These glands produce sebum, the same natural oil that makes your hair greasy. Sebum is released through the hair follicles and gets spread around skin and hair with normal movement of the body. Around age twelve, hormonal changes cause glands to produce more sebum than usual. When combined with dead skin cells, sebum can build up around the hair follicle, blocking the pore. This creates a perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. Normal microscopic bacteria found on the skin's surface multiply in the blocked pore, feeding on the sebum-and-skin-cell mixture. The area inflames, and presto, you wake up with a huge blemish the morning of picture day.
A zit is merely an area of localized inflammation, which is the body's way of fighting off the bacterial infection. The white part, also known as pus, is made up of immune cells that attack the unruly bacteria, as well as the bacteria themselves. The redness of a pimple occurs as part of the inflammatory response, because blood vessels nearby become enlarged to bring additional immune cells to the site of bacterial growth and to carry away bacterial and immune cell debris.
Left alone, a pimple will likely be cleared away as the body's immune system does its job. But, we all know that time usually is NOT on our side, and we all know how powerful the urge to "pop your zit" is! When you squeeze out the white-head, you are purging the pus-filled zit of immune cells and bacteria, in an attempt to speed up healing the process. But, pop a zit too "vigorously" and the blood vessels will break as well, causing it to bleed.
For some, acne is nothing more than this: a minor irritation that always seems to pop up at the worst times. For others, it's a constant problem that can be physically and emotionally damaging. Severe break-outs during puberty can leave scars in adulthood, and the appearance of heavy acne can make sufferers feel self-conscious no matter what their age.
Skincare manufacturers and advertisers have caught on. The choices are endless when it comes to zit remedies, all of which promise a perfect complexion. Most over the counter brands contain a bactericidal substance (meaning a substance that kills bacteria) like benzoyl peroxide.
If you ever thought organic chemistry was irrelevant to your life (as we have all thought at one time or another), you may want to think again; Benzoly peroxide is an organic chemical compound that has two benzoyl components connected by a peroxide link (see image #3 for structural formula). As a peroxide, this compound is a strong oxidizing agent.
In a topical cream or in a face cleaner, this compound kills those bacteria that build up in the pore, most likely through its oxidizing activity. By killing off the bacteria in a zit, benzoyl peroxide helps reduces the body's need for an immune response, and helps to shrink the inflamed area. In addition to its ability to kill bacteria, benzoyl peroxide also has an anti-inflammatory property, which prevents blood vessels from swelling up too much and minimizes the unsightly redness of a zit.
But anti-bacterial treatments can't fix why pimples start in the first place: excess oil that builds up in the hair follicle. To prevent acne from starting, a skincare regimen is often recommended.
Exfoliation, which is the process of removing dead cells from the outermost layer of skin, with salicylic acid can help prevent pores from getting clogged. Salicylic acid, a weak acid (chemistry to the rescue once again!), is an active chemical ingredient found in many over-the-counter pimple creams. However, this chemical does not kill bacteria, but rather helps slough of the dead skin cells and oil from the outermost layer of skin, and minimizes the chances of clogged pores.
There are plenty of other treatment options for the uninvited zit. Many at-home remedies are effective for some people. Toothpaste, for example, contains small amounts of salicylic acid. It can be used to dry up a pimple overnight (and leave your face smelling minty fresh!). A whole host of web sites exist that are dedicated to all-natural pimple treatments. Listing ingredients like papaya, lemon juice and cinnamon, they read more like a recipe for a yummy dip. Although there's no scientific proof that any of these concoctions work, it's harmless to give them a shot.
Finally, beware the myths out there about what can cause or cure acne. You can drink all the water you want - it's good for you - but it can't prevent pimples. Chocolate has nothing to do with causing them, and neither do greasy foods. HOWEVER, stress, anger or anxiety (often associated with exams…) can increase sebum production in the body, and can, therefore, lead to break-outs. So don't worry too much about trying to find a cure for the inevitable zit. Your best defense against these unwanted visitors is to relax…and wash your face!
Colleen Kimmett is a journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. She once rode a camel and it was a very bumpy ride.