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2 September 2014
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You are here: BBC Science > Human Body & Mind > The Body > Puberty

Evil zits

Teenage boy shaving
The zit - bane of teenage existence

Spots are the bane of teen life. Just when teenagers are most sensitive about their looks they suffer an outbreak of zits.

This can vary from a few mild pimples to severe acne which can be quite difficult to live with. Eighty percent of teens suffer from spots to some degree. Boys are more susceptible than girls because testosterone tends to make spots worse, whereas oestrogen prevents them. The face is the most common area to be affected, but spots can appear on the neck, upper back, shoulders and chest.

Spotting the cause of acne

All over the skin, particularly in the areas most prone to spots, are thousands of sebaceous glands. They produce an oily substance called 'sebum' and they tend to become over-active in teenagers. Sebum usually keeps the skin soft and supple. When too much of it is produced, it blocks the tiny holes at the base of the fine hairs on our skin. These blocked holes trap bacteria, which then begin to multiply, producing toxic chemicals that turn the skin red.

As the bacteria continue to grow, pressure in the pore causes the walls of the hole to get thinner. Eventually the spot bursts and the bacteria and sebum are ejected onto the skin surface as a small dot of white pus.

 
acne is not caused by forgetting to wash, or even by eating a plate of chips

Know your spots

If the swelling in a pore is in the upper layer of the skin, a white head appear on the skin's surface. If however it is deeper down, it causes a nodule or cyst. These are visible as tender swellings without a white head. If attempts are made to squeeze these kinds of spots the inflammation will spread, making the problem worse. This often leads to the typical pitted acne scarring.

Sometimes there is no inflammation in a spot. There is merely a pore blocked with sebum. This is known as a 'blackhead'. Sometimes the top of a blackhead is under the surface of the skin, in which case it appears as a small, raised, white pimple and is called a 'white comedo'. These are particularly common on the forehead.

Spots come from within

Acne is not caused by forgetting to wash, or even by eating a plate of chips. It is caused by oil that comes from the skin itself. The good news is that it can be treated in a number of ways, such as medication and anti-bacterial products. Only a minority of teenagers report having serious difficulty with spots.


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