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Decoding Acne: From Causes to Treatments and its Contrast with Seborrheic Dermatitis

Acne vulgaris is an extraordinarily common skin condition, affecting up to 90% of adolescents and often persisting into adulthood [1]. This section provides an extensive overview of acne, including its complex underlying causes, clinical presentation, severity-based treatment options, and relationship/differences with seborrheic dermatitis.

The Complex Pathogenesis of Acne Vulgaris

The pathogenesis of acne involves multiple interconnected factors that promote inflammation within hair follicles and sebaceous glands [2]. Excess sebum production, altered keratinization, changes in the normal skin microbiota, and immune system activation all contribute.

Excess sebum sets the stage for acne development. Androgens, particularly testosterone, drive increased sebum secretion during puberty. Sebum mixes with dead skin cells inside hair follicles, forming a plug known as a microcomedone. Trapped oils and debris within the microcomedone create an ideal environment for growth of Cutibacterium acnes.

Cutibacterium acnes flourishes within the microcomedone. This commensal skin bacterium triggers inflammation through various mechanisms, including [3]:

  • Recruiting neutrophils and other immune cells
  • Stimulating production of pro-inflammatory cytokines
  • Generating inflammatory free fatty acids

Inflammation results from immune activation in response to C. acnes, sebum, and other factors. This produces visible papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts. Acne is now understood to be primarily an inflammatory disease.

Abnormal keratinization also plays a role. Excessive sloughing of skin cells inside follicles contributes to microcomedone formation.

Genetics, hormonal changes, diet, stress, and certain medications can worsen acne by enhancing sebum production or promoting inflammation [4]. High glycemic diets, smoking, and harsh skin care products are among the avoidable risk factors.

Clinical Presentation and Patterns of Acne

Acne often begins during puberty, coinciding with rising androgen levels. Younger teenagers frequently present with mild non-inflammatory acne consisting primarily of open and closed comedones (blackheads and whiteheads). Older teenagers and adults may develop more inflammatory papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts as sebum production increases.

Different acne “patterns” have been described in traditional Chinese medicine [5]:

  • Wind-Heat Type – Sudden onset, red papules
  • Damp-Heat Type – Greasy skin, nodules/cysts
  • Phlegm-Static Blood Type – Firm nodules
  • Disharmony of Vessels – Purplish cysts on neck/chest

The rise in inflammatory lesions is closely tied to changes in the skin microbiome, barrier integrity, and immune responses [3].

Psychological Impact of Acne

Facial redness and inflammatory acne lesions depicting psychological effects

In addition to its physical symptoms, acne carries a significant psychological burden for many patients. Studies consistently demonstrate higher rates of anxiety, depression, psychological stress, social isolation, and suicidal ideation in acne patients [6].

Some key observations about the psychological impact of acne:

  • Prevalence of clinical depression is 2-3x higher in acne patients
  • Social interactions, self-esteem, and quality of life measures are negatively affected
  • Psychological distress correlates with acne severity
  • Females may experience greater psychological effects than males
  • Scarring can worsen psychological symptoms

The psychological component of acne must be considered when designing therapeutic approaches. Counseling, stress management, and anti-depressant medications may provide additional benefit.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis of acne is usually based on history and physical examination [7]. The severity of the condition dictates the appropriate therapy: topical treatments for mild cases, oral antibiotics for moderate cases, and stronger oral medications or aggressive interventions for severe cases [8].

Treatment adherence is crucial for positive outcomes [9].

Emerging therapies include clascoterone, sarecycline, trifarotene, novel lotion formulations of tretinoin and tazarotene, as well as medicinal plant extracts with antibacterial activity against acne-causing bacteria [10].

An image showing the large amount of different acne treaments available

Given the complexity of the condition a variety of different treatment approaches are put forward. These are briefly summarzied below:

  • Topical Retinoids: These are typically the first-line therapy for most acne patients. They work by unplugging follicles and reducing inflammation, which is achieved by their effects on cell differentiation and cytokines. Some examples of topical retinoids include tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene.
  • Benzoyl Peroxide: This substance has antibacterial effects against Cutibacterium acnes and also possesses anti-inflammatory properties. It is often combined with retinoids in treatment regimens but can cause dryness and irritation.
  • Topical Antibiotics: These are primarily clindamycin and erythromycin. They are used sparingly in order to avoid resistance.
  • Oral Antibiotics: Tetracyclines such as doxycycline and minocycline are often prescribed for moderate to severe inflammatory acne. They are usually combined with topical agents for more effective treatment.
  • Hormonal Therapies: Oral contraceptives and spironolactone can be used to treat hormonal acne in females. They work by reducing the androgen stimulation of sebaceous glands.
  • Oral Isotretinoin: This is the most effective drug for treating severe nodulocystic acne. It dramatically reduces sebum output but requires strict monitoring due to potential adverse effects.
  • Emerging Therapies: There are several novel treatments currently being explored for treating acne, including topical antiandrogens, photodynamic therapy, laser or light treatments, sonophoresis, microneedling, among others [11]. Lifestyle measures like a low glycemic diet and stress management provide additional benefit.

Acne Severity Classification and Treatment Implications

The severity of acne guides the appropriate treatment approach. The table below outlines the key characteristics of each acne severity level and suggests treatment options, ensuring that individuals affected by acne receive the most suitable care tailored to their specific needs.

Diagram of acne severity scale
Acne Severity Characteristics Treatment Implications
Mild Acne Mostly comedones with occasional papules/pustules Mild acne is often manageable with over-the-counter products and low-strength retinoids.
Moderate Acne More pronounced inflammatory lesions Moderate acne may require prescription medications to address inflammation.
Severe Acne Nodules, cysts, widespread involvement Severe acne typically necessitates more aggressive treatment, such as oral isotretinoin and procedures for cysts.
Very Severe/Refractory Acne Severe scarring and/or fistulas Very severe or refractory acne may demand intensive therapies, including high-dose isotretinoin and surgical interventions.

Acne vs. Seborrheic Dermatitis: Key Differences

Seborrheic dermatitis has significant overlap with acne, but also key differences. Unlike acne, the primary trigger in seborrheic dermatitis appears to be overgrowth of yeasts in the genus Malassezia [1].

While acne mostly affects the face, chest, and back, seborrheic dermatitis commonly impacts the scalp, face, ears, chest, and body folds. Additionally, the scaling and flaking in seborrheic dermatitis arises from inflammation induced by fungal lipids and metabolic byproducts. Immune responses against Malassezia yeast drive the erythema and itching.

However, excess sebum production likely enables overgrowth of both Cutibacterium acnes in acne and Malassezia yeast in seborrheic dermatitis. Altered sebum composition may also play a role. Both conditions worsen with psychological stress, pointing to possible shared neuroendocrine pathways [6].

The comparison table below provides a concise visual summary of the key differences and similarities between acne and seborrheic dermatitis, highlighting their distinct characteristics:

Characteristic Acne Seborrheic Dermatitis
Primary Locations Commonly appears on the face, chest, and back. Occurs in areas with high sebaceous gland activity, such as the scalp, face, and chest.
Lesions Characterized by comedones, papules, and pustules. Presents as flaking, scaling, and inflammation.
Microbiome Involvement The skin microbiome plays a role, with altered diversity and composition. Malassezia yeast colonization is a key factor, along with bacterial imbalances.
Hormonal Influence Hormones like androgens contribute to increased oil production. While hormones may play a role, they are not as central to the condition’s pathogenesis.
Psychological Impact Often linked to anxiety, depression, and stress, with well-documented effects. Though it can be distressing, psychological impact is less widely documented and discussed in the literature.


In summary, acne vulgaris is a highly prevalent skin disorder with a complex pathophysiology involving the interplay between sebum, keratinization, the microbiome, inflammation, and endocrine factors. Seborrheic dermatitis has some overlapping features but Malassezia yeast overgrowth appears central to its pathogenesis.

For both conditions, topical and oral medications aimed at reducing oil production, inflammation, and microbial colonization remain the cornerstones of therapy. However, psychological support and integrative therapies can provide substantial added benefit. Further research is needed on the dermato-endocrine mechanisms of these disorders to enable development of more targeted treatments with fewer side effects.

Here are the key takeaways from this section:

  1. Acne vulgaris affects 90% of adolescents and persists into adulthood, driven by factors like excess sebum, Cutibacterium acnes, and inflammation.
  2. Psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, is common in acne patients, emphasizing the need for holistic treatment approaches.
  3. Treatment for acne varies based on severity, from mild cases manageable with topicals to severe cases requiring oral medications or advanced procedures.
  4. Seborrheic dermatitis shares some characteristics with acne but is primarily understood to be triggered by overgrowth of Malassezia yeast, affecting different body areas.
  5. Both acne and seborrheic dermatitis are aggravated by excess sebum and may worsen with psychological stress, suggesting shared pathways.
  6. Acne primarily affects the face, chest, and back, presenting as comedones, papules, and pustules, while seborrheic dermatitis targets areas with active sebaceous glands.
  7. Hormonal influence is prominent in acne due to androgen stimulation, but seborrheic dermatitis’s pathogenesis is less hormone-centric.
  8. Acne’s psychological impacts are more documented than for seborrheic dermatitis, but both conditions can affect social interactions, self-esteem, and overall quality of life.


  1. Clio Dessinioti "Acne Pathogenesis: What We Have Learned Over the Years" Springer Berlin Heidelberg (2014): 61-70.
  2. Tian-Xin Cong, Dan Hao, Xiang Wen, Xiao-Hua Li, Gu He, Xian Jiang "From pathogenesis of acne vulgaris to anti-acne agents" Springer Science and Business Media LLC 311.5 (2019): 337-349.
  3. Chanidapa Wongtada, Pinidphon Prombutara, Pravit Asawanonda, Nopadon Noppakun, Chanat Kumtornrut, Tanittha Chatsuwan "Distinct skin microbiome modulation following different topical acne treatments in mild acne vulgaris patients: A randomized, investigator‐blinded exploratory study" Wiley 32.6 (2023): 906-914.
  4. Ahmed Arafa, Alshimaa Mostafa, Yasser Khamis "The association of acne and menstrual symptoms among young women (18–25 years) in Egypt: a population-based cross-sectional study" Walter de Gruyter GmbH 33.6 (2020): 463-468.
  5. Woo-Yeol Jeong, Eu-Gene Hong, Jun-Hyuk Shin, Yoon-Bum Kim, Hae-Jung Nam, Kyu-Seok Kim, Jun-Hee Lee "A Study on the Major Symptoms by Each Pattern of Acne Vulgaris" The Korean Oriental Medical Opthalmology and Otolaryngology and Dermatology Society 27.4 (2014): 76-86.
  6. EnasKamel Shafik Deshesh, MagdaMostafa Hagag, RaniaMohamed Azmy "Serum levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, association with psychological symptoms in females with acne vulgaris" Menoufia University 35.4 (2023): 1709.
  7. Fifa Argentina "Diagnosis and Treatment of Acne Vulgaris: A Narrative Literature Review" Phlox Institute: Indonesian Medical Research Organization 1.1 (2023): 1-4.
  8. Shuai Liu, Ruili Chen, Yun Gu, Qiong Yu, Guoxiong Su, Yanjiao Ren, Lan Huang, Fengfeng Zhou "AcneTyper: An automatic diagnosis method of dermoscopic acne image via self-ensemble and stacking" IOS Press 31.4 (2023): 1171-1187.
  9. Katherine Berry, Jordan Lim, Andrea L. Zaenglein "Acne Vulgaris: Treatment Made Easy for the Primary Care Physician" SLACK, Inc. 49.3 (2020).
  10. Jane J. Han, Adam Faletsky, John S. Barbieri, Arash Mostaghimi "New Acne Therapies and Updates on Use of Spironolactone and Isotretinoin: A Narrative Review" Springer Science and Business Media LLC 11.1 (2021): 79-91.
  11. Thierry Simonart "Newer Approaches to the Treatment of Acne Vulgaris" Springer Science and Business Media LLC 13.6 (2012): 357-364.
  12. Rong Tao, Ruoyu Li, Ruojun Wang "Skin microbiome alterations in seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff: A systematic review" Wiley 30.10 (2021): 1546-1553.
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About Michael Anders

After being affected by seborrheic dermatitis, I have made it my goal to gather and organize all the information that has helped me in my journey.

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