What are spots? How to prevent & treat a breakout

What are spots? How to prevent & treat a breakout

With the incredible medical advances of the modern day, it's almost unfathomable that most of us still struggle with spots on a regular basis.

The biggest questions on most of our lips is 'to squeeze or not to squeeze' - we'll get to the answer later - but there is much more to the science of spots than meets the eye.

Rather than being the mysterious, devilish inconveniences we make them out to be, in the majority of cases, there is good reasoning behind their appearance. By learning what spots actually are, the different types of spots, and what causes them, preventing and lessening them becomes much easier.

So if you want to work towards a flawless, glowy complexion, then it's time to get clued up.

What is a spot?

spotty skin

Spots, zit, pimples or whatever nasty nickname you want to give them are inflamed lumps on the skin which may, or may not contain pus.

What causes spots?

Spots form when hair follicles on the surface of our skin become blocked.

There are between three and five million hair follicles found on the body, and the face - although we can't always see them - is no different. When these follicles become blocked, bacteria forms, which results in spots on the skin.

How do hair follicles become blocked?

hair follicle

Hair follicles are formed of three main parts:

  1. The sebaceous gland - pumps out oil called sebum which rises to the surface of the skin, to coat and condition it. The enables it to stay lubricated, waterproof and also acts as a barrier between bacteria, preventing infections. Sebum also keeps hair follicles clear, by carrying dead skin cells to the surface of the skin where they can be shed.
  2. The sebaceous duct - the tube that the sebum and dead skin cells travel along in order to reach the hair canal, and eventually the skin's surface.
  3. Hair - the hair that sprouts out of pores on your skin.

Follicles become blocked when, for one reason or another, the sebaceous gland produces too much sebum. The excess sebum blocks the pore - the exit route to the skin's surface - meaning dead skin cells get caught here.

This accumulation of dead skin cells and sebum encourages the growth of undesirable bacteria. There is one slow-growing bacteria in particular that is specifically linked to acne: Propionibacterium.

Propionibacterium - also known as P.acnes - is a bacteria that is always present on our skin, and actually works to break down sebum in normal situations. However, when there is an influx in sebum production, the balance overproduces, which leads to infection, and spots on the skin.

What are the different types of spots?

types of spot

You'll know from personal experience - or not, if you're lucky enough to be blessed with super skin - that spots take many different forms. Some are hard, some squishy, some white, black, painful, painless...the list goes on.

Six of the most common you're likely to have experienced are:

1. Whiteheads

These are usually relatively small, closed lumps that form on the surfaces of the skin, identified by their distinctive 'white head'. This is caused by a pocket of pus underneath the skin.

2. Blackheads

Blackheads, unlike whiteheads, are open. This allows the entry the air to the bacteria inside the hair follicle, thus oxidising it and turning it black. They appear as small, black dots on the surface of the skin because of this, which is where they get their name from.

3. Papules

Papules are the next level up from whiteheads. They occur when the blocked hair follicle causes inflammation to the skin, making the area red and swollen. Papules, unlike whiteheads, are not white, as there is no pus pocket under the skin.

4. Pustule

Similar to papules, pustules are also relatively painful and appear as angry lumps on the surface of the skin. Unlike papules, pustules do contain pus, which often makes them look like bigger, nastier versions of whiteheads.

5. Cysts

Perhaps the most infuriating of all spots, cysts are fluid-filled lumps positioned underneath the skin, as opposed to on the surface. They're often painful and itchy, and unlike most spots, will rarely pop when squeezed.

6. Nodules

Unlike the different types of spots listed above, nodules represent a more serious, long-term problem. Nodules will be concentrated across a large area - or sometimes the entirety - of the face and last for several months. They represent severe acne, as opposed to common spots, and need medical attention to ensure permanent damage to the skin doesn't ensue.

What increases the chances of spots?

Now we know that it's the blockage of hair follicles that causes spots, and how this develops (an overproduction of sebum) we can start looking at what stimulates this.

Despite popular belief, eating 5 bars of chocolate a day alone is not enough to cause a breakout, although it certainly doesn't help

An increase in sebum production is due to one cause, and one cause only: a hormone imbalance.

There are many things in our day-to-day life that may lead to hormonal fluctuations. Some of them we can work to control and avoid, and other are out of our hands completely.

Hormone changes during puberty often cause spots

bra & boxers

80% of people between the ages of 11 and 30 are affected by acne, and it's no coincidence. During puberty, two new hormones are released into the body, which help it to develop into an adult form.

It's the constant fluctuation of hormone levels during puberty that cause sebum to be overproduced, thus causing spots.

Stress can cause hormones to fluctuate

When we get stressed, the stress hormone, cortisol, is produced in much larger quantities.

This disrupts the hormone harmony, causing interference with learning, memory, lower immune function and potentially one of those undesirable sebum spikes - perhaps the reason behind us always looking a bit 'rough' when stressed-out.

Sometimes, spotty skin is just hereditary

Sadly, some of us are simply pre-disposed to having spots. If you're naturally born with an overactive sebaceous gland, you will regularly produce an excess of sebum and experience breakouts as a result.

If your parents had poor skin when growing up, the likelihood is you will too.

Diet can play a role into the regulation of hormones

Dairy has gained a rather bad name for itself over the years for causing acne. Although there's no definitive link that has been scientifically proven, given that dairy promotes excess estrogen production, it sounds quite logical. It also has properties that raise

Dairy also has properties that raise testosterone in the body - another warning sign if you want to keep your hormone balance in check.

Highly processed carbohydrates are also supposed spot-causing culprit, as they contain high levels of glucose. The glucose triggers your pancreas to release insulin, causing all sorts of chain reactions to occur which could lead to excess sebum being triggered too.

Medication often contains hormones too


Most of us know that the contraception pill contains hormones which ovveride our bodily functions (in this case, ovulation).

What many of us don't know, is that many other medications contain hormones, especially repeat prescription tablets our doctor may prescribe for us.

Hormones in medications upset the natural hormone balance, causing an inbalance, which as we know, often leads to spots.

Other spot-causing factors

Blocked pores increase the likelihood of spots

Alongside these hormonal factors, anything that could contribute to pore blockage will increase the likelihood of breakouts. Improper cleaning, regular makeup usage and poor product choice can all be factors that contribute to this.

Interference to the skin's natural pH structure

The skin's natural pH structure is very effective at controlling acne bacteria, such as those pesky P.acnes we were talking about earlier. This helps keep our skin clear, so it's important we don't interfere with it too much.

This balance is key to keeping our skin clear, so it's important we don't interfere with it too much.

Imbalance happens when unsuitable products are used or our diet is lacking in essential vitamins and minerals.

How can we prevent spots?

Knowing the primary causes of spots is a great help in knowing how to prevent them.

Although it's impossible to go through life without having any hormonal imbalances, there are certain ways we can help to keep them more stable.

Regular exfoliation is key to removing dead skin & keeping pores clear

exfoliator & muslim cloth

Whilst exfoliation alone won't prevent the deep depth of our hair follicles becoming blocked with dead skin cells and bacteria, it will help somewhat to keep pores clear.

Your skin should be exfoliated once a week with a gentle, non-abrasive product.

Prevent spots by carrying out a skincare routine twice a day

Correct and thorough care of your face will help keep your complexion clear.

Wash your face twice a day to remove impurities, dead skin cells and excess oil from the surface. This will help your skin perform to the best of its ability, and keep everything regulated and balanced as best it can.

Choose products that are right for your skin

As everyone's skin is slightly different, products which are optimised for you will reap the best results in terms of clear skin.

Going to see a dermatologist to get a skin consultation and recommendations for products may be costly, but it can be worth it in the long run, especially if you often suffer from acne.

If you can't afford to see a professional or buy specialist products, focus on cleansers that contain salicylic acid, as this has important antibacterial properties that will help keep spots at bay.

Use makeup sparingly to avoid blocking pores

Although makeup alone won't lead to spots, if you're already producing excess sebum, blocked pores will definitely not help.

Try to keep makeup for special occasions, take it off around the house and always before you go to bed in order to give your skin time to breathe and sebum and dead skin access to the skin's surface.

Use your diet to maintain a hormone balance

5 a day

Eating a healthy, varied diet will not only help you reach your daily quota of vitamins and minerals, but by doing so, you'll keep the pH of your skin stable.

Diets low in sugar have been found to benefit patients that suffer from acne regularly, so limiting sweet treats could well be something you want to try. Similarly for dairy - if in doubt, cut it out, and see how your skin reacts to the change.

Avoid touching your face too often

Despite rarely thinking about it, our hands are home to hundreds of thousands of germs.

When we touch our faces, we're effectively transferring these germs onto our skin, which can then find their way into our pores and cause spots.

Germs aside, if the skin is already irritated due to acne, touching the affected areas can make matters much worse.

Moisturise to help keep that pH balance in check

Although many of us tend to stray away from moisturisers when we breakout, it's actually the last thing we should be doing.

This is especially true if you're using acne-specific products as they can dry out the skin, and lead to flaking and peeling - it's essential to renourish the skin afterwards.

Look for moisturisers that have 'noncomedogenic' on the label, which mean they shouldn't cause spots.

Spots can be caused by stress, so remember to chill out

We've already looked at the spike of hormones being stressed will cause. Stress is natural, and for some of us, vital in order for us to push ourselves to reach goals. That being said, it's important to always take the time to breathe, chill out and relax so that stress doesn't get the better of us and our skin!

That being said, it's important to always take the time to breathe, chill out and relax so that stress doesn't get the better of us and our skin!

If not for your health, do it for your skin.

Help keep skin clear by starting the day with hot water & lemon

lemon water

We often hear about the supposed health benefits of drinking hot water infused with slices of fresh lemon, but is there any truth to them?

Well, there's no scientific research to back it up, but try it for yourself and should notice an immediate improvement in your digestive system - many claim it helps to flush out toxins in the small intestine.

Consider a supplement to prevent breakouts, like chelated zinc

Some experts encourage the addition of supplements to the diet to keep breakouts under control.

Chelated zinc has supposed benefits as it works as an antibiotic - it's available at most health stores.

Schedule in a deep clean with a professional

There's only so much you can do at home.

If you want to invest a bit more time and money into your skin, I highly recommend going for a deep pore cleansing facial or chemical peel once a month.

Professionals have access to all sorts of treatments and procedures that can work wonders for your skin, clearing out pores, preventing blemishes and destroying bad bacteria.

Don't go overboard on your skincare routine

Although regular skin care is really important in keeping germs and bacteria at bay as well as your skin's natural pH stable, it's important not to overdo it.

Excessive exfoliating or washing can lead to dryness, or disruption to the skin's natural defence mechanisms which will, in turn, lead to spots.

Prevent spots with an over-the-counter acne product

Many people think you need a prescription for acne products, but that isn't the case. There are many acne products you can buy over-the-counter from your local pharmacy.

The majority contain ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid or lactic acid, which help to prevent bacteria from multiplying and also help to dry out greasy skin caused by excess sebum.

Be sure to get advice from your local pharmacist before using them, as they often cause peeling to begin with. Start with a small amount and readjust to meet your skin's needs.

How can you get rid of spots?

Should I squeeze spots?

squeezing spot

We've finally arrived at that important question: to pick, or not to pick?

Chances are, you already know the answer - in fact, most of us do. Despite the excruciatingly tempting temptation of picking at those nasty looking lumps on our heads, nine times out of ten, it's the worst thing you can do.

You may get away with popping the odd whiteheads and pustule without causing too much damage, but try and squeeze at a stubborn papule or cyst and you'll only make the problem worse. The area around the spot will become sore, angry, and if you continue, may even leave yourself with a nasty scar in its place.

Even if the spot does pop painlessly, it's the after effects that will cause the trouble. The skin that was closed is now open to the air, bacteria on the surface of the skin, and germs from your hands. This is likely to lead to the pore becoming blocked again, restarting the spot cycle.

Avoiding all this is simple: don't pick. Whilst it may sometimes seem impossible, let your skin and it's mechanism deal with the problem itself, and the spot will calm down in no time. Not only that, but it'll be much easier to cover up with makeup than a big, popped, angry mess.

Recommended skin products to help fight spots

Miracle creams to banish spots in a matter of minutes may not be a thing, but Instyle has a list of 10 tried and tested products that come pretty close.

Spot fighting products work to calm the skin, reduce redness and prevent bacteria buildup. Whilst they won't clear your skin in an instant, they'll give your skin a helping hand and get you looking good again quicker.

DIY remedies can work wonders too

Don't be fooled into thinking spending a fortune on skincare is the only way to go. There are many ways you can get your skin looking great again with ingredients you have in your kitchen cupboard.

The Mirror has some great recommendations to solve all types of troublesome skin issues, so if you prefer the natural route, these could be for you.

Thanks for reading! Do you have any spot curing or prevention tips you swear by? If so I'd love to hear them.


Stephanie C


Lover of all things fashion & foodie...I look to satisfy my tastes without obliterating my budget. Wannabe interior designer, I'm an avid cushion cover maker and charity shop hunter.

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