Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/6/2021
Worried that your diet might be making your acne breakouts worse? Or that you’re not spending enough time in the sun to prevent breakouts? Or that you’re spending too much time in polluted, dirty air, making your blackheads more obvious?
Like many other health conditions, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about acne. Many of the “causes” of acne we read about online or in magazines aren’t quite as scientific as they can seem, while many proposed “cures” are ineffective at best and outright dangerous at worst.
Below, we’ve listed and debunked 13 of the most common acne myths, all with science-backed data to help you separate fact from fiction.
We’ve also listed some safe, proven alternatives to many of the most common acne misconceptions to help you get real, lasting results.
Acne is most common in teenagers, with about four out of every five people experiencing acne breakouts between the ages of 11 and 30.
The key reasons for this is, as you might have guessed, your hormones. During puberty, the amount of androgenic hormones like testosterone produced by your body increases, giving you oiler skin that’s more prone to acne.
The end result is hormonal acne, which can wreak havoc on your facial skin during your teens and early 20s.
While acne is most common in teenagers, it’s not an exclusively teenage skin condition. Acne can continue well into your 20, 30s and 40s.
It can even affect you in middle age. Data shows that acne vulgaris is common among adult women (women older than 25).
Adult hormonal acne tends to affect women more often than men, largely due to the effect your menstrual cycle can have on your hormone levels.
If you notice occasional pimples in your 20s, 30s and 40s, it’s important to know that you’re not alone or abnormal.
Luckily, hormonal adult acne is usually quite easy to treat. Most healthcare providers use birth control pills in combination with topical acne treatments like tretinoin and clindamycin to bring your adult acne under control and help you avoid future breakout.
If you’ve ever had a bad acne breakout, you’ve probably had a friend or family member suggest cutting oily, fatty foods out of your diet.
Contrary to popular belief, your diet doesn’t have as much of an impact on acne as many people think.
In fact, modern science shows that there’s no direct link between the specific food you eat and your risk of developing pimples.
In general, eating oily, greasy foods is generally okay from an acne treatment perspective.
Your body quickly breaks down the oil in food into an energy source, either using it to fuel your body or storing it as fat to burn later.
This means that eating oily, fatty foods won’t necessarily make your skin oiler and increase your risk of dealing with acne breakouts.
Sugar, on the other hand, might have an impact on acne. Although the science on this isn’t fully settled, there’s some evidence that sugar’s effect on insulin production could affect your risk of developing acne.
It’s worth noting that most studies in this area focus on people with diabetes, prediabetes and insulin resistance (such as this 2015 study), meaning the data might not be relevant if you only eat a moderate amount of sugary foods.
With this said, your environment does. If you work in an oily environment such as a commercial kitchen, the oil you come into contact with on a daily basis can and often does affect your skin, increasing your risk of dealing with blocked pores and acne.
Did you wake up with a pimple after going to bed without washing your face? It’s easy to blame bad hygiene for acne. After all, being unclean, even if only a little, generally isn’t a good thing for your skin.
However, just like your diet, your hygiene level doesn’t have as big a role in the development of acne as you might think.
Acne develops when your pores become clogged due to excess sebum and dead skin cells. A good personal hygiene routine will help you avoid these substances building up on the surface of your skin, but it doesn’t get rid of them completely.
This means that you might still experience acne breakouts, even with a flawless personal care and hygiene routine.
The solution? Combine great skincare and hygiene with proven products like tretinoin and clindamycin to treat acne on the surface and at its source.
While makeup won’t necessarily make your acne better, the common belief that all makeup will make your acne worse isn’t true.
Acne is caused by a combination of sebum (natural skin oil) and dead skin cells. Add bacteria into the equation and acne can become inflamed and cystic, resulting in more severe, painful breakouts.
If you’re prone to acne, you’ll want to eliminate any makeup products that make your skin more oily. Pick a non-comedogenic, oil-free foundation and you’ll reduce your risk of introducing extra oil onto your skin.
In some cases, makeup can even reduce your risk of dealing with acne breakouts. Foundations that have an oil-free, powder-based formula with ingredients like zinc oxide and silica can soak up your extra sebum, helping you avoid the clogged pores that can lead to acne breakouts.
Contrary to popular belief, moisturizing your skin isn’t an effective way to get rid of whiteheads, blackheads and other forms of acne.
While moisturizing your skin won’t make your acne worse (another common skincare myth), it also won’t make it better. Moisturizer works by hydrating your skin, meaning it has no effect on acne when you use it on its own.
Simply put, it’s best to think of moisturizer as something that’s useful for general skin health, not as an acne treatment.
With this said, there’s some evidence that moisturizer can work as part of an acne treatment routine alongside other, science-backed products.
In a 2014 study, scientists found that regular use of moisturizer can enhance efficacy, alleviate dryness and improve skin comfort in people who use topical acne treatments like antibiotics, retinoids and salicylic acid.
This means moisturizer could have a place in your acne prevention routine, just not as a direct treatment for acne outbreaks.
Have you heard of face mapping? It’s an ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese medicinal technique that claims you can figure out what’s causing your acne by the specific location of pimples on your face.
According to face mapping logic, a pimple on your chin could be caused by a digestive issue, while a pimple around your nose could be caused by your colon.
Acne on your forehead? It’s likely a liver issue. On the cheek? Could be caused by your respiratory system.
Like most ancient medicinal techniques promoted online, face mapping isn’t supported by any real scientific evidence.
In fact, the vast majority of modern scientific research into acne shows that face mapping is completely inaccurate and useless as an acne treatment technique.
Our Face Mapping 101 guide goes into more detail on the questionable “science” behind most of the face mapping content you can find online.
In short, it’s not a reliable technique, and it’s not worth using to diagnose and treat your acne.
Have you eaten chocolate recently? If so, there’s probably no need to worry. People have been blaming chocolate for acne outbreaks for almost 50 years, with the idea that chocolate causes pimples first originating in the late 1960s.
The reality is that while some scientific studies show that chocolate increases your risk of acne breakouts, others show the opposite.
For example, just two years after a 1969 study first established a link between chocolate and acne, a 1971 study found that chocolate consumption had no effect on acne.
More than four decades later, a study from 2017 found that college students developed more acne lesions after eating chocolate than they did after eating jelly beans.
Like most studies of chocolate and acne, the data isn’t perfect. Only 54 students took part in the study, and their diets weren’t controlled outside of chocolate consumption.
A Malaysian study from 2012 found the opposite: That there’s no link between eating chocolate and developing acne.
Forty-four young adults took part in this study, giving it a similar sample size to the recent 2017 study linking chocolate consumption with acne breakouts.
In short, the science on this one goes both ways. While there’s some evidence that chocolate is a bad option for people prone to acne, there’s just as much proving the opposite.
One of the most common acne myths is that spending time in the sun can help you get rid of whiteheads, blackheads and other acne lesions.
Like most acne myths, this one combines a small amount of truth with a lot of fiction. While a small amount of sun exposure is good for your general health, spending too much time in the sun can worsen both your acne and your skin as a whole.
When you spend time in direct sunlight, your skin is exposed to UVB and UVA radiation. This radiation is what causes your skin to produce more melanin, resulting in a tanned skin tone that, for many people, is the entire purpose of spending time in direct sunlight.
UVB and UVA radiation also dries out your skin, which is why your acne might temporarily look better after you spend a lot of time tanning or working outdoors in direct sunlight.
Long term, however, sun exposure can make your acne worse. By drying out your skin, sunlight can actually boost your body’s sebum production, increasing your risk of developing pimples in the days after you spent time in the sun.
If you use a topical acne medication like tretinoin, you also have a higher risk of getting burned if you spend more than a few minutes in direct sunlight.
The solution? Enjoy sun exposure in small doses to optimize your vitamin D levels and apply a broad spectrum water resistant, SPF 30+ sunscreen if you plan on spending a lot of time in the sun. And be sure to keep reapplying it every two hours, or every 80 minutes if you’re sweating or getting wet.
Blackheads are tiny bumps that form when your hair follicles become clogged with sebum. They usually develop on your face (in particular, around your nose), but can also form on your chest, back, neck and shoulders.
To the untrained eye, blackheads can look as if they’re filled with dirt. After all, they’re dark and look dirty, right?
The reality of blackheads is that they aren’t caused by polluted air, dust or any other unwanted type of particle matter. Instead, the dark color of blackheads is caused by the sebum inside the pore interacting with oxygen and changing color.
This means there’s no need to worry about developing blackheads if you’re been exposed to air pollution, dirt or dust.
Blackheads are almost always the result of hormones and dead skin cells, just like other types of acne.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to wash your face to avoid blackheads. As well as topical acne medications like tretinoin acne cream, acne prevention facial washes can help you avoid extra blackheads and other acne lesions by stripping away sebum on the surface of your skin.
This might sound obvious, but it’s a good idea to wash your face every day. Contrary to popular belief, however, washing your face often typically isn’t the best way to stop yourself from getting acne.
Acne usually develops due to a combination of factors. Androgenic hormones like testosterone can stimulate your body’s production of sebum, increasing your risk of dealing with blocked hair follicles and pimples.
Dead skin cells can build up on your face, making blockages worse and increasing your risk of dealing with inflamed, painful acne.
Add bacteria into the equation and your acne can easily go cystic, leaving you with severe, uncomfortable nodules that can leave lasting scars.
While washing your face can help to remove bacteria and strip away some excess sebum, it’s not a perfect solution.
After all, your sebaceous glands will keep releasing sebum in the hours between each cleaning session, and most facial washes won’t get rid of all of your dead skin.
Instead of only washing your face to prevent acne, it’s more effective to treat each problem at its source.
This means talking with your healthcare provider about using birth control to treat acne if most of your breakouts are hormonal, or talking to your dermatologist about topical retinoids like tretinoin.
These medications both treat acne at its source—hormones on one hand and dead skin cells on the other—making them more effective at preventing acne than a narrow focus on keeping your face as clean and oil-free as possible.
For the most part, birth control pills do not cause or worsen acne. In fact, birth control pills that use a combination of an estrogen and a progestin are commonly prescribed as a treatment for hormonal acne in women.
Despite this, there’s a small element of truth to this myth. While combined birth control pills like Yaz, Estrostep and Ortho Tri-Cyclen usually improve acne, certain progestin-only birth control pills can worsen acne breakouts for some women.
If you’re prone to acne and want to start using birth control, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider about the potential effects it could have on your skin.
Most of the time, your healthcare provider will recommend a combined birth control pill—the type of medication that’s used to treat and prevent acne.
Noticed acne after you started using birth control? As always, the smartest approach is to talk to your healthcare provider about other medications and contraception options. Often, switching to a new pill is all you’ll need to do to bring your acne under control.
Have you ever been told that toothpaste can heal a pimple? Just like sunlight, the baking soda, sugar alcohols and hydrogen peroxide used in many brands of toothpaste can help to dry out a pimple, causing it to temporarily look smaller than normal.
However, these results aren’t permanent. Pimples usually take three to seven days to heal on their own, meaning any dryness you experience from applying toothpaste to your pimples isn’t likely to be enough to speed up healing.
Beyond this, the same ingredients that help toothpaste to dry out your skin can also cause you to break out with red, itchy and irritated patches of skin, adding to your aesthetic and skin care worries.
Instead of using toothpaste to minimize the appearance of pimples, it’s far better to combine a healthy, acne prevention face wash with topical creams containing benzoyl peroxide, which kill bacteria and stop your pimples from getting worse.
Noticed a pimple? As tempting as it might be to pop it, doing so probably won’t make it heal any faster than normal.
While some pimples can heal slightly faster after you pop them, it’s far more likely the pimple will become more inflamed, red and painful than before.
It’s also possible for bacteria to travel inside the clogged pore, worsening the infection and leading to even worse discomfort.
If this infection becomes severe, it can even leave a lasting scar—something you’ll need to treat with topical medications and cosmetic treatments.
On average, it takes about three to seven days for a pimple to heal on its own. The best course of action is to leave it alone or go to a dermatologist, who’ll be able to lance the pimple and get rid of its contents using safe, sterile equipment.
Acne sucks. There. We said it.
Learning how to treat it can sometimes be even worse. You’re sitting there at your computer, reading every blog, article or website you can get your hands on, looking for every random way under the sun to help you get rid of your breakout.
But the fact is — and remains — that the more you know about what’s bothering you, the better prepared you are to confront it.
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