• The Beauty Lounge St Ives

What Causes Breakouts & Blackheads

Updated: Jul 26, 2018


With the launch of two new products from Dermalogica in their Clear Start range imminent, I thought I'd give you some info breakouts and blackheads.


In general, breakouts are caused by a build-up of dead skin cells, excess sebum (skin's natural oil) and bacteria. When excess oil and skin cells clump together, they can form a plug in a hair follicle. There is a type of bacteria that live harmlessly on the skin called propioibacterium acnes (p.acnes). When this bacteria is trapped inside the follicle, they can multiply, causing breakouts. This then results in inflamation, causing redness and pain that is typically associated with acne.


Everyone has this p.acne on their skin but they typical lie dormant in an aerobic environment ie where pores are open and oxygen is readily available. When pores become clogged, the environment becomes anaerobic because it lacks oxygen. This prompts p.acnes to 'wake up' and cause breakouts.


Anti-bacterial agents can be applied topically to help reduce p.acnes, but anti-bacterial agents can also target 'good' bacteria. In addition, the skin has its own built-in anti-microbal system, which generates anti-microbal peptides and lipids to help ward off 'bad' bacteria. Dermalogica's New! Breakout Clearing Booster helps boost the skin's own natural defences to keep breakouts away.


The anatomy of a breakout


Our outermost layer of skin (epidermis) coats our bodies, including our follicles, like a thin sheet of laminating paper. Many follicles are attached to sebaceous glands (skin's own natural oil-secreting glands) just below the skin's surface. Its these glands that secrete sebum, which travel up tiny hairs on the skin called velius hairs.


An average person sheds approximately 35,000 skin cells per hour, however a person with a genetic predisposition to acne can shed up to four times that amount. If any of those dead skin cells collect and remain in a sebaceous follicle, there is a chance that they can mix with excess oil and clump together. This can form low-grade acne such as blackheads and whiteheads and milia, as well as set the stage for higher-grade acne such as papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.


Blackheads are open comedones that turn black, not because of dirt, but because the oil, dead skin cells and bacteria inside the follicle mix and oxidise. Think of an apple that has been sliced open. This means the follicle is open and still receives oxygen. Some blackheads resolve themselves, or are easily extracted (ask for details about our extraction facials). Others linger and can grown into more severe forms of acne if they become infected or inflamed.


Untreated blackheads can become breakouts if infected by breakout causing bacteria. That's why its important to practice good skin care habits that will keep the skin clear of excess oil and dead skin cells. Dermalogica's New! Blackhead Clearing Fizz Mask helps decongest pores so breakouts won't have a chance to grow.

Whiteheads are closed comedones that occur just like blackheads but don't oxidise. These usually go away on their own but can also grow into more severe forms of acne if they become infected or inflamed.


Milia happen when dead skin cells and/or sebum (or keratin) become trapped by skin that grows over them. You may recognise milia as tiny, hard white bumps that cannot be extracted. Milia are often mischaracterised as acne, when in fact they are benign cysts.


Blackheads, whiteheads and milia are all non-inflammatory, meaning there is no redness or inflammation present. When redness or inflammation is present, this is known as a higher-grade form of acne.
Papules are red, raised bumps that occur after a closed follicle is deprived of too much oxygen. This anaerobic environment causes the dormant p.acnes inside to become active and consume excess sebum and dead skin cells. The more p.acnes multiply and consume sebum, the bigger the follicle swells into a papule.Pustules are pus-filled bumps that occur when an infection is present in the follicle. This happens when the follicle swells too much with excessive skin cells, sebum and bacteria, causing the follicle wall to rupture beneath the skin. This rupture lets p.acnes spill into the dermis. This infection triggers the immune system to send white blood cells to the rescue. A battle rages between white blood cells and p.aches, causing collateral damage in the form of pus. Pustules are sometimes mistaken for whiteheads because of their white or yellow-capped appearance, but pustules are red and inflamed whereas whiteheads are not.Nodules develop when an infection spreads to neighbouring follicles. Nodules look like multiple pustules and pustules clustered together, or large bumpy areas.Cysts form when the infection lingers long enough within the dermis for the body to quarantine it within a membrane. Because of this quarantine, nothing gets in or out of a cyst, including topical acne products.What contributes to breakouts?Everyone breaks out for different reasons because everyone's skin is different. However, there are four main areas you can focus on to help further isolate the cause(s) of your breakouts:Age: The younger you are, the more likely you are to have oilier skin and rampant breakouts. Younger skin also tends to be more resilient, which means it can withstand recurring breakouts and heal more rapidly. As we age, our skin tends to produce less oil and we have more isolated breakouts, however slowing cell turnover makes skin more susceptible to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).Lifestyle: Ineffective cleansing and exfoliation to rid the skin of dead skin cells and excess sebum is perhaps the number one lifestyle-related contributor to breakouts. Other factors include comedogenic make-up and hair products, and clothing that traps sweat and dead skin cells.Stress: A common contributor because it can stimulate more oil production and further slow the skin's recovery. Stress can be psychological or physica, such as dietary issues or dehydration.Genetics: Many people have a genetic predisposition to acne, which means their skin produces four to five times more dead skin cells and has larger, more active sebaceous glands than people with non-acneic skin. They can also have thicker sebum and fewer tiny (vellus) hairs that wick away oil from the follicles. These conditions can make impacted follicles more common.How to treat breakoutsAcne treatments can disrupt people's daily lives as much as acne itself. Prescription medications can be hard on the skin or easy to forget, while over the counter products can take a one-size-fits-all approach that can leave skin dry or irritated.

Dermalogica's Clear Start is ideal for those who want fast results, the products in this range contain natural ingredients and provide solutions that won't dry out or further irritate their skin. Each Clear Start formula combines potent, active ingredients with gentle skin-soothing botanicals to keep skin clear, balanced and hydrated. These professional-grade formulas are tough on breakouts, yet gentle on skin. The Clear Start range is aimed at teens-early 20's.

Dermalogica's Medibac range is formulated for more mature skin which is likely to experience recurring hormonal breakouts, slower cell turnover, and PIH.

We offer a free skin-mapping service here at the Salon, so if in doubt, our therapists can examine your skin and advise you as to the best products and treatments for your own particular skin.



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