acne 101: a simple dive into a very complex subject

For being such a common skin problem, acne is VERY complex. The various types and stages of acne can be confusing and vary from person to person, life stage to life stage! But don’t let it scare you—simply knowing about your acne type, stage, and severity can help you determine the best treatment for YOUR skin.

Let’s dive into Acne 101.

So, what is acne?

For every hair on your body, there is a corresponding skin pore. Each pore, also known as a hair follicle, contains a gland that produces an oily feeling substance called sebum. Sebum's function is to keep the skin and hair moisturized. When your pores are clear, the hair follicle remains normal. However, when there is an overproduction of sebum and/or a build-up of bacteria, the pore becomes clogged, and acne can develop.

When the pore is clogged with dead skin cells and oils, a blockage is created. Sebum continues to be produced but is trapped within the follicle. This is when bacteria enters, feeding into the dead skin and oil, leading to infection. White blood cells enter to help fight the infection from within. When they die, these white blood cells, combined with dead skin and sebum, create the pus-filled pimple (gross, we know, and we know you know).

Okay, but why do I have acne?

There’s a lot of reasons why you may have acne—but there’s also a lot of ways that you can treat it. Let's first break down some of the common reasons you may be breaking out.


When your body's hormones are in disarray, that imbalance can send the production of sebum into overdrive, increasing the incidents of blockages. Estrogen, contrary to popular belief, is a hormone that typically heals and acts as a protective barrier for the skin -- when breakouts happen, the cause is often a low amount of estrogen and a high amount of testosterone, DHEA-S, or progesterone.

Quick Testosterone, DHEA-S, Progesterone Debrief: Testosterone, a male hormone (aka androgen), is usually produced in small amounts in females and can become unhealthily elevated depending on several factors, including an increase of insulin in the blood (which is sometimes associated with an unhappy gut-more on that later). DHEA-S, similar to testosterone, is an androgen that can also overproduce oil in the body if levels are too high. These hormones are produced in the adrenal gland and increased levels of stress can disrupt the body's hormonal balance. High levels of both testosterone and DHEA-S can lead to excess oil production. Lastly, progesterone does not increase oil production in the skin, but instead blocks estrogen levels, decreasing that hormone's healing and protecting abilities. In summary, female hormones are good, it's the other ones that are tricky!

If you are experiencing breakouts during the same time every month and around the lower portion of your face (your chin, cheeks, around your jaw), you are likely experiencing hormonal acne. This may be more severe right before your period (PMS week), when you’re going through puberty or menopause, or are pregnant. For more on breakouts on certain areas of your face, check out our most recent blog on face mapping.


Diet is connected to acne in so many different ways. Things like sugar can kick up your sebum production or lead to candida overgrowth, which can cause acne and other ailments in your body. Furthermore, your body’s reaction to food allergies can also come in the form of acne.

Bottom line: ingesting something that your body doesn’t agree with can cause inflammation and therefore cause acne. This is why many holistic dermatologists and doctors recommend cutting out potentially inflammatory foods like gluten and dairy too!


The biggest proponent of your acne may be your own DNA (the betrayal!). You may be the cleanest eater and least stressed person out there, but still battle acne. In these cases, just remember that how you view your acne *mentally* is extremely important.

For people who have acne in their genes, we know this can be so frustrating. An important part of your skincare routine will be emotional work, including coming to a healthy place in your mind about your skin. It's about coming to terms with the fact that you may always deal with breakouts, and that doesn't mean you don't have healthy skin, or that your acne can't be treated. Acne can be very hormonally and emotionally influenced, so any extra stress you have about your acne can actually make it worse. Plus, we all know the feeling when we hate our breakouts so much that we actually physically attack (aka attempt to pop, pick, or squeeze) them, causing further scarring and long-term damage to our skin.

Take care of your body, take care of your mind, and this mentality will help you take care of your skin, too! For me, I've done so much work in terms of not allowing my hormonal breakouts to impact my self-esteem and mood. In time, I've also allowed myself to stop covering them up with so much makeup, which has also helped heal my skin. Changes in my perspective about acne have probably been the biggest tool for me in creating healthier skin - despite my (acne-prone) genetics!


As we mentioned above, there are different types and development cycles of acne! This is a summarized version of how we like to analyze acne.

Stage 1—Mild

These are the common culprits! They may take the following forms:

  • Minor pimples: The usual suspects, with no inflammation
  • Blackheads: Blockage is above the skin; dead cells reacting to oxygen result in black color (just like how avocados brown when exposed to oxygen, our dead skin cells blacken too!)
  • Whiteheads: Clogged pores not open to the surface, medically known as comedones

Breakage of these leads to the development of all other lesions. When whiteheads rupture the hair follicle wall, pimples are formed, and bacteria is released into the skin. This is what turns into "inflammatory acne", so be careful!

The key to dealing with this type of acne is to deeply cleanse. Use our cleansing oil and toners, and bring the travel sized toners on-the-go with you throughout the day! Gently treat this form of acne and let them turnover on their own.

If you are prone to persistent blackheads, my best advice is to use toner and exfoliate often. Our Sea Moss Exfoliator is gentle enough to be used frequently, so keep this in the shower and use 3-4x per week. It'll help prevent excess build up!

Stage II—Moderate, inflammatory

These are the bad guys. They may show up as:

  • Papules: These are whiteheads that turned into an infected area, and they are just under the surface. What differentiates these is that the blackheads or whiteheads have become inflamed (irritated, swollen, red), so much so that they are painful to the touch. For papules, the key is to reduce inflammation. Use our mask and turmeric stick frequently on these guys!
  • Pustules: The typical “pimple”. You can actually SEE the white, AH! These are inflamed whiteheads that have collected with white or yellow pus at the surface of the skin, not underneath like papules (and may be painful to the touch). Be careful using your hands around these guys. While I'm not a proponent of popping zits, these can be hard to resist! If you do pick, use two q-tips and immediately apply a cotton pad sprayed with our Raspberry Vinegar Toner over the area after. Do NOT pick beyond the initial POP! It may appear that there is "more" after the initial pop, but most of the time it is just swollen. Overly picking can can lead to more inflammation or long-term hyperpigmentation.

Stage III—Severe

These are the villains. The most "severe" form of acne may become:

  • Cysts: infected pustules that seem very buried under the skin, and are often large and painful. They can leave temporary or permanent scars and are more than 5 mm in diameter. Since they're so deep under the skin, they are un-pop-able (not that any popping is good but these are REALLY un-pop-able)
  • Nodules: like cysts, these are hard, painful bumps, but they contain no pus or fluid, can last for weeks or months, can be dormant and reappear. These are really, really, really annoying.

Do. not. pick. these. guys. You will not be victorious and will end up with a scar or damaged texture for months...or LONGER! I'm speaking from experience. This is not the type of zit that will form a whitehead that easily comes out. When you pick cysts, it leads to even more inflammation. I know you know what I'm talking about!

The key for these guys will be to reduce swelling and inflammation. Use our Turmeric Stick or Chlorophyll Mask as much as possible on these areas or spots! Eat clean, avoid dairy, and let them reduce in size on their own. If you treat, mask, and let them heal naturally, they will eventually disappear without a scar.

*A note on cysts: Cystic acne is the most severe type of inflamed acne. Cysts form when your pores are clogged with dead skin cells and oil, are extremely irritated, and grow deeper within the skin than other types of acne. Changes in your hormones (like PMS week), picking and squeezing, environmental factors, bacterial irritations, or food sensitivities can be the cause. These are commonly found on cheeks and under the chin, but can take place just about anywhere (even on your back, chest, and neck).

It is important to note that you can have all three "stages" on different parts of your face or different time periods. Your acne does not have to be exclusive to one stage, unfortunately.


Lifestyle Tips for All Acne Types

There is no skincare product that can impact your skin more than your day-to-day lifestyle choices. For people who deal with persistent acne, we always recommend taking a look at your lifestyle FIRST, then reviewing your skincare product line-up.

The most important part of battling your acne is remaining patient and open-minded. It may take a few weeks to see results, so give your body enough time to adjust to changes in your lifestyle that may help clear up your skin. The following tips are commonly used treatments for acne, but your body may not react to or need all of these adjustments. Find out what’s right for you, and if you have any specific questions, reach out and ask us!

  1. Eat clean. If you’re on your period, we recommend eating dark, leafy greens (like kale) and lots of healthy fruits that can help your body handle fluctuating hormones. Check out this blog post for more foods to eat during your time of month. What has helped me tremendously is CUTTING OUT gluten and dairy, and CUTTING DOWN on sugar (c'mon I have to live). Certain foods that are full of sugar, like fruit juices and white bread, can cause your blood sugar levels to surge. In response, insulin is produced and your body reacts by creating excess sebum.
  2. Don’t pick at your skin. For some, picking at their hair, nails, or skin, is a way to cope with stress. If you’ve got active acne, avoid exacerbating the lesions by not prodding them. If you need, don't stand so close to your mirror in the bathroom. Give yourself an extra foot of space between the mirror and yourself...this little trick always helps me judge less and pick less!
  3. Get enough sleep. Sleeping is how your body regenerates itself from daily activities. Not getting enough sleep causes your body to build up with toxins - triggering inflammation, more stress, and a weaker immune system.
  4. Reduce stress. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases the inflammation in your body, which flares up the acne and suppresses your immune system, which means your body can't fight the acne-causing bacteria. The solution? Reduce your cortisol levels.
  5. Cleanse your skin of sweat. Sweating excessively can be a reaction to highly stressful situations. Don’t forget to carry around your Travel Size Organic Rosewater Facial Toner for an on-the-go cleanse.
  6. Take care of yourself and treat your body AND mind kindly, especially during stressful times. Take your makeup off before going to bed, don’t stress eat junk food, and don't hate your acne so much that you try fixing and taking things into your own hands (literally).


How to treat your acne with cocokind

Cleanse your face thoroughly. Use our Organic Facial Cleansing Oil to remove makeup and dirt from the skin, washing with water or wiping off with a soft towel / cotton pad. This also helps you keep the good oils on your face, preventing your skin from overproducing sebum.

Always follow up with toner. Our toners are acidic, which help double cleanse your face AND restore your skin's healthy acid mantle.

Acid what? Your skin's acid mantle is the thin film on the skin's surface that helps act as a barrier against bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants. It's important to maintain the pH level of the acid mantle and to avoid stripping down this protective layer.

Our Organic Rosewater Toner can be used as freely and frequently as possible. It has a pH of 5.5 , which is the average pH of healthy skin. If your pH is lower or higher than this, the Rosewater Toner helps restore it to a more natural, healthy level.

The Raspberry Vinegar Toner has a lower pH at 3.5. If you are prone to severe acne or more oily skin, this toner can help to reduce your pH levels and reduce an excess in oil production.

Detox and exfoliate. Cleansing, toning, and moisturizing may be our holy trinity, but detoxing and exfoliating are just as important to really maintain the healthy skin you're looking for.

Our Organic Ultra Chlorophyll Mask purifies the skin while adding essential antioxidants and relieving breakouts. You'll have less inflammation in your breakouts and a brighter complexion! For regular cystic acne that penetrates deep under the skin, we recommend regularly detoxing with a mask to help calm, deeply cleanse, and nourish these stubborn blemishes. On weeks when I'm dealing with cystic acne or a larger quantity of zits, I'll use the chlorophyll mask almost every night! On other weeks, I'll probably do it 1-2 times.

Dead skin cells build on the skin's surface over time, which can clog pores or cause excess oil production, leading to acne. Exfoliation is the key to cleansing out those dead cells, pus, and dirt that are stuck right beneath or right above the skin's surface (usually in blackheads, whiteheads, and pustules). It's important to remove these dead cells regularly to keep your skin bright, clear, and healthy. When dead cells are removed, the living cells below are opened up, allowing moisturizers to penetrate more deeply and effectively.

Our Organic Sea Moss Exfoliator is gentle enough to be used 2-4 times a week, and is effective without being irritating. Over-exfoliation can cause irritation, so it's important to use a gentle exfoliator that only removes dry, dead cells.

Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Contrary to what many think, drying out your acne is not useful. Think about the evolution of your pimples; the skin's natural way of healing an infection (aka, your blemish) is to release the infection through the skin's surface. Drying out the infection rather than allowing it to exit the skin is more harmful than beneficial, and can actually lead to a prolonged recovery. By drying out the irritated spot, you're covering up the infection with dead skin cells that prevent it from healing naturally--not to mention, excessively dried out skin can flake off and scar, which we want to avoid.

Let your skin do its natural regenerative thing! This will help diminish the breakouts faster, avoid scarring, and repair texture and tone. For deep and healthy moisturizing, we recommend our Organic Chia Facial Oil or Organic Facial Repair Serum. For lighter moisturizing or for those that are very new to oils, we recommend our Raspberry Jasmine All-Over Oil! Use one of these products day and night on a freshly cleansed and toned face.

Treat. Rather than drying out specific areas of the face (as most spot treatments do), you want to lower inflammation and melanin levels while increasing antioxidant levels of the infected area. Our Turmeric Spot Treatment is anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal. While killing bacteria in the acne topically, it is also working to reduce inflammation. It also contains a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant component called curcumin, which plays a big role in reducing excess production of melanin, which can give damaged skin its darkened complexion (aka hyperpigmentation or "scars").

Change it up. Your skin is not stagnant. It may want different treatments depending on the time of day, time of the month, and time of year. It's important to pay attention to how your skin is reacting on a day-to-day basis, and change up your routine depending on what it needs. Feeling dry? Carry the MYMATCHA All-Over Moisture Stick with you for on-the-go moisture. Breaking out and extra oily? Use the Raspberry Vinegar Toner to pick up excess oil and balance your skin's pH levels. If you are worried about sweat or build out clogging pores throughout the day, bring a Travel Rosewater Toner on the road! Be flexible in your skincare routine and get in touch with your body!

Acne is a very complex subject! We hope with more education, you're able to tackle the specific types of breakouts with changes to your lifestyle, diet, skincare products, or mentality! If you have any questions, concerns, or more happy skin tips, shoot us an email at!

-Priscilla and The Cocokind Team