Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/23/2021
Nothing is worse than waking up to an acne breakout.
Looking in the mirror and seeing your face covered in pimples or blemishes can throw off your whole day. No matter how confident you normally are, breakouts can be extremely frustrating.
Though acne is typically a problem associated with puberty and adolescence, adult acne affects as many as 15 percent of women. Adult acne can be embarrassing and stressful, sending you scurrying to the drugstore for acne treatment solutions, or to the dermatologist to seek medical advice.
The key to breakout prevention is to learn what causes acne and to take steps to avoid it. Here's what you need to know about preventing acne breakouts.
Acne can be frustrating as an adult-- sometimes equally as confusing. In fact, not knowing the source of your breakouts may be adding to your risk of developing them in the first place. Here are the main causes of acne in adult women.
As a woman, you are already familiar with the consequences of fluctuating hormones. Every month you may deal with irritability, cramps and bloating, but did you know that your hormones can also affect your skin?
During puberty, your estrogen and testosterone levels started to change, and in the process, you started to grow into the woman you are today.
Each time you menstruate, your hormones fluctuate, and you may find yourself breaking out, particularly on the lower part of your face—the bottom of your cheeks and along your jawline.
Other causes for hormonal acne may include pregnancy, menopause and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
Hormonal fluctuations trigger acne by boosting sebum (oil) production in your pores, increasing overall inflammation in your skin and causing dead skin cells to build up and clog your pores. Sometimes, this can even lead to a more severe form of acne called cystic acne.
Another common cause of acne breakouts is stress. The sebaceous glands in your skin actually contain receptors for stress hormones so, when you become stressed, your sebaceous glands begin to produce more sebum which often leads to breakouts.
Though there are numerous studies suggesting that acne can lead to increased stress and mental health problems, there are relatively few which show the opposite correlation.
A 2017 study published in the journal Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology tested the correlation between stress and acne.
A total of 144 women were assessed using the global acne grading system (GAGS) and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) to measure the severity of both their acne and their level of stress.
The results showed a clear correlation between increased stress severity and increased acne severity.
Simply put, the women who had the highest stress scores also had the most severe acne.
In addition to hormonal fluctuations and stress, acne breakouts can also be triggered by:
Fortunately, you have some degree of control over most of these factors which means that you have the ability to prevent, or at least decrease the severity of your acne breakouts.
So, what can you do to prevent breakouts? Here are a few simple tips to get you started.
You might be surprised to learn that simple things you do each and every day might be making your acne worse. If you want to clear up your skin and say bye-bye to breakouts, follow these simple tips:
Washing your face as a part of your daily skin care routine is important to remove dirt, sweat and excess oil. If you wash your face too often or with the wrong cleanser, however, you could actually make your acne worse.
So, what’s the proper way to wash your face?
Start by choosing a gentle, alcohol-free cleanser. Wet your face with warm water then apply the acne cleanser with clean hands or a clean washcloth, rubbing gently in a circular motion with your fingertips. Rinse thoroughly then pat your face dry with a clean towel.
To keep your face clean and clear, wash it once in the morning and right before bed. If your face feels oily during the day, use blotting paper to remove the excess oil rather than washing it again. If you sweat heavily, you can wash it again after working out, but avoid washing it too often or you’ll dry out your skin and make matters worse.
If you do not have sensitive skin, exfoliating can aid in the prevention of acne. Exfoliating smooths out the skin and works to prevent and remove buildup that leads to blackheads and whiteheads. However, harsh exfoliation scrubs can remove too much moisture from the skin, so it is best to choose products wisely.
Learn more about how to wash your face.
Walking down the skincare aisle at the drugstore can be overwhelming because there are so many products to choose from. What is the best way to shop for skincare products? By skin type.
There are four primary skin types:
Normal – Well-balanced skin with fine pores, neither dry nor oily.
Dry – Skin that produces less sebum than normal, giving it a dull, tight or rough appearance.
Oily – Acne prone skin with heightened sebum production that has visible pores and a glossy shine.
Combination – A mixture of skin types between the cheeks and T-zone.
If your skin is dry, you should look for products that moisturize and boost the protective outer layer to keep your skin supple and soft.
Avoid foaming cleansers and clay or charcoal masks as well as skincare products that contain alcohol, because these will only dry out your skin more. Instead, choose gentle cream cleansers and moisturizing creams. You could also try using facial oil before bed at night.
For oily skin, you want to remove excess oil without completely stripping your skin of moisture. Avoid thick, oil-based creams and facial oils as well as harsh scrubs that might remove too much oil.
Go for water-based, oil-free serums, lightweight gel moisturizers and products that contain salicylic acid to help prevent breakouts.
If you have combination skin, you may need to use different products on your cheeks and jaw than you do on your T-zone, depending which type of skin you have in each area.
Avoid heavy moisturizers, foaming cleansers and clay masks. Instead, stick with lightweight lotions and gentle cleansers, using thicker moisturizers as needed on dry spots.
When you find a new pimple on your face, you may be tempted to cover it with makeup when, in fact, that is one of the worst things you can do. Wearing too much makeup—or certain kinds of makeup—can clog your pores and lead to breakouts.
This isn’t to say that you should never wear makeup but be careful about the products you choose and how you use them. Instead of wearing heavy foundations, try a tinted moisturizer or opt for a light layer of powder foundation instead. Avoid greasy formulas and try to wear as little makeup as you can to achieve the desired effect.
When shopping for makeup, look for products that are non-comedogenic (this simply means that the product is formulated not to clog pores) and free from harsh chemicals and fragrances.
If you have oily skin, you may think that your skin is over-hydrated when, in fact, the opposite might be true. The truth is that oily skin can still be dehydrated if you are not drinking enough water.
When your skin is dehydrated, the protective barrier becomes compromised which leads to irritation. That irritation then triggers the hormones that increase sebum production which leads to clogged pores and more frequent breakouts.
Your skin is over 60 percent water so, to keep it hydrated and healthy, it is important to drink water throughout the day. While the CDC does not have a daily recommendation, common knowledge is generally 8 - 8oz glasses of water each day.
When you’re in the throes of an acne breakout, adding more moisture to your skin is probably the last thing on your mind. As you’ve already learned, however, dry skin over-activates your oil glands which leads to breakouts. The solution? Keeping your skin moisturized.
But what’s the best way to keep your skin moisturized to prevent breakouts?
Your skin is a protective barrier made up of water, fat and other substances. When the skin itself loses moisture, the sebaceous glands produce more oil that sits on the surface, clogging your pores.
The best moisturizer is one that combines oil and water to keep your skin naturally hydrated and free from acne.
Start by choosing a moisturizer designed for your skin type. From there, make sure it doesn’t contain any drying agents like alcohol. Moisturizers made with glycerin and hyaluronic acid help lock in moisture, keeping your skin supple all day long.
In addition to knowing which type of moisturizer to buy, you should also learn how and where to apply it. Depending on your skin type, you may need different moisturizers for different parts of your face.
If you have dry skin, you may need moisturizer on your cheeks and forehead while women with oily skin may only need it on the sides of the face.
For optimal hydration, wash your face with warm water before applying moisturizer and pat your skin dry so it soaks up some of the water. When you are ready to apply moisturizer, use a small amount and work it gently into your skin without rubbing too hard.
Even if you wash your hands fairly often, your fingers are still home to myriad germs and bacteria that could be transferred to your skin if you touch your face. Every time you touch your face, you could be transferring impurities to your skin which could clog your pores and trigger a breakout.
It is especially important to avoid touching your face during an active breakout. Squeezing or popping pimples might be satisfying in the moment, but you may end up increasing inflammation and making the problem worse. Popping pimples can also lead to pitting and scarring which might become permanent.
If you experience frequent breakouts, using medication may help. But which ingredients should you look for?
Here are some of the top prescription acne medications you can try:
A type of retinoid, tretinoin offers comedolytic properties, helping to unclog pores, boost cell growth and balance sebum production.
Typically used in a 20 percent concentration, azelaic acid offers anti-inflammatory benefits and can be used to treat moderate acne.
One of the most common ingredients in acne creams and gels, benzoyl peroxide helps kill acne-causing bacteria and dries active breakouts. It comes in 2.5%, 5% and 10% concentrations.
Similar to benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is a slightly safer option that treats acne without overly drying or damaging the skin – it also has keratolytic properties which help to exfoliate the blemish.
An antibacterial agent, sulfur reduces inflammation and dries out the pimple to shrink it. It is milder than benzoyl peroxide.
Even if you choose to purchase an over-the-counter acne medication or prescription medication, you should still consult your healthcare provider or dermatologist. Most medications come in different strengths and using the wrong concentration could dry out your skin too much and make your acne worse.
If you’re spending a small fortune on skincare products each month, you could be throwing money down the drain if you’re not washing your pillowcase often enough.
You spend up to one-third of your life sleeping, so all of the dirt, sweat, hair products and makeup from your face seeps into your pillow—especially if you don’t wash your face before bed.
Sleeping on a dirty pillowcase means that you’re sleeping in all of that debris and it isn’t doing your skin any favors.
In addition to washing your face before bed each night, you may want to wash or replace your pillowcase on a weekly basis. If you have oily skin, you may want to do it more often and make sure your pillowcase is clean and oil free.
While soaking up the sun is a great way to meet your daily needs for Vitamin D, you need to protect your skin against the damaging effects of UVA and UVB rays.
Something as simple as wearing sunblock could make a huge difference in the frequency and severity of your breakouts, not to mention protecting your skin health in general.
Simple as it may be, a recent study suggests that only 30 percent of American women routinely use sunblock on their faces.
Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen, with an SPF of 30 or higher and apply it to your skin and face about 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside.
It’s also a good idea to protect your skin by wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, particularly if you’re going outside between the hours of 10 AM and 4 PM.
Certain medications, like antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and blood pressure medications, have side effects that could make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so take extra precautions if you’re on any of these drugs.
In addition, the acne-fighting medication tretinoin can make your skin sensitive to the sun, so it is especially important to complement tretinoin with sunscreen.
Check out our guide to sunscreen for acne-prone skin.
What you eat has a direct impact on your skin, so try to focus your diet around foods that prevent acne rather than trigger it.
Common dietary triggers for acne include things like processed carbohydrates, refined sugar, high-glycemic foods, dairy products and fried or fatty foods. Learn more about the foods that might cause acne.
Generally speaking, foods that raise your blood sugar can cause your skin to produce more oil, increasing the risk for a breakout. When you eat sugary and high-carb foods, your blood sugar level rises which triggers the pancreas to produce a hormone called insulin.
Insulin enables your cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, but excess insulin can cause the sebaceous glands in your skin to produce excess oil.
The healthiest foods for your skin are complex carbohydrates (low-glycemic), colorful fruits and veggies, leafy greens, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. Antioxidants are particularly beneficial for skin health and foods with anti-inflammatory properties can be beneficial as well.
By taking care of your skin, you can greatly reduce the severity and frequency of your breakouts. But what do you do if you’ve already developed a pimple or two?
First and foremost, don’t touch it!
As tempting as it may be to pop that pimple, doing so can actually force the pus and bacteria deeper into your skin, increasing inflammation and making your blemish worse.
The best thing you can do is keep your face clean and wait for it to pass. You can also try using a 5% benzoyl peroxide gel or cream to dry it out a little faster.
While looks certainly aren’t everything, your skin is a key part of the face you present to the world—literally. If you want to look and feel your best, follow these tips to prevent acne.
If none of these tricks work, it may be time to seek help from a dermatologist or healthcare provider, who can work with you to find and acne treatment that works for your skin. prescribe tretinoin cream to help you keep your skin clean, healthy and clear.