What is a spot?

shutterstock_75170938Spots occur when the pores on your skin get blocked and become infected by the normally harmless bacteria on the skin surface.

Most spots are nothing more than an irritation, but sometimes spots can signify something more serious. For example, severe spots can signify acne, which can lead to scarring of the skin if it is not treated correctly. Other spots can signal an infectious disease, such as chicken pox, shingles or measles.

If you are in any doubt about whether your spots are normal, or whether they are an indication of something more serious, you should consult your dermatologist.

How do spots form?

Everyone’s skin is covered with small pores or holes, called follicles, that each contains a hair. This is true of men and women, although women’s body hair is usually too fine to see. Each hair follicle has a gland attached to it, called a sebaceous gland. This gland secretes an oily fluid called sebum, which stops the skin and hair from getting too dry.

If the gland produces too much sebum, this can mix with dead skin cells and block the hair follicle, causing a spot. The kind of spot will depend on the bacteria present and the depth of the blockage.

Different types of spot

There are different types of spot, varying in colour and severity. Simple blockages of the follicle cause one of two spot types, depending on the depth of the blockage:

  • Whiteheads (closed comedone) – small spots just below the skin surface that bulge outwards.
  • Blackheads (open comedone) – darker, more obvious spots on the surface of the skin itself.
  • Once a comedone has formed, it can become infected by the normally harmless bacteria on the skin surface, causing a range of more severe spot types, including:
  • Papules – solid round bumps that are raised from the skin surface
  • Pustules – pus filled bumps that are red at the base with a yellow head
  • Nodules – like papules but much larger and embedded deeper in the skin
  • Cysts – large pus filled, boil-like lumps that can cause scarring if squeezed

Common causes of spots

Contrary to common belief, spots are rarely caused by dirty skin, and in fact, washing too often or too vigorously can actually make matters worse. Nor are spots a result of poor diet or an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.

In most cases, spots are caused by hormonal changes, which stimulate the sebaceous glands to become overactive, producing excess sebum that blocks the follicles. The bacteria that infect the blocked follicle are perfectly normal and can be found on everyone’s skin, although some people who are more prone to severe spots or acne, have been found to have different strains of these bacteria on their skin surface.

Spots may also be hereditary, since the children of parents who had bad spots or acne are more likely to suffer themselves.

How to deal with spots

However tempting, the last thing you should do with spots is squeeze them, as this may make things worse and harm your skin by spreading any infection across a wider area. If it is vital that you have a spot removed, for example before an important occasion, then you should seek professional help from your dermatologist.