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Published on June 06, 2016

Is having acne today harder than it used to be?Is having acne today harder than it used to be?

Remember how bad it felt having acne as a teen?

It’s even worse today.

Acne hasn’t changed, but people’s reactions to imperfections have, said dermatologist Nancy Barnett, MD, of Dermatology of Cape Cod in North Falmouth.

“There’s a big push in our country, even at an early age, to look perfect,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years and it’s different today. There’s been a change in how people want to look and less acceptance of a range of looks.”

Many people look down on acne patients, according to new research presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Participants in the study, conducted by the Clinical Unit for Research Trials and Outcomes in Skin at Massachusetts General Hospital, looked at pictures of people with common skin conditions and answered questions about each condition. Nearly two out of three (62.5 percent) said that they were upset by the images of acne. Over 80 percent said they felt pity toward acne sufferers.

In the study, 55 percent of participants said they believed acne was caused by poor hygiene and 50 percent thought it was contagious. Over a third (37.5 percent) thought acne outbreaks were related to diet. Those beliefs are mistaken.

A Common Condition

“Acne is a very common condition, but it seems that many people don’t have a good understanding of it,” said study author Alexa Boer Kimball, MD, in an AAD press release. Kimball is director of the Clinical Unit for Research Trials and Outcomes in Skin and a professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. “People are making incorrect assumptions about acne, and it’s affecting their opinion of patients with this condition.”

“The study confirmed what people knew – just how devastating acne is for people, no matter what age it occurs,” said Dr. Barnett, who is affiliated with Falmouth Hospital. “It can be life-altering and socially isolating.”

Acne affects up to 50 million Americans each year, according to the AAD.

“Everyone has some starting in adolescence,” said Dr. Barnett. “The hormones making other body changes kick in.”

There is Treatment for Acne

One of the main causes of acne is an increased production of sebum (an oily substance secreted by the skin’s sebaceous glands). Dr. Barnett said acne can be worsened by occlusions (blockages of pores) from wearing a baseball cap backwards or heavy makeup or from working over oil and heat.

“People can think someone with acne is unclean, but you can wash blackheads 17 times a day and it won’t go away,” said Barnett. “The whole issue of food is becoming of more interest. Maybe milk has hormones in it that stimulates acne, but there’s no evidence across the board that diet is a factor.”

For mild acne, over-the-counter cleansers, creams, lotions and gels can make a difference by reducing the amount of oil and bacteria in the pores, she said. For severe acne, the best treatment is a combination of topical exfoliants and anti-inflammatory medicines, along with oral antibiotics.

“The severe acne that’s tougher to treat is more jarring to people,” said Dr. Barnett. “People have less experience with it, so there’s less empathy. They may ask, why isn’t somebody doing something about that?

“People who are struggling with control of acne are doing something about it. They are cleaning their face. They are not contagious.

“It’s hormones and genetics, and sometimes it takes a while to find the right combination that works.”

Unkind comments can be very hurtful for people with acne, Dr. Barnett added.

“It’s your face and it’s right out there,” she said. “When it happens in adolescent years, it can really set a tone for body image and mental health issues.”