Bumps on the skin have a variety of causes. Some viruses, skin diseases, medical conditions and reactions to medications can cause them, but the most common cause of bumps on the face, neck and upper trunk is acne. In fact, the majority of teens and adolescents experience skin bumps due to acne at some point before they reach adulthood. Acne isn’t confined just to teens, adults get it too. Some adults continue to experience outbreaks of acne well into their forties.
There are several types of acne lesions. The typical acne pimple looks like a red bump on the surface of the skin. In some cases, it may look swollen and inflamed. This type of inflamed bump is more common with cystic acne. People with acne also form comedones, which are whiteheads or blackheads. These are hair follicles that are clogged but aren’t actively inflamed. They look like white or black dots on the skin.
Skin bumps or pimples due to acne appear when hair follicles become clogged. Around each follicle is a sebaceous gland that makes a sticky material called sebum. Sebum is produced to help moisten and protect the surface of the skin. When there’s too much sebum, it sticks to dead skin cells inside the follicle and causes the opening of the follicle called the pore to become clogged. Bacteria feed on the mixture of skin cells and sebum. This causes the immune system to attack the bacteria, leading to inflammation. This inflammation shows up as red skin bumps or pimples.
What causes sebum to be overproduced? The hormonal fluctuations that occur around puberty are mostly responsible, especially hormones called androgens. Androgens stimulate the production of sebum. Genetics also play a role in acne since it tends to run in families. Other factors that seem to play a role are stress, diet and overuse of cosmetics that clog pores.
Treatment of skin bumps due to acne begins with proper cleansing. Use a gentle cleanser that’s oil-free and non-comedogenic. A cleanser formulated for acne is best. Cleanse twice a day using your hands or a washcloth to move the cleanser around on the skin. If you use a wash cloth, apply only light pressure. Too much pressure and rubbing will cause irritation, and this can increase oil production and the risk of outbreaks.
Non-prescription treatments like benzoyl peroxide and acne treatment products containing sulfur help to lower the population of bacteria on the skin and reduce the inflammation that leads to outbreaks. Sulfur also helps to open up pores by keeping the dead skin cells inside the follicle from clumping together. Some products contain a combination of benzoyl peroxide and sulfur, while some include another ingredient called salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid is a weak acid that helps to stimulate skin cell shedding. This helps to open up clogged pores. Salicylic acid is available in some skin care products used to treat acne. It’s effective, but some people experience skin irritation and redness when they first start using it. This acid is also effective for bumps caused by keratosis pilaris, a condition caused by excess keratin or protein in the skin. When the keratin builds up, the follicle becomes clogged and the result is bumps which are sometimes red in color. The bumps typically form on the back of the arms and legs but can also be present on other areas of the body as well as the face.
When acne skin bumps persist despite non-prescription treatments, dermatologists often prescribe retinoids found in prescription products like Retin-A. Retinoids work by increasing the turnover of skin cells inside the follicles. This helps to open up clogged pores. It works well for this purpose, but it usually causes more skin irritation than salicylic acid. That’s why it’s important to try non-prescription treatments first. Some doctors also prescribe antibiotics for people with cystic acne to reduce bacteria, but, unfortunately, oral antibiotics have side effects.
Some dermatologists also offer chemical peels using weak acids like salicylic acid to treat acne. This requires a series of treatments to get the best results. Another relatively new treatment is blue light therapy. Dermatologists offer this service, but there are also hand-held devices that deliver blue light you can use at home. These devices work by shining blue light on the skin. Chemicals called porphyrins produced by acne-causing bacteria absorb the light and produce free radicals. This destroys the bacteria and reduces skin bumps and pimples due to acne.