Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/30/2020
When you think back on your younger years, you probably remember the good times you spent with friends and family. You probably also remember the bad times — days when your acne was so bad you didn’t want to leave the house.
Acne is the single most common skin condition in the United States, affecting nearly 50 million people each year. This condition typically manifests at puberty and may continue into the teens and early twenties. For some unfortunate souls, however, acne reappears in adulthood. In fact, adult acne is on the rise, affecting as many as 15 percent of American women.
Though acne is a normal part of a teenager’s life, adult acne is not normal, and it’s not something you need to suffer in silence. Read on to learn about 6 surprising causes of adult acne and how to treat it.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), more than 5 million people seek medical treatment for acne each year, most of them children and young adults. This number was last updated in 2013, but a 2015 study of more than 90 private dermatology clinics revealed a 200 percent increase in the number of adults seeking treatment for acne.
As many as 43 percent of patients who visit their doctor report skin problems as a primary concern. Skin problems range from acne to eczema and psoriasis. Though adult acne affects both men and women, women are studies consistently show that women are more likely to be affected by adult acne than men, likely due to things like changing hormones associated with menstruation, pregnancy, contraception and menopause.
Acne occurs when the hair follicles become clogged with dead skin cells and excess oil or sebum. When the pores become clogged, inflammation sets in and bacteria in the pores only make matters worse. The changing hormones and stress associated with puberty are some of the primary causes for teenage acne, but what causes adult acne?
Dr. Stefanie Williams, director of Eudelo (European Dermatology London), suggests that it may, in part, be due to the modern American’s obsession with looking young. She comments in an interview with The Telegraph that choosing the wrong skincare products is a major factor and that many anti-aging products are very rich, overloading the skin with oils that contribute to acne.
Stress, poor diet and genetics contribute to the development of acne at any age, but there are some factors more likely to trigger acne in adults. Keep reading to find out what they are.
When you finally enter your twenties, you breathe a sigh of relief that your awkward adolescence is behind you. You might continue to experience the occasional blemish, but, if you’re lucky, nothing as bad as your teenage breakouts. Unfortunately for many people, particularly women, breakouts continue into the twenties, thirties and beyond or make reappearances after years of freedom.
What causes adult acne, and why does it affect some people more than others?
In most cases, adult acne has more than just a single cause. Everything from hormones and genetics to diet, stress, and skincare play a role in triggering breakouts.
Here are six of the most surprising causes of adult acne:
Hair care products. If you spend a lot of time treating your hair, it could have an unintentional impact on your skin. Many hair products contain oils that can clog pores and lead to acne breakouts. Other products contain drying ingredients like alcohols that can stress the skin in another way, causing it to overproduce oils that lead to acne.
Bad habits at work. Sitting at a desk all day wreaks havoc on your health, but you may not realize the impact it has on your skin. When you’re hunching over a computer screen, do you prop your head up in your hands? Frequently touching your face and neck transfers bacteria from your keyboard to your hands to your face, leading to acne breakouts.
Low-fat diets. Many people believe that fats are the enemy, particularly when it comes to weight loss. In reality, essential fatty acids are part of a healthy diet and an essential nutrient for healthy skin. While eating greasy foods isn’t recommended, including healthy fats like fish, avocado and olive oil in your diet can keep your skin hydrated to prevent breakouts.
Too much phone time. Americans spend an inordinate amount of time on their phones, and most people don’t give it a second thought. According to a survey by Deloitte, the average American checks his phone 47 times per day. This gives you plenty of times to transfer germs and other microorganisms from your fingers to your phone to your face. Some of those microorganisms, particularly bacteria, can make their way into your pores, causing breakouts.
Hair removal products. Many women use hair removal treatments such as plucking, threading, and waxing on their faces, not realizing that these can trigger breakouts. Hair removal treatments often cause irritation that manifests as small white bumps at the site where the hair was removed. Fortunately, these usually go away after the skin gets used to the treatment.
Overuse of skincare products. Every astute woman should have some kind of skincare routine. That generally means we’re always trying to products. In turn, this puts a lot of stress on your skin, exposing it to new active ingredients that can irritate and cause breakouts.
You may also be surprised to learn that using too many anti-acne products can actually cause your skin to break out as well.
Founder of Fifth Avenue Dermatology Surgery Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, told EverydayHealth.com that he sees patients all the time who experience severe breakouts because they cycle too quickly through new acne medications.
On top of these surprising causes for adult acne, some cases are related to underlying medical conditions. In a small percentage of women, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) triggers chronic, stubborn acne that is difficult to treat. Adult acne can also be a side effect of certain medications like contraception, and other factors that influence your hormones.
Though you may not be able to control certain factors that trigger adult acne, there are some simple things you can do to treat it. Read on to learn how to treat adult acne.
Many adults who suffer from acne return to the tried-and-true treatment methods they relied on in their youth. The problem is that not only have they changed in the years since adolescence but so has their skin. Teenagers tend to have oily skin while mature skin is dryer and more sensitive.
The key to treating adult acne is to choose the right products for your skin type and to focus on preventing new spots from forming.
Because many adults with acne feel that their skin is dry, they often turn to rich moisturizing creams. From a dermatologist’s perspective, however, skin that feels tight may lack water but is not necessarily dry.
Dehydrated skin actually produces more oil to compensate for a lack of hydration, making your skin appear greasy or shiny. If you add heavy moisturizers to dehydrated skin, you’ll only make matters worse and could increase the risk for breakouts.
Here are some simple tips for treating adult acne the right way:
Switch to a chemical exfoliant. Harsh scrubs can damage the skin if you use them too frequently, so try switching to a chemical exfoliant like salicylic acid or glycolic acid that gently exfoliates the skin and unclogs pores at the same time.
Try benzoyl peroxide as a spot treatment. This treatment kills acne-causing bacteria, but it can be harsh on sensitive skin, so use it only as a spot treatment to treat problem areas instead of covering your whole face.
Use a topical retinoid treatment (such as tretinoin acne cream). Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that boosts collagen production and speeds cell turnover in addition to fighting acne. Just use it carefully because overuse can dry out the skin.
Look for skin care products that fight inflammation. When you have an active breakout, you also have inflammation. Skincare products that include antioxidant ingredients are great for fighting inflammation, calming the skin to give it time to heal.
Ask your doctor about oral medications. If your adult acne is severe, a topical treatment may not be enough to calm things down. Ask about oral contraceptives or other medications that manipulate hormone levels like spironolactone.
Leave the tough work to the professionals. When you have a big, angry zit on your face, the temptation is to pop it yourself, but that can lead to scarring or, worse, allow the bacteria to spread. Instead, make an appointment with your dermatologist to have it drained.
To some degree, discovering the underlying cause for your adult acne breakouts is going to be a process of trial and error — the same could be true for treatment. Your skin is unique, and you are the one who knows it best. So, pay attention to the clues your body gives you and put what you’ve learned to work in improving your skin’s condition for relief from adult acne.
Want more skincare tips from women who share your pain? Head on over to the hers blog!