceous glands. After the follicle is clogged, it creates one of four types of blemishes: a whitehead (the clog pushes against the wall and forms a head); a pimple (the area around the follicle gets infected and turns red); a blackhead (the wall opens and exposes the clog to outside air); or the infection goes even deeper and keeps the clog beneath the surface of the skin, which causes a painful red lump without a head.
What causes the plug in the first place can be a number of things. Hormonal changes, particularly in teenagers and women, seem to be the primary cause. Androgens (male hormones), which stimulate oil production in the sebaceous glands, increase in concentration during puberty and certain times in a woman’s menstrual cycle. Medications containing steroids, such as cortisone, can also prompt acne. Hereditary predisposition is also a factor—if your parents battled acne, chances are you will, too. Other potential triggers include air pollution, cosmetics containing oil, frequent use of cell phones, helmets, and other items that constantly rub against the face, and, oddly enough, washing the face too much. (All that scrubbing can irritate the surface and dry the skin out, making oil glands secrete more to compensate.)
Stress is also blamed for making us break out, but that’s only true if people are already prone to acne. It can make the situation worse, but stress alone doesn’t create acne.
Decoding Pimple Facial Placements
All of these factors could cause unsightly spots on our faces, but where those spots end up sheds more light on where to point the finger.
Breakouts on our foreheads and nose (otherwise known as the T-zone) are most common during puberty, when oil production in that area is in overdrive. In adults, bangs and oily hair—or using hair products that contain oil—are the main agents of forehead acne. For women, using oil-based foundation can cause blemishes, too.
Resting our cheeks on our hands when we sit or sleep is something many of us are guilty of (I was doing it mere moments ago) and the primary cause of flare-ups in that area. Anything that rubs against the skin and causes friction and excess moisture will make breakouts that much more likely.
Like cheeks, chins often end up resting on our hands when we’re sitting, so that’s a common cause. However, it gets a little more complex with women because our cyclic hormonal vacillations (particularly with androgens, the oil-causing hormone mentioned earlier) also cause us to break out on our chin and jaw area. As a group, pubescent males may get more severe acne because of the influx of male hormones, but while their bouts of acne drop off with adulthood, females can continue getting occasional pimples or whiteheads until menopause because of their menstrual cycles.
Preventative Measures That Help
Since acne isn’t always brought on by things we can control (thanks, hormones!), it might just be a sporadic fact of life for some of us. But there are actions we can take to make breakouts less likely.
- Wash—but don’t overwash—your face with a mild cleanser one to two times a day
- Limit or avoid using use oil-based cosmetics or hair products
- Try not to touch your face or have things coming into contact with your face for too long—hair, cell phones, etc.
- If you find that flare-ups coincide with stress in your life, explore ways to relax more
We can stop feeling unclean and pinning the blame for renegade pimples on chocolate. Unfortunately, knowing that overactive hormones, our parents, or our frequent use of our hands as pillows are responsible doesn’t make getting acne any less frustrating. It also doesn’t mean that we should stop washing our faces or go on a chocolate and French fry binge. (Greasy food may not be the cause, but it certainly can’t help matters either.) We just have to keep up the good behavior that keeps our faces oil- and bacteria-free, stop using our hands as chin rests, and perhaps the hardest part of all—stop picking at the pimples! Though who among us hasn’t been guilty of that?