Decoding Acne

There's lots of myths surrounding acne. Knowing the truth about it will help you protect and care for your skin. 

Pinto/Corbis

What really causes pimples and zaps zits? Connect the dots between fact and fiction.

You’re leaning against the sink with your face an inch from the mirror. It’s Monday morning. But you can’t possibly go to school. Overnight, you’ve developed a crop of zits on your chin—and the angry, red bumps look like they’re taking over your face.

You’re desperate for a fix. But before you can clear up your skin, you need to clear up the confusion. Stop before you pop, and read this.

Myth 1: “The Sun Clears Up Spots”

As recently as 30 years ago, doctors put teens with acne under sunlamps. They didn’t know then what’s clear now: The sun isn’t a treatment for acne—and trying to burn away zits can lead to skin cancer.

This myth was born because the sun temporarily hides discoloration from acne, but that doesn’t last. In fact, the sun can leave you with a permanent reminder of a pimple.

“It causes hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Cynthia Chen, who specializes in adolescent dermatology. “That’s when dark marks form at the site of an injury, such as acne.”

Myth 2: “Greasy Foods = Bad Skin”

There are plenty of reasons to avoid greasy foods. They’re high in fat and low in nutrients. But are chicken wings and fries also causing those agonizing breakouts?

The simple answer to this is no. There is no direct or proven relationship between food and zits, explains Dr. Chen: “Unless you are smearing greasy foods on your face—grease can clog your pores—food is not likely contributing to acne.”

Myth 3: “Popping Zits Makes Them Go Away”

Easy squeezy, right? Wrong. As tempting as it may be to squeeze the gunk out, stop before you pop. Unless you are a dermatologist, you are likely to do more harm than good.

When you squeeze pimples with your fingers or tweezers, you can introduce all kinds of dirt and bacteria to the area—and into the pimple itself. This could lead to more redness and even infection.

To make matters worse, you can push the gunk in the wrong direction and cause new pimples to form next door. Overzealous popping can also tear the skin, leaving a permanent scar. So resist the urge—it’s not worth the damage you can inflict on your skin.

Myth 4: “Dirt Causes Acne”

Not true, says Dr. Jesleen Ahluwalia, a New York City dermatologist. Pimples pop up when the hormonal changes you experience during your teen years trigger the glands under your skin to produce an excess of an oily substance called sebum. That oil traps dead skin cells, and a plug forms in the hair follicle. Bacteria that live in the follicle can then worsen inflammation. The result: clogged, red, swollen pores, also known as zits.

Although it’s important to cleanse skin gently every day (to rinse away oil and dead skin cells that make acne worse), no amount of washing makes pimples go away. Scrubbing too much will only irritate skin further.

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