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Causes of acne

Causes Of Acne

No matter the type of acne you have it all starts with the same problem - blocked pores where bacteria thrive. Let’s take a look at the causes of acne and how to prevent the pore blockages that trigger breakouts.

Causes Of Acne 

Our skin is full of pores. Pores are the tiny openings in the skin where hair follicles come out and oil (sebum) and sweat are excreted.

Pores can become clogged with excess sebum, sweat, and other debris. When this happens, the pore becomes the ideal environment for skin bacteria, p. Acnes, to thrive.

This bacteria takes over areas of your skin and triggers different types of acne - from blackheads through to cystic acne.

While all acne is essentially triggered by this pore clogging process there are different reasons why the pore becomes blocked in the first place. 

Your Skin Is Producing Too Much Oil

The overproduction of sebum is one of the main causes of acne.

The role sebum plays is to help keep your skin moisturised but when your skin produces too much oil, pores easily become clogged.

So, what makes your skin produce excess sebum? 


Fluctuating hormones, such as estrogen, can trigger a process of increased sebum production, changes in skin cell activity, and inflammation.

Hormone fluctuations can be triggered by your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, and stress. These are some of the main adult acne causes.

Teenagers experience acne due to an increase in androgen hormones - like testosterone.

These hormones play a key role in kick-starting puberty and send the production of sebum into overdrive, increasing the chance of clogged pores.

The term ‘hormonal acne’ simply means acne that is triggered due to hormonal changes.

It’s not a specific ‘type’ of acne. The types of acne are blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts - any of these can be caused by changes in hormones.

Read more about the different types of acne


If you start making changes to your diet by cutting back on foods that cause acne, you may see an improvement in your breakouts.

What foods cause acne? We all react differently to certain foods so any dietary causes of acne can vary. There’s no hard and fast rule but there are some common types of food that have been shown to trigger breakouts in many people.

Refined sugar

Eating excessive amounts of refined sugar can fuel the overproduction of sebum in your skin.

A 2010 study shows that eating sugar spikes insulin, which leads to an inflammatory response in the body and also produces androgens. Androgens are the hormones mostly responsible for sebum production.

High fat, fast food

Research has linked acne flare ups with a diet rich in calories, fat, and refined carbohydrates.

Many processed foods high in fat - like burgers, fries, and pizza - are high-GI that raise blood sugar levels quickly and cause insulin levels to jump. Like refined sugar, part of this process triggers your skin to produce more oil which can cause pimples on the face.

Using the wrong cleanser

You don’t want your cleanser to remove all traces of sebum.

If a cleanser is too harsh for your skin (many cleansers aimed at teenage acne are extremely strong) you’re at risk of over cleansing. This strips your face of its natural oils and disrupts the skin’s pH balance.

Stripping the skin is one of the causes of acne as it triggers the skin to create more oil - resulting in more breakouts.

Stick to cleansers that contain gentle active ingredients that deeply cleanse the skin while keeping the oil / moisture balance. More on those ingredients below! 

Skincare Habits That Can Cause Acne

These poor skincare habits are also causes of acne because they allow your pores to become clogged or spread acne-causing bacteria. 

Not cleansing your skin twice daily

To keep your skin clear daily cleansing is a must. It’s important to incorporate ingredients into your routine that specifically assist in keeping pores clear.

Some of the best ingredients in facial cleansers to target acne include:

Glycolic and lactic acids

Glycolic and lactic acids exfoliate and deeply cleanse the pores but also maintain the oil-moisture balance of your skin, which is very important.


Ideal for all skin types prone to congestion, breakouts, and large pores, charcoal is an active ingredient to purify and balance oil production for a refined, clearer complexion.

Green Tea Extract

Using a cleanser with green tea extract can help reduce sebum production.

Green tea is especially rich in a polyphenol called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which has been shown by research to improve acne and oily skin.

A double cleanse is essential at night, to remove all makeup, dirt, and bacteria that make breakouts worse.

We recommend cleansing with The Uncomplicated Cleanser first to remove any surface debris.

Follow with a second cleanse using The Uncomplicated Cleanser plus Charcoal or, if your acne is severe and inflamed, with The Uncomplicated Cleanser plus Anti-Redness.

Using dirty makeup brushes and applicators

Not regularly cleaning any tools you use to apply makeup is one of the often overlooked causes of acne.

Dirty makeup brushes and applicators harbour all kinds of bacteria, oils, and dirt, which won’t do your skin any favours. We recommend cleaning your brushes with gentle soap, brush cleaner, or shampoo.

It’s important not to fully submerge your brush and minimise water flowing into the base to avoid breakage. Clean weekly or fortnightly and replace it every 6 months.

For sponge applicators, wash with soap and hot water, squeezing until the water runs clear.

Discover esmi’s range of vegan makeup brushes.

Using comedogenic skincare and makeup

Scientifically, clogged pores are known as comedones.

If an ingredient in skincare or makeup is classified as ‘comedogenic’ it means it’s likely to clog pores.

This doesn’t mean comedogenic ingredients are bad for all skin types but if you have oily, breakout-prone skin it helps to avoid them.

Non-comedogenic ingredients allow skin to breathe, remain hydrated, and minimise the risk of breakouts.

Your best bet for non-comedogenic cosmetics is mineral makeup. It reduces the risk of acne, blemishes, and skin irritation.

As an added benefit, the zinc oxide in most mineral makeup has a calming effect on the skin and blends beautifully with the natural oils of your skin.

Discover esmi’s range of mineral makeup including vegan BB cream, vegan foundation, and vegan powder.

Picking at your skin

What causes spots? Picking at the spots you already have!

Popping pimples might be satisfying at the moment but you’re spreading more acne bacteria from the infected pore to surrounding pores.

Picking and popping pimples also increases the likelihood of scarring and can delay your body’s natural healing process. The bottom line? Hands off.