What Is the Difference Between Clogged Pores & Acne?

Closed up of pimple blackheads on face
Pores can be clogged without acne necessarily being present. (Image: ThamKC/iStock/Getty Images)

Clogged pores and acne are two different skin conditions. While acne doesn't occur without pores first being clogged, clogged pores alone don't necessarily lead to acne. Clogged pores are caused by a combination of dead skin cells, dirt and excessive sebum, which are natural oils produced by the sebaceous glands. Acne, on the other hand, requires all these factors, plus a bacterial infection. Without this infection, clogged pores can create other skin conditions, none of which always lead to acne.

Skin Conditions Caused by Clogged Pores

Clogged pores can cause blackheads -- overstretched hair follicles plugged with dead skin cells and sebum. The overstretched follicle allows air to mix with the sebum and dirt, causing a chemical reaction that turns the follicle black. Whiteheads are also caused by clogged pores, but unlike blackheads, the follicles are not stretched, leaving no room for air to enter the follicle for a chemical reaction to occur. Whiteheads occur under the skin, while blackheads occur on the skin.

Clogged Pores Set the Stage for Acne

Acne is caused by a combination of clogged pores, excessive production of sebum and an infection by one of six strains of Propionibacterium acnes, a family of bacteria naturally found on the skin. While there are 11,000 strains of this bacteria, some of the strains are beneficial to keeping skin healthy; only six strains have been found consistently on acne-prone skin. When excessive oil clogs pores, it creates a breeding ground for the acne-causing strains of bacteria. The body's attempt to fight the resulting bacterial infection leads to inflammation, which then turns into acne.

Clearing Up Clogged Pores

Woman Washing Her Face
The best defense against clogged pores is a good cleansing regimen. (Image: Dave J. Anthony/Photodisc/Getty Images)

In the instance where clogged pores exist absent whiteheads or blackheads, it's best to clean up the skin before conditions turn worse. Cleansers made with salicylic acid are useful for removing dirt and excessive oil. A good exfoliant can get rid of dead skin before it clogs pores. Apple cider vinegar makes a good natural exfoliant -- just soak a cotton pad and wipe a thin layer across your skin after washing your face with a regular cleanser.

When Acne Appears

Despite the most meticulous cleansing regimen, clogged pores can still turn into acne as bacteria festers under the skin. When this happens, it's best not to pick at the resulting pimple, as this will only drive the bacteria deeper into the skin. Topical creams containing benzoyl peroxide or retinols are often effective in killing the bacteria, unclogging oil glands and healing pimples. For severe acne, consult a dermatologist, who may prescribe bacteria-killing antibiotics.

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