Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/17/2021
Seventh grade may have been a good time, but it came with changes. Maybe it’s when your legs sprouted hair, you met your Aunt Flo or perhaps least pleasant: Your face sported some pimples.
We often associate acne with adolescence, and for good reason, with research suggesting that almost 95 percent of people experience breakouts while going through puberty.
Unfortunately, while puberty usually marks the start of acne, many people experience breakouts that persist into adulthood.
If you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s, dealing with acne can be a frustrating, stressful experience that just never seems to end. You want to look young...but not that young.
While adult acne is a common skin problem, the good news is that acne is treatable at any age.
Read on to learn how acne forms, as well as how your age can play a role in your risk of developing acne breakouts.
Below you’ll also find science-backed acne products, medications and self-care techniques you can use to take control of your breakouts and enjoy clear, blemish-free skin.
At what age does acne go away? It could be right now.
Most people tend to get acne during their teens and early 20s, and then wrinkles start to take over as the main skin problem. Yet blemishes can still pop up — and do.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers used survey data to determine how common acne is in certain age groups. And, spoiler alert: It’s common across the board.
The scientists found that although acne mostly occurs during adolescence, many people still deal with pimples as adults.
In fact, after looking at data from more than 1,000 patients, the researchers noted that 50.9 percent of people aged 20 to 29 were still affected by acne breakouts.
Among women aged 30 to 39, 40 to 49 and 50 and up, acne prevalence was 35.2 percent, 26.3 percent and 15.3 percent, respectively.
Put simply, although acne becomes less common with age, it’s still something that affects many adults.
Other research has found that women are far more likely than men to be affected by acne after adolescence. (You can thank your fluctuating hormones (at least in part) for that.)
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, researchers analyzed data from an outpatient acne database to assess the severity of acne that affects adults.
They found that although acne rates are approximately equal during teenage years (53 percent in teenage females, versus 47 percent in males), women are more than five times more likely to develop adult acne than men.
Acne develops when your hair follicles (pores) become clogged with a combination of sebum and dead skin cells.
Sebum is a type of oil that’s produced by your sebaceous glands, or oil glands. It’s important for moisturizing your skin and creating a barrier that shields skin from bacteria, fungi and other potentially harmful organisms.
Although a certain amount of sebum is important for healthy skin, when your sebaceous glands secrete too much sebum, it can cause overly oily skin and contribute to acne breakouts.
During puberty, the sudden surge in your body’s production of certain hormones can cause your sebaceous glands to produce extra sebum.
This is why oily skin and acne breakouts are particularly common — and often especially severe — during your teens.
Another factor with acne is the presence of dead skin cells, which are produced as a byproduct of your skin’s natural process of repairing and restoring itself.
Your skin constantly produces new cells through a process called epidermal turnover. And as newer cells replace older ones, the old, dead skin cells form an outer layer of skin that’s eventually shed into the environment.
As these cells build up on your skin, they can mix with sebum to result in clogged pores and acne breakouts.
Acne can vary from mild to severe. Mild forms of acne include whiteheads and blackheads, which develop when pores are fully blocked (causing the white color of a whitehead) or partially open and exposed to air (causing the dark color of a blackhead).
Moderate and severe acne develops when bacteria are able to rapidly multiply inside a clogged pore, causing it to become inflamed, swollen and painful.
Severe forms of acne — such as cystic acne — develop deep inside the skin and involve large acne lesions that can cause discomfort, pain and even permanent scarring.
At a basic level, acne is easy to understand: Sebum and dead skin cells combine to clog pores, which can then become infected and inflamed due to bacteria.
However, behind the scenes, what causes acne is much more complicated, with a variety of factors all potentially playing a role in breakouts. These include:
Hormones. Several androgen hormones can cause acne breakouts by stimulating sebaceous glands to produce more sebum. Your production of these hormones surges during puberty, which is why acne can be so common during teenage years. As an adult, your hormone production can fluctuate before and during your menstrual cycle, when you use certain medications and as a result of health conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Genetic factors. Although researchers have yet to identify a specific acne gene, genetic factors appear to play a role in acne breakouts. For example, research shows that you’re more at risk of developing acne if your parents are also prone to acne breakouts.
Stress. Although stress doesn’t appear to directly cause acne, you may be more likely to experience acne breakouts when you're under a significant amount of stress due to your personal life, career or education. (Stress can affect your hormones.)
Medications. Some medications such as anticonvulsants, lithium and those that affect your hormone levels can cause acne or make acne breakouts more severe. Some forms of birth control, such as drug-containing IUDs may also contribute to acne.
Cosmetics. Makeup, moisturizers and other skin and hair care products that contain oils and oil-like ingredients can lead to clogged pores and worsen acne breakouts.
Smoking. Smoking appears to be closely linked with adult acne, particularly comedonal forms of acne such as whiteheads and blackheads.
This guide to the causes of acne goes into more detail about how these factors can affect your skin and increase your risk of dealing with acne as an adult.
Adult acne can be particularly frustrating, especially when it coincides, say, with the appearance of grey hair.
Luckily, almost all adult acne — from mild and occasional to severe and persistent — can be treated with the right combination of over-the-counter products, medications and skin care habits.
Here are popular treatments for tackling adult acne:
Mild to moderate acne can often be managed with over-the-counter treatments that wash away dead cells and prevent sebum buildup. These include:
Cleansers. Washing your face with a cleanser is a simple way to get rid of bacteria and stop sebum and dead skin cells from building up inside pores. For best results, look for a cleanser that contains benzoyl peroxide — which stops the growth of acne-causing bacteria on your skin, or exfoliants like glycolic or salicylic acid, which help to strip away dead skin cells. This Deep Sea Cleanser for Acne is designed specifically to gently clean your skin while promoting optimal hydration.
Over-the-counter retinoids. Retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A, prevent your pores from becoming clogged with dead skin cells. Popular over-the-counter retinoids include retinol, which is used in many facial creams, and adapalene, which is available in Differin® gel.
If your adult acne is severe or persistent, you may need to use prescription acne medication to get it under control and stop it from returning.
Common prescription medications for adult acne include:
Tretinoin. Tretinoin is a prescription retinoid (and acne medication) that’s available as a cream or gel. It’s one of the most effective treatments available for acne, with studies showing it can reduce the severity of existing acne and prevent breakouts from coming back. In other words it might just be your skin’s best friend. As a topical retinoid, tretinoin can also lighten acne scars and other common blemishes left behind by acne breakouts. Tretinoin is one of several ingredients in Hers Prescription Acne Cream.
Clindamycin. Clindamycin is a topical antibiotic that comes as a cream, gel, solution or foam. It works by reducing swelling and stopping acne-causing bacteria from multiplying on your skin and inside your pores. Your healthcare provider may suggest using clindamycin if you have inflammatory acne that doesn’t respond to other treatments.
Birth control. Several birth control pills are used to treat acne including Yaz, Estrostep and Tri-Sprintec (what was once known as Ortho-Tri-Cyclen). These work by controlling the production of hormones that regulate sebum and which play a role in causing acne breakouts. You can find several birth control pills online, including generic versions of birth control pills approved for use as adult acne treatments.
Isotretinoin. Isotretinoin is an oral medication used for severe cystic acne. It’s powerful and highly effective, but can cause some side effects that make it unsafe for use during pregnancy. Do not take isotretinoin if you are pregnant. Your healthcare provider may prescribe isotretinoin if you have severe, persistent adult acne that doesn’t get better with other treatments.
Oral antibiotics. When topical antibiotics aren’t effective, your healthcare provider may prescribe an oral antibiotic such as doxycycline, minocycline or amoxicillin to help get your acne under control. These medications work by preventing acne-causing bacteria from multiplying. You may need to use antibiotics for several months if you have severe breakouts of infected acne, such as cystic or nodular acne.
If your acne is severe, or if you have imperfections such as acne scars you’d like to treat while managing any current acne breakouts, you may want to look into in-person treatments offered by a healthcare professional. These include:
Chemical peels. This type of skin resurfacing procedure involves applying a chemical solution to your face to strip away dead skin cells. Research shows that chemical peels are effective for mild to moderate acne and for some types of acne scarring.
Acne extraction and/or injections. These techniques are carried out in-office to get rid of acne. They involve removing acne using sterile equipment or injecting a corticosteroid medication into acne lesions to reduce swelling and discomfort.
If you’re an adult with acne, there’s a chance your lifestyle might be showing up on your face.
Try the following changes to prevent acne breakouts and help your skin clear up:
Wash your face twice a day, or after sweating. Washing regularly (but not too much) helps to keep your skin clean without causing irritation. Try to wash twice a day, as well as after you exercise or do anything else that causes sweating.
Use non-comedogenic cosmetics and skin care products. Look for products labeled “oil free” or “non-comedogenic.” These are formulated to be less likely to clog pores and cause acne.
Avoid touching your face or trying to pop your pimples. This often makes breakouts worse by transferring bacteria onto your face and moving the contents of pimples deeper into your skin. If you have severe acne that you think requires hands-on treatment, it’s always better to contact a healthcare provider rather than attempt to remove a blemish yourself.
Quit smoking. Since smoking is linked with a higher risk of developing acne, quitting is one of the best ways to lower your risk of dealing with acne. Quitting smoking also has countless other health benefits, including reducing your risk of cancer and heart disease.
Eat a balanced diet. While the link between acne and diet isn’t crystal clear, skin health experts believe that certain foods may contribute to acne breakouts. This list of foods that can cause acne covers what to avoid when planning a skin-friendly diet.
Be patient with new acne treatments. Even the most effective acne treatments require time to improve skin. When you start a new acne treatment, give it four to six weeks to work before you start to assess your results.
This guide to preventing acne shares other science-based tactics you can use to stop acne breakouts and prevent them from coming back.
Although acne is usually associated with your teens, if you’re an adult with pimples — you’re not alone. If you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s or even older and still break out, well, you’re human.
Fortunately, as with other types of acne, adult acne can be treated with over-the-counter products, prescription medications and cosmetic procedures offered by healthcare professionals.
You can also find science-backed acne treatments online, including customized products designed specifically to match your needs and skin type.
For more information on successfully managing adult acne, check out this guide to the best skin care routines for acne.
Acne may be a common skin condition, yet it doesn’t have to impact your adult life.