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Is Acne Genetic?

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/26/2022

Genetics are interesting: You can sound just like your mom. You can have the same exact inquisitive eyebrow-raise as your dad. Maybe you have your grandma’s hands. Or your grandpa’s blue eyes. Whatever it is, all the traits that make you you, are because of genetics.

But what about acne? Are those bothersome breakouts thanks to all that pizza or your thanks to your papa? If your parents had acne-prone skin, does that mean you will, too? And if so, what can you do about it? 

We look into whether or not acne is genetic and what you can do to tame the troublesome trait.

What Is Acne? 

If you’re anything like 50 million Americans annually, you’ve had acne at some point in your life. But just because you’ve had a pesky pimple or two, doesn’t mean you know exactly what it is.

So here’s the breakdown of a breakout: Acne (sometimes called Acne Vulgaris) happens when hair follicles under the skin become blocked with sebum (an oily substance) and dead skin cells. 

Normally, the glands in the skin that make sebum, or oil (called sebaceous glands) empties the oil through openings in the hair follicles, called pores. These pores are lined with skin cells that rise to the surface as the body sheds them. 

But, things don’t always go as planned – and that oil and those cells that are supposed to seamlessly slide their way out sometimes don’t make a clean getaway, causing a chain of unfortunate events:  

First, the cells and oil clump together, get stuck, and cause the follicle to clog.  

Then, bacteria that naturally live in the skin starts to mix with the oil and sebum in the plugged follicle, which in turn becomes inflamed.  (At this point you may start to see swelling and redness, and feel some heat and maybe even a little discomfort.)

Finally, the wall of the clogged follicle breaks down. All those skin cells, the oil, and the bacteria that were packed into the follicle spills onto the skin. And voila! You’ve got a pimple. 

Acne and Genetics

Most everyone is aware that acne is a very common skin condition, especially in teenagers – but pretty much anyone can get acne at any time. However, studies have shown that when there is a family history of acne, breakouts may appear earlier, and be more severe.

Is this due to genetic factors, or something else? To help figure out the answer to this question, there have been several studies using twins as subjects.

One significant genetic study in the UK looked at 458 pairs of monozygotic twins and 1099 pairs of dizygotic twins – all of them female, with the average age of 46. 

That study used genetic modeling of acne scores to conclude that 81 percent of variance of the disease can be attributed to heredity. The remaining 19 percent was attributed to varying environmental factors.  (We will get into this more below.) 

This twin study, and other previous studies, have shown that acne is highly heritable — meaning that it runs in families (like great aunt Sue’s red hair!). However, scientists are still trying to understand which genes are responsible for acne. 

Additionally, several studies have been conducted to gain further insight into genetic susceptibility and identify the genetic variants that may lead to acne vulgaris.  

Learning more about these factors can help determine how to treat acne, especially when considering therapeutic skin care regimens that focus on suppressing inflammation and bacterial growth.

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Genetics Not the Only Factor Causing Acne

That’s right. While genetic factors may play a role in acne development, they’re not the only contributor. From deep, painful, cystic acne to tiny blackheads and unsightly whiteheads, there are many possible causes for bothersome breakouts

These include:

Hormone Levels

During puberty, androgens, which are male sex hormones, increase – even in females. This causes more sebum production, which may contribute to acne. 

While hormones play a role in teenage acne, it’s not like you’re in the clear once you’re done with puberty. Hormone-induced acne also plagues adults – especially women. 

Menstrual cycles, pregnancy, menopause and birth control pills can all cause fluctuating hormones which can lead to acne. 

Environmental Factors 

The twin study mentioned above revealed that in addition to genetic predisposition, environmental factors may also play a role in people with acne vulgaris. 

These “environmental factors” include pollutants, medication, nutrition, occupational factors and lifestyle or psychological factors.

For example, when it comes to nutrition, studies have shown that dairy products might trigger acne. 

Additionally, medications like hormone treatments and steroids may also cause an acne flare up.  

Cosmetics, tight-fitting helmets, air-pollutants like cigarette smoke and stress are all further examples of environmental factors that can contribute to breakouts.  

What Can You Do about Acne? 

From healing existing lesions, to stopping future ones, if you want to say buh-bye to breakouts (who wouldn’t?) there are many treatment options. 

Topical Medications: Whether via gels, lotions, creams and saturated pads, topical medications are applied to the skin and can be effective in treating acne

Some options are benzoyl peroxide, which kills bacteria, resorcinol, salicylic acid and sulfur, which are all helpful in breaking down whiteheads and blackheads. And retinoids, which help reduce inflammation as well as help prevent scarring. 

Oral Medications: Your healthcare provider can prescribe an oral antibiotic to help slow the growth of bacteria and reduce inflammation.  

Some oral medications include hormone therapy (for women), corticosteroids – which help lower inflammation in severe acne, and retinoids, which have a similar effect as topical retinoids

If oral or topical medications aren’t effective, there are other alternative therapies, such as laser therapy, chemical peels and even surgical procedures.  

Ask a healthcare provider which treatment would be best for you. 

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Coming to Grips with Genetics and Acne

While it’s easy to blame Mom and Dad for a lot of things, you can only partially blame them for your acne. However, if acne runs in your family, studies have shown there is a high likelihood that you will also have acne. 

Besides genetic disposition, other factors such as hormones and environmental factors – including nutrition, medications and pollutants to name a few – also contribute to acne.

If you have acne, there are several available treatment options ranging from from oral and topical medications, to laser treatments and chemical peels.  

Our free online consultation can customize a prescription skin care regimen specifically for acne that will work for you.  

9 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.