Despite acne being an almost universal condition in younger people, relatively little is known about its epidemiology. We sought to review what is known about the distribution and causes of acne by conducting a systematic review of relevant epidemiological studies. We searched Medline and Embase to the end of November 2011. The role of Propionibacterium acnes in pathogenesis is unclear: antibiotics have a direct antimicrobial as well as an anti-inflammatory effect. Moderate-to-severe acne affects around 20% of young people and severity correlates with pubertal maturity. Acne may be presenting at a younger age because of earlier puberty. It is unclear if ethnicity is truly associated with acne. Black individuals are more prone to postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and specific subtypes such as ‘pomade acne’. Acne persists into the 20s and 30s in around 64% and 43% of individuals, respectively. The heritability of acne is almost 80% in first-degree relatives. Acne occurs earlier and is more severe in those with a positive family history. Suicidal ideation is more common in those with severe compared with mild acne. In the U.S.A., the cost of acne is over 3 billion dollars per year in terms of treatment and loss of productivity. A systematic review in 2005 found no clear evidence of dietary components increasing acne risk. One small randomized controlled trial showed that low glycaemic index (GI) diets can lower acne severity. A possible association between dairy food intake and acne requires closer scrutiny. Natural sunlight or poor hygiene are not associated. The association between smoking and acne is probably due to confounding. Validated core outcomes in future studies will help in combining future evidence.