Glands of the Skin and Acne

by Robert Tallitsch, PhD | January 19, 2023

Glands of the Skin and Acne Brain Builder - 3D Anatomy

Video explaining the glands of the skin and acne with a dermatology patient case example!

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Written by: Robert Tallitsch, PhD

The integumentary system, or integument, is composed of the skin and its derivatives (glands, hair, and nails). While it is one of the largest organs of the body, a detailed explanation of the integument is often lacking in gross anatomy texts. (Go to our Brain Builder on the Integumentary System and Burns for an explanation of the anatomy of the skin.) Because the skin is one of the most visible structures of our body, we can spend a lot of time and money on skin care. An unsightly outbreak of acne on the face, neck, chest or shoulders can be embarrassing and frustrating. This Brain Builder discusses the glands of the skin and how some of these glands are linked to the common skin disorder termed acne. 

Glands of the Skin

Glands of the skin, also termed cutaneous glands, develop as outgrowths of the epithelium of the skin’s epidermis. As cutaneous glands develop, they often extend deep into and through the dermis of the skin. Cutaneous glands fall into two categories: sudoriferous and sebaceous glands. 

Sudoriferous glands are also termed sweat glands. There are two types of sudoriferous glands. One type produces a thick, cloudy substance that, following action by bacteria located on the skin, is responsible for the body odor associated with sweat. These coiled, tubular glands release their secretions into hair follicles, and are most numerous in the axillae (armpits), areola of the breasts, and the perianal region.

A second, more numerous type of sudoriferous gland is not associated with hair follicles and releases its secretion directly onto the surface of the skin. These sudoriferous glands are distributed over the entire body, with the palms of the hands and soles of the feet having the highest number of these glands. The clear secretion produced by these glands is termed sweat. Sweat assists in the thermoregulation of the body and excretion of water and electrolytes.

Sudoriferous glands contain specialized contractile cells termed myoepithelial cells. These cells are located between the gland and underlying connective tissue. When these cells contract they squeeze the gland, causing the release of the gland’s secretory material.

Sebaceous glands, also termed oil glands, are typically associated with hair follicles. The gland’s short ducts empty directly into the hair follicle. The waxy, oily secretory product, termed sebum, is released by holocrine secretion into the hair follicle. 

In holocrine secretion, the sebaceous gland’s secretory product is stored within the secretory cells of the gland until the entire secretory cell bursts. This releases cellular fragments and sebum into the hair follicle. Contraction of the arrector pili muscles associated with hair follicles assists in the release of sebum from the gland into the follicle, as well as the movement of sebum and the cellular fragments superficially onto the skin’s surface. Sebum functions to inhibit the growth of bacteria within the hair follicle and on the skin surrounding the follicle. It also lubricates the hair and skin adjacent to the hair follicle. 


Acne is the most common dermatologic condition within the United States, affecting nearly 50 million people per year. The vast majority of people affected by acne are between the ages of 12 and 24 years-old. 

Acne blemishes are caused by the clogging of a skin pore or hair follicle with sebum and the cellular fragments resulting from the holocrine secretion process within a sebaceous gland. There are two types of acne blemishes: non-inflammatory and inflammatory. Non-inflammatory blemishes do not cause swelling of the surrounding skin tissue, are limited to the skin pore, and typically do not cause scarring. These types of blemishes are:

  • Whiteheads, also termed closed comedones, consist of a bump of the skin that is whitish in color. It may be surrounded by a slight reddening of the skin, and the excessive sebum and other material within the pore is closed to the surrounding environment.

  • Blackheads, also termed open comedones, are black in color and are open to the surrounding environment. The blackened color is due to oxidation of the trapped sebum within the pore of the skin. This blemish also may be surrounded by a slight reddening of the skin.

There are four types of inflammatory acne blemishes.

  • Papules present as bumps under the skin that are raised in appearance and pink in color. These are typically caused by whiteheads or blackheads that have affected the surrounding skin.

  • Pustules, also termed pimples, form when a bacterial infection of a pore has caused a painful, red, raised area with a circular white center. A pustule is filled with a collection of white blood cells termed pus.

  • Nodules are harder and more painful than a papule, and extend deeper into the epidermis of the skin. This blemish affects the skin below the surface and may result in scarring or pitting of the skin.

  • Cysts are the most severe form of acne blemish. Here the bacterial infection has affected deeper regions of the epidermis and dermis of the skin. Pus from the bacterial infection has collected deeper in the skin, resulting in painful and rather large lumps. This type of blemish also often results in scarring or pitting of the skin.

Treatment of Acne

Typically it is recommended that one should first try treating acne with over-the-counter, non-prescription acne treatments for several weeks prior to seeing a physician. In addition to over-the-counter medications, washing the affected areas with a gentle cleanser, avoiding irritants such as sunscreens, oily or greasy cosmetics or acne concealers, and avoiding picking or touching the affected areas should also be considered.

If such treatments do not produce the desired results a dermatologist should be consulted. A prescription medication or other treatments intended to reduce the bacterial infection and associated redness and swelling will often be recommended by the physician. 

An unsightly outbreak of acne on the face, neck, chest or shoulders can be embarrassing, frustrating and stressful. However, with appropriate care and trying to reduce or eliminate stress acne infections are typically reduced or eliminated.

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