Everything you need to know about blackheads Blackheads are small lesions that often appear on the face or neck. They are a feature of mild acne, and handling blackheads in the right way can help to prevent the acne from becoming more severe. We look at ways to reduce and treat breakouts. Learn more about what causes blackheads and how to get rid of them here. Read now
Inside your hair follicles, there are small glands producing oil called sebum. This oil mixes with skin cells in the follicle and joins them on the journey outward. But when there's too much sebum, too many dead skin cells or something on the surface that blocks their exit from the follicle, a blockage can occur. Bacteria joins the party, and the result is acne vulgaris, the most common form of acne.
In the simplest sense, acne is caused when pores containing hair follicles and sebaceous (oil) glands become clogged. The sebaceous gland is responsible for producing sebum, an oily substance necessary for skin to stay hydrated and soft. However, too much sebum can plug the opening at the top of the pore, trapping a buildup of oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria leading to acne lesions.
Hormonal fluctuations and an imbalance of estrogen and testosterone levels have proven to be a direct cause of acne. For this reason, many experience an onslaught of breakouts during puberty and pregnancy. The brain releases a GnRH hormone when an adolescent begins puberty, which in turn signals the pituitary gland to release two additional androgens. Androgens make the sebaceous glands produce more sebum, causing it to occupy too much space within the pore and preventing the full expulsion of dead skin cells and debris. Fluctuations in hormones also cause many women to experience acne during pregnancy and a worsening of breakouts during menstrual cycles.
Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid that is very effective for severe nodular acne, and moderate acne that is stubborn to other treatments. One to two months use is typically adequate to see improvement. Acne often resolves completely or is much milder after a 4–6 month course of oral isotretinoin. After a single course, about 80% of people report an improvement, with more than 50% reporting complete remission. About 20% of patients require a second course. Concerns have emerged that isotretinoin use is linked with an increased risk of adverse effects, like depression, suicidality, anemia, although there is no clear evidence to support some of these claims. Isotretinoin is superior to antibiotics or placebo in reducing acne lesions. The frequency of adverse events was about twice as high with isotretinoin, although these were mostly dryness-related events. No increased risk of suicide or depression was conclusively found. Isotretinoin use in women of childbearing age is regulated due to its known harmful effects in pregnancy. For such a woman to be considered a candidate for isotretinoin, she must have a confirmed negative pregnancy test and use an effective form of birth control. In 2008, the United States started the iPLEDGE program to prevent isotretinoin use during pregnancy. iPledge requires the woman under consideration for isotretinoin therapy to have two negative pregnancy tests and mandates the use of two types of birth control for at least one month before therapy begins and one month after therapy is complete. The effectiveness of the iPledge program has been questioned due to continued instances of contraception nonadherence.
Although the late stages of pregnancy are associated with an increase in sebaceous gland activity in the skin, pregnancy has not been reliably associated with worsened acne severity. In general, topically applied medications are considered the first-line approach to acne treatment during pregnancy, as they have little systemic absorption and are therefore unlikely to harm a developing fetus. Highly recommended therapies include topically applied benzoyl peroxide (category C) and azelaic acid (category B). Salicylic acid carries a category C safety rating due to higher systemic absorption (9–25%), and an association between the use of anti-inflammatory medications in the third trimester and adverse effects to the developing fetus including too little amniotic fluid in the uterus and early closure of the babies' ductus arteriosus blood vessel. Prolonged use of salicylic acid over significant areas of the skin or under occlusive dressings is not recommended as these methods increase systemic absorption and the potential for fetal harm. Tretinoin (category C) and adapalene (category C) are very poorly absorbed, but certain studies have suggested teratogenic effects in the first trimester. Due to persistent safety concerns, topical retinoids are not recommended for use during pregnancy. In studies examining the effects of topical retinoids during pregnancy, fetal harm has not been seen in the second and third trimesters. Retinoids contraindicated for use during pregnancy include the topical retinoid tazarotene, and oral retinoids isotretinoin and acitretin (all category X). Spironolactone is relatively contraindicated for use during pregnancy due to its antiandrogen effects. Finasteride is not recommended as it is highly teratogenic.
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Antibiotics. These work by killing excess skin bacteria and reducing redness. For the first few months of treatment, you may use both a retinoid and an antibiotic, with the antibiotic applied in the morning and the retinoid in the evening. The antibiotics are often combined with benzoyl peroxide to reduce the likelihood of developing antibiotic resistance. Examples include clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzaclin, Duac, Acanya) and erythromycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzamycin). Topical antibiotics alone aren't recommended.