If you’re prone to pimples, it’s likely you’ve heard plenty of stories about what causes zits. But what’s really true—and what’s totally false? We asked New York City dermatologist Hadley C. King, M.D., to clear things up.
Myth 1: Acne Is Just a Teen Problem
The reality: When and how severely a person will get acne is very much genetically determined. While there are many who only experience acne during teenage years, there are tons of people who get adult acne, too. In fact, The International Dermal Institute puts the number at between 40 to 55 percent of adults aged 20 to 40. “It’s more common in adult women than in adult men because of ongoing hormonal fluctuations—though some men certainly experience adult acne as well,” says King.
Myth 2: You Need to Wash Your Face More
The reality: Unfortunately, sudsing up more often won’t cure your acne. “The causes of acne are multifactorial, the major players being hormones, stress, and genes—and you can’t change any of those by washing your face,” says King. Bacteria can play a role, as can heavy pore-clogging skin products that may exacerbate acne, and face washing can be helpful to decrease these factors, but it’s usually not the only issue.
Myth 3: The Sun Clears Up Zits
The reality: There’s no truth to the idea that the sun clears up acne, says King. It decreases the immune system in our skin, which is generally not a good thing, since it’s needed to prevent infections and skin cancers. Plus, we know that too much sun exposure can cause wrinkles and pigmentation issues. “However, when there’s a skin issue present like eczema or psoriasis, the sun can decrease related inflammation and therefore temporarily improve the condition,” says King.
Myth 4: Eating Greasy Food Gives You Acne
The reality: Generally this is not true, though some foods can play a role in acne in those who are predisposed. However, it’s not the “greasy” film on foods like pizza that popular myths claim cause acne but instead inflammatory elements. “We believe foods with a high glycemic index can aggravate acne because of their effects on our endocrine system and hormones—as well as the hormones in the fat component of dairy products, including chocolate,” says King.
Myth 5: Blackheads Are Dirt Stuck in Pores
The reality: When sebum and skin cells build up in your follicles, you can get a blackhead or whitehead. Blackheads are open, which leads to the oxidization of the plugged materials and the black color. When the pore is closed—preventing oxygen from reacting to what’s inside—you instead get a whitehead. Blackheads have nothing to do with dirt, though. “We think the dark color comes from oxidized keratin, which is a major structural component of skin,” explains King.
Myth 6: It’s Okay to Pop Pimples if You Do So ‘Safely’
The reality: In general, this is a horrible, terrible, no-good idea. “The trauma caused by popping a pimple can introduce more bacteria into the lesion and increase inflammation—which will make the zit worse and more likely to leave a dark mark as it heals,” says King. She adds that the occasional instance when popping a pimple may yield good results is if it has come to a head and is very ready to pop, and that the underlying clogged pore isn’t inflamed, painful, or red.
Myth 7: Acnes Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
The reality: Have you ever been told by someone that a new skin-care regimen that’s intended to clear up your acne will actually make it look worse before it clears up? King says this overall isn’t true, though some people may experience the phenomenon in certain prescription products. “Birth control pills can make acne worse in some individuals before it gets better, and we sometimes see this with retinoids and isotretinoin (Accutane) as well.”