Acne in Women: Causes and Treatments

Teen girl with problem skin look at pimple with magnifying glassIf you are one of the 40 million people in America who suffer from acne, you know just how frustrating this problem can be[1]. Not only can it be itchy and uncomfortable, but it is embarrassing to boot. (Of course, WE don’t think you should be embarrassed – it’s not your fault, and you look fabulous anyway!)

So what is acne, how does it affect women, and what treatments are available?

Acne, as defined by Medical News Today, is a skin disease that “involves the oil glands at the base of hair follicles.” It is caused when the skin’s oil glands make too much sebum, or oil, which leads to plugged pores. Another cause is the rapid production of a bacteria called P. acnes.

While acne is most common in teenagers, which is when hormones come out swinging in full-force, it exists in adults as well. The disease is not dangerous, though severe cases can lead to scarring.

Acne in Women

Acne tends to manifest itself differently in men than in women. Young men are actually prone to suffer from longer bouts of acne, since testosterone is one of the hormones that affects breakouts. In women, acne tends to be related to the balance of hormones in the body, which means that it can ebb and flow with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause or even birth control pills.

For example, you might realize that your acne flares up each month one week before you get your period. Once you realize that your breakouts are related to your hormones, you can better assess (with your doctor) what treatments will work for you.

But please remember: Always consult your doctor before self-diagnosing and self-treating!

Hormones are not the ONLY cause of acne in women. Other possible causes are:

  • Medication. Some medications produce acne as a side effect. If this is a medication you absolutely need, think of it as a trade-off: the acne for your getting better. In this case, the acne won’t last forever, only as long as you are taking the medication. You can also ask your doctor about what acne treatments you can use that won’t interact badly with your medication.
  • Make-up. Maybe you have sensitive skin! If you suspect your acne may be related to your make-up, you can cut out your make-up products one-by-one and see if there is any improvement to your skin. You may just be sensitive to certain brands or ingredients. And in that case, you can always find a replacement!
  • Pressure or friction on the skin. Acne may only occur where there is friction on your skin, perhaps from a bicycle helmet, headband or cell phone. In this case, try not to have the object directly in contact with your skin.
  • Genetics. If other women in your family have acne, this may be the reason that you do. All hope is not lost though! Read on to find out about treatments that can help.


The most common treatments for mild acne (whiteheads, blackheads and small pustules) are over-the-counter (OTC) creams or lotions. (Ask your doctor for a suggestion!) Many of these creams include benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, sulfur or retinoic acid, which are geared towards reducing the oil made by your glands and breaking down whiteheads and blackheads.

For women who suffer from hormonal acne, your doctor may recommend taking oral contraceptive pills. Mothers of daughters with acne, do not be alarmed! The only reason for this prescription is that oral contraceptives stabilize hormone fluctuations, which can control acne outbreaks.

Moderate to severe acne can be treated by antibiotics, or a combination of antibiotics and topical treatments.

Severe acne, the least-common form, can consist of cysts, redness, swelling and scarring. In these cases, your doctor may recommend the drug Isotretinion (brand name Accutane), a strong medicine that can help prevent scarring and treat active disease when other methods have failed. Isotretinion, however, is a dangerous drug that can cause birth defects and produce other side effects, such as dry eyes, itching, ulcerative colitis, bony malformations, changes in the blood and liver, mood changes, and depression.

Women who don’t want to take Isotretinion (understandably!) have the option of trying different types of light therapy, such as photodynamic therapy or Isolaz. You can speak to your dermatologist about the best procedure for you.

Bear in mind that all treatments can take a long time to work, some even up to 8 weeks – so you will not see magic overnight! If however, after 8 weeks, you don’t see any improvement with whatever option you are trying, go back to your doctor and ask for another option. Don’t be tempted to take more pills or put on more cream – that will only harm you!

Acne and Self-Esteem

As women, we have been taught that the way we look is of the utmost importance. Having acne, therefore, sometimes leads women to feelings of low self-esteem. If you are feeling this way, seek out a professional who can help you, whether it is a dermatologist or a psychologist. While acne can be treated, it may also be worthwhile to work with someone who can help you realize that your worth is not determined by your face! We sure believe it, and we hope that you do too.


[1] American Academy of Dermatology