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What’s the Difference Between Acne and Breakouts?

~| 7 minute read |~ 

Every client I see at my studio fills out a consultation form. Among other things, it asks about any concerns they have with their skin. I’ve noticed a common trend of clients (almost exclusively women) writing the word “acne” under this question. But once I take a closer look at their skin under my mag lamp, acne is very rarely what I see. 

This proves there is a disconnect in how we view our skin vs how we’ve been educated about our skin. Today I’m going to explain what acne is, the difference between acne and breakouts, and how this requires a shift in our approach to our skin. 

Acne vs Breakouts 

Breakouts are spots or pimples we’ve all dealt with at least once in our life. They are typically not accompanied by inflammation and present as whiteheads or blackheads. Whether it was from a reaction to a product, something we digested, a change in hormones, or simply buildup over time, we all experience clogged sebaceous glands aka pores. 

Acne, on the other hand, is a disorder of the skin marked by infection and often also inflammation of the sebaceous glands. Acne doesn’t just show up as spots here and there when a trigger food is eaten or when hormones fluctuate, although it can be worsened by those things. Acne has varying degrees of severity, but the thing it always is is constant. Acne is normally thought of as being a young person problem we outgrow, but it does not discriminate against any age. Also, women have a significantly higher chance of experiencing adult acne than men do. 

Due to acne being considered a medical diagnosis vs a condition, any product with the word “acne” on the packaging is making a drug claim and must have studies proving the efficacy of their formula to be sold in the US. Part of the reason brands started using the word “breakouts” instead of “acne” in their product names or marketing was to avoid these studies. While this seems like a benign detail, the implications of treating the terms breakouts and acne as synonyms for each other have far-reaching consequences. 

Why terms matter 

Think of it this way: We know all insects are bugs but not all bugs are insects. Insects meet the criteria to be a bug but they are a specific classification within the group. It’s the same with our skin. All acne can be categorized as breakouts, but that doesn’t mean all breakouts are acne. 

Now you may be asking yourself why any of this matters. It matters because you need the right tools and knowledge of the problem to solve it effectively. You can hammer a nail with a screwdriver or drive a screw with a hammer but neither is recommended. Using a product targeting acne may not be the tool you need for your breakouts and vice versa. 

Then vs now 

Acne used to be something we suffered through or covered up with makeup. Sometimes it could drive you to a dermatologist if you were wealthy or desperate enough. There weren’t many products or resources available to treat this problem, and going to a facialist was viewed as being reserved exclusively for celebrities and movie stars. But since then we’ve seen a shift in this thinking with the boom of the skincare industry. The skincare market has grown by billions of dollars which has encouraged people to experiment more with their skin at home, cocktailing products on their face based on the advice of bloggers and social media. But with this experimentation, there’s also been an uptick in people experiencing more irritation and incidentally more breakouts.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love skincare. I think it is an extremely helpful tool that can, with consistency, literally change faces. But without the proper education and training, it has the power to accomplish great damage. 

What difference does this make? 

The obvious difference this knowledge makes is in picking the appropriate products for our skin, especially when we have a compromised barrier. My approach is to always focus on treating the skin first and once we’ve repaired that we can focus on the symptoms. Attacking your skin with strong actives when it’s broken is only going to exacerbate the problem and make it worse. 

The second impact of this revelation should change the way we view ourselves. In an image-obsessed culture where nothing is what it seems online, it’s all too easy to compare normal, healthy, beautiful skin with “perfect” airbrushed skin. Pores, texture, pigmentation, and yes acne, is common and shouldn’t be labeled as a chronic moral failure because it doesn’t meet that impossible standard of perfection. 

My approach

If you are someone who struggles with acne, especially as an adult, please know you are not alone. It’s estimated 80% of the population will struggle with acne at one time in their life. 50% of women in their 20s have acne and 25% of women in their 50s also have acne. And dermatologists (with their expensive appointments and tight schedules) are not your only option. Facialists (or estheticians as our broader title reads) are trained and passionate about helping you with your skin! You’d be surprised what we can do. If you’re in the Cleveland area, my studio is ready and waiting to receive you. And my consultations know no geography limitations. 

If you’ve yet to find a facialist that’s outstanding in their field, knowledgeable in their training, and comfortable with you, stay tuned for my next series of posts here. I’m going to break down what to look for, what to ask, and why finding your go-to esti can make a world of difference. I’ll post highlights over on Instagram too, which by the way, is where all my photos are always and forever filter-free. 

Until next time, 

Victoria