Ask Dr. Marla: Do dirty hands cause acne?

By Dr. Marla Shapiro on September 23, 2014


Does touching your face, especially with dirty hands, really cause acne?


When I first started practice, we thought diet was a large contributor to causing acne but in fact, chocolate and eating fatty greasy foods really won’t give you acne or make your acne worse. While it is never a good idea to have dirty skin, or touch your face with dirty hands, it isn’t the dirt that is causing the acne (though we do note that oil-based cosmetics can increase or worsen acne).

We really do not know what causes acne.

Our skin has follicles that hold our hair. These follicles can become blocked with oily secretions (sebum), skin cells as well as bacteria. It is likely a combination of those three factors – too much sebum, bacteria and dead skin cells plugging the follicles – that leads to acne. Sebum is important for healthy hair and skin, but too much can block the follicle and create an environment where skin-unfriendly bacteria can grow.

So what can promote acne? While we don’t know the definitive cause, a rise in male hormone levels are likely a factor as they can stimulate the oil glands that produce the sebum. This hormonal link explains why acne flares in adolescence, when we know these hormone levels rise. It can also explain why some women note a flare of acne leading up to their period.

Other causes include:

  • Certain medications
  • Family history
  • Use of oil-based sunscreens or skin care products which can contribute to blocking pores.

To prevent or lessen acne:

  • Keep your skin clean.
  • Dermatologists say to avoid pressure on your face – such as cell phones! Helmets and sports equipment that are against the skin can cause irritation as well.
  • Wash your face enough to clear dirt and sweat away, but do not overwash as that can irritate the skin. 

There are excellent treatments available for acne so be sure to consult your healthcare provider.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.

By Dr. Marla Shapiro| September 23, 2014

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