Skip to content

Acne vulgaris



Integumentary system


Acne vulgaris


0 / 11 complete
High Yield Notes
16 pages

Acne vulgaris

11 flashcards

Content Reviewers:

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH

With acne vulgaris, acne means “eruption” and vulgaris, means “common”. So acne vulgaris is a common skin eruption that occurs when hair follicles, or pores, get blocked by particles like dead skin cells or oil. Once hair follicles are blocked, it forms small raised, red bumps on the skin. Acne is particularly common among teenagers because of the skin changes that occur during puberty. Acne can be categorized into different types based on specific characteristics. For example, mild acne usually consists of whiteheads and blackheads, moderate acne, usually consists of pustules, and severe acne, usually consists of cysts and nodules.

Now, the skin is divided into three main layers--the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. The epidermis forms the thin outermost layer of skin, and has 5 sublayers: the stratum corneum as the outermost layer followed by the stratum granulosum, the stratum spinosum, and the stratum basale. In the palms and feet, which are areas with thicker skin, there is a fifth layer called the stratum lucidum which is around one cell layer thick. Underneath the layers of the epidermis is the dermis, and it’s mainly made up of connective tissue but also contains nerve endings, hair follicles, sweat glands, sebaceous glands, lymphatic vessels and blood vessels. Focusing on the hair follicles, each one contains a strand of hair, composed of the shaft, root, and bulb that sits in the follicle. The hair follicle is epidermal tissue that dips down into the dermis, and is associated with other structures like apocrine glands, sebaceous glands, the arrector pili muscle, and nerve receptors. Now, sebaceous glands, or oil glands, are located in the dermis layer of the skin and are connected to hair follicles. Each sebaceous glands secrete an oily substance called sebum into a nearby hair follicle or through pores that extend directly to the skin surface. Sebum is a substance made of different fatty acids and waxy esters to help transport nutrients and lubricate the skin. As it turns out, arrector pili muscles surround the sebaceous glands, so when these tiny muscles contract, sebum gets squeezed out. Sebum softens the hair shaft preventing it from becoming brittle. Sebum also prevents moisture loss from the skin and is slightly acidic, which helps to deter pathogens. And below all of this is the hypodermis which is made of fat and connective tissue that anchors the skin to the underlying muscle.

The cause of acne is not completely understood but we do know that there are a few main factors that contribute to acne formation: keratin plugs, sebum, and bacterial overgrowth. First, there’s keratin plugs which are tiny clumps made up of dead keratinocytes, the protein keratin, and the pigment melanin. When keratinocytes in hair follicles overproduce keratin it’s called hyperkeratosis. It leads to more keratin plugs forming, and these little keratin plugs block the opening of the hair follicle.

Second, there’s sebum, which is released by sebaceous glands in response to increased androgen production, like during puberty, in both boys and girls. The sebum contributes to clogging up the follicles and causes blockage just like the keratin plugs.

So when there’s an excess in keratin plugs or sebum or both, it can start to fill up a hair follicle, but not quite plug it up all the way. If the hair follicle is still open to the surface of the skin, then it’s called an open comedo, and it looks black so it’s also called a blackhead. Blackheads look black because melanin in the keratin plug ends up getting oxidized when it’s exposed to air and becomes dark in color.


Acne vulgaris (commonly called acne) is a chronic skin disease that occurs when hair follicles are clogged with dead skin cells and oil from the skin. It is characterized by blackheads or whiteheads, pimples, oily skin, and possible scarring.

It primarily affects areas of the skin with a high number of oil glands, such as the face, chest, shoulders, and back. Acne is self-limiting but can cause significant emotional distress.

  1. "Robbins Basic Pathology" Elsevier (2017)
  2. "Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, Twentieth Edition (Vol.1 & Vol.2)" McGraw-Hill Education / Medical (2018)
  3. "Pathophysiology of Disease: An Introduction to Clinical Medicine 8E" McGraw-Hill Education / Medical (2018)
  4. "CURRENT Medical Diagnosis and Treatment 2020" McGraw-Hill Education / Medical (2019)
  5. "Acne vulgaris" BMJ (2013)
  6. "Epidemiology of acne vulgaris" British Journal of Dermatology (2013)
  7. "Pathways to inflammation: acne pathophysiology" European Journal of Dermatology (2011)