If you are one of the 40 million people in America who suffer from acne, you know just how frustrating this problem can be. Not only can it be itchy and uncomfortable, but it can affect your self-esteem too.

So what is acne, how does it affect women, and what treatments are available?

Acne, as defined by Medical News Today, is a skin disease that “involves the oil glands at the base of hair follicles.” It is caused when the skin’s oil glands make too much sebum or oil, leading to clogged pores, or it is caused by the rapid production of a bacteria called P. acnes.

While outbreaks are most common in teenagers, when hormones come out swinging full force, there is sometimes an adult-onset of acne. It is not dangerous, though severe cases can lead to scarring.

Acne in Women

Acne tends to manifest itself differently in men than in women. Young men are prone to suffer from long bouts of acne since testosterone is a hormone that affects breakouts. In women, acne tends to be related to the imbalance of hormones in the body, which means it may ebb and flow along with your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, and even birth control pills. For example, you might realize that you experience more breakouts a week before your period. Once you know that your breakouts are hormone-related, you can better assess (with your doctor) what treatments will work for you.

Please remember: Always consult your doctor before self-diagnosing and self-treating!

Hormones are not the ONLY cause of acne in women. Other possible causes are:

  • Medication. Some medications produce acne as a side effect. If this is a medication you need, think of it as a trade-off. In this case, the breakout should be short-lived, only as long as you take the medication. You can also ask your doctor about what acne treatments you can use that won’t interact badly with your medication.
  • Make-up. Maybe you have sensitive skin. If you suspect your acne may be related to your make-up, you can cut out your make-up products one by one to see if your skin improves. You can also purchase non-comedogenic make-up that doesn’t clog pores.
  • Pressure or friction on the skin. Acne may only occur when friction is on your skin, perhaps from a bicycle helmet, headband, or cell phone . In this case, try not to have the object directly in contact with your skin, and if you can’t avoid it, make sure the item is clean, so it doesn’t push bacteria into your pores.
  • Genetics. If the women in your family have acne, you may be more likely to experience the same. All hope is not lost, though! Read on to find out about treatments that can help.


The most common treatments for mild acne (whiteheads and blackheads) are over-the-counter (OTC) creams or lotions. (Ask your doctor for a suggestion) Many of these creams include benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, sulfur, or retinoic acid, which are geared towards reducing the oil made by your glands and breaking down whiteheads and blackheads.

Your doctor may recommend taking oral contraceptive pills for women who suffer from hormonal acne. This is a suggested treatment because the contraceptives stabilize hormone fluctuations, controlling acne outbreaks.

Moderate to severe acne can be treated by antibiotics or a combination of antibiotics and topical treatments.

Severe acne, the least-common form, can consist of cysts, redness, swelling, and scarring. Your doctor may recommend the drug Isotretinoin (brand name Accutane) in these cases. A strong medication can help prevent scarring and treat active disease when other methods have failed. Isotretinoin, however, is a dangerous drug that can cause congenital disabilities and produce side effects, such as dry eyes, itching, ulcerative colitis, bony malformations, changes in the blood and liver, mood changes, and depression.

Women who don’t want to take Isotretinoin can try different types of light therapy, such as photodynamic therapy or Isolaz. You can speak to your dermatologist about the best procedure for you.

Bear in mind that all treatments can take a long time to work, some up to 8 weeks – so you will not see magic overnight! Don’t be tempted to take more pills or put on more cream – that will only harm you. However, if you don’t see any improvement with whatever option you are trying after eight weeks, revisit with your doctor to discuss alternative options.

Acne and Self-Esteem

As women, we have been taught that our looks are of the utmost importance. Having acne may sometimes lead women to suffer from low self-esteem. If you feel this way, seek a professional who can help, whether a dermatologist or a psychologist. While acne can be treated, it may also be worthwhile to work with someone who can help you realize that your face does not determine your worth! We sure believe it, and we hope that you do too.