Adult Acne

Adult Acne: Why It Occurs and How To Treat It?

Adult acne is a skin condition affecting people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s. Some people get acne for the first time as an adult which is called adult-onset acne. Adult acne is commonly experienced by women going through menopause, but there are also many other possible causes. Research suggests that adult acne affects about 25% of males and about 50% of females sometime during their adult lives. In about 34% of cases, the person doesn’t only have facial acne but the problem also affects the body particularly the back. Adult acne can lead to low self-esteem, social anxiety and depression just like in teenagers.

What Causes Adult Acne?

There are many possible causes of adult acne, but here are the four common triggers:

1. Hormonal Changes

Causes Adult Acne

Androgens or male hormones which are also found in small amounts in women can spike due to several reasons like medication and premenstrual syndrome. This causes the higher production of oil which increases the chance that pores will get clogged causing pimples and breakouts. This can happen in women just before their period but also usually affects women in the perimenopausal phase. In fact, a study indicates that women older than 33 are more likely to experience premenstrual pimples compared to younger women.

2. The Diet
Most people think greasy or high-fat foods cause pimples or exacerbate the problem, but this is proven to be untrue. Studies indicate that the foods that can cause or worsen breakouts in both teenagers and adults are simple carbohydrates and dairy products. Simple carbohydrates like those that are high in sugar causes a spike in the blood sugar which triggers the inflammatory response of the skin increasing the chance of a breakout occurring. Dairy products usually come from animals that are fed with hormones and this is the reason they can trigger or worsen breakouts.

3. Stress
Stress signals the release of cortisol which is known as the stress hormone. It causes the body to produce more oil which makes it more likely for pores to clog. Aside from triggering breakouts, cortisol also promotes the storage of fat in the abdominal area so this may be the reason for the increase of your waistline.

4. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) or High Testosterone
In some cases wherein the primary cause of adult acne is undetermined, health issues that include a hormonal component like polycystic ovarian syndrome or high testosterone can be the cause. Studies indicate that PCOS affects from 5 to 10% of women and most of them are not aware of it. If the adult acne is accompanied by abnormal hair growth or having irregular periods then PCOS may be the cause so talk to your health care professional about it. These hormonal abnormalities can be treated using medication.

Adult Acne

How Does Adult Acne Differ From Teen Acne?

Adult Acne Affects

There is a big difference between teen acne and adult acne including how it appears and the treatment options that are used. In teen acne, there are usually plenty of tiny bumps, whiteheads or blackhead on the face especially the forehead together with some cysts on the back and chest areas. This is due to the stickier nature of the skin in teens making it more likely for the clogging of pores to occur. In adult acne, it usually affects the lower portion of the face especially the jawline and around the mouth. Also, it is usually deep nodules or red papules that develop in these areas. The fine little bumps can also occur in adults but it is a lot less common.

Teen acne usually begins with puberty which is when the sebaceous glands increase in size and the production of oil goes into overdrive. Approximately 4 out of 10 teenagers will have pimples and it tends to affect more boys than girls because of the presence of a high amount of androgens in the body. The big difference in terms of treating adult acne and teen acne revolves around the thickness of the skin. As a person gets older, the skin becomes thinner making it more sensitive to products thus people with adult acne need products that are milder.

Treatments for Adult Acne

There are several options in treating adult acne which include the following:

  • Over-the-counter Products – These products usually contain salicylic acid, sulfur and benzoyl peroxide which are effective for whiteheads and pustules but not always effective for deeper acne. These can be purchased in any pharmacy or supermarket. Remember that adults should use milder formulations because of their thinner skin.
  • Prescription Formulations – These usually contain retinoids or other active ingredients that work to unplug follicles or destroy acne-causing bacteria. These products may also contain benzoyl peroxide and other antibiotics like clindamycin.
  • Laser and Light Therapies – These are expensive treatments that only have a temporary effect so they are not often recommended except if the patient wants fast results like for a special occasion. However, some studies indicate that laser and light treatments are not very effective.
  • Oral Contraceptives – These work to regulate hormone levels in the body thus preventing breakouts.
  • Oral Antibiotics – They work to destroy acne-causing bacteria but can also work to reduce inflammation.
  • Oral medications are usually only needed in a short time period or when acne flares up. Once the topical treatments start working, the use of oral medication is usually stopped.

Does Adult Acne Go Away With Time?

Adult Acne cases

As a person ages, the hormones settle down so in most cases the adult acne also goes away. However, there are some cases wherein adult acne doesn’t go away with time. If this is the case, it is advisable to consult a skin care professional to determine the specific cause and the appropriate treatment.

What Really Clears Adult Acne?

In most cases, a combination of treatments like oral medication and topical products are needed to clear up adult acne. The treatment needs to be continuous in order to prevent recurrence. In some cases wherein treatments do not work, it is advisable to consult a skin care professional or a specialist to determine the primary cause of the adult acne along with the best treatment plan.

Adult Acne Prevention Tips

Here are the most effective ways to prevent adult acne:

  • Use an over-the-counter Anti-Acne Product
    These are formulations that can be purchased without a prescription. Look for products that contain proven ingredients like sulfur, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Start with a small amount and observe how your skin reacts to the formula. If you have sensitive skin, look for mild products or hyposensitive formulations.
  • Keep your Face Clean
    Regardless if you have acne or not it is important to wash your face two times a day. This will get rid of impurities, extra oil and dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. Washing more than two times a day may have detrimental effects since it dries the skin and can cause further inflammation. Remember to use warm water and a mild facial cleanser for your skin type. Do not use harsh soap like deodorant body soaps which can cause further irritation. Also, do not use a harsh scrub which can also further irritate the skin and worsen acne.
  • Moisturize
    This is especially important if you are using any acne product since they tend to dry the skin. Using a moisturizer will minimize dryness and at the same time reduce the chance of skin peeling. Look for products that are non-comedogenic which means it doesn’t cause acne. Use a moisturizer designed for your specific skin type.
  • Use Makeup Cautiously
    If you are having a breakout, it would be best to avoid wearing makeup altogether especially foundation, blush or powder. If you decide to wear makeup, you need to wash it off at the end of the day. Also, choose cosmetics that are oil-free and doesn’t contain chemicals or dyes. Look for non-comedogenic products and read the list of ingredients carefully before buying.
  • Practice Stress Management
    This is one remedy that doesn’t cost anything but it is helpful in controlling adult acne. Stress is a major trigger for pimples because it increases the level of cortisol in the body which stimulates oil glands. A combination of a healthy lifestyle including regular exercise and eating a well-balanced diet can help strengthen the body. Also, make sure to get enough sleep and meditate especially during hectic times.
  • Keep your Hands away from your Face
    If you want to prevent acne, keep your hands away from your face. If you think popping that pimple is the fastest way to get rid of it then think again. It only further inflames the skin and can even cause an infection which increases the risk of developing acne scars. If you have the habit of touching your face especially your chin, cheeks and forehead then you need to get rid of it if you want to prevent acne.

Myths and Facts about Adult Acne

Myth 1: Adults do not get Acne
It is a fact that even adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s can get acne due to various reasons. Treating adult acne is different from treating teen acne because of the changes in the skin from aging. If non-prescription products don’t work or worsened the problem, it would be best to consult a skin care professional.

Myth 2: Eating Chocolate Directly Causes Acne
The controversy in regards to the connection of diet and acne is still going strong. However, there is still no evidence that chocolate and caffeine triggers acne. Some studies suggest that dairy products and those that cause blood sugar spikes like high sugar food items and simple carbohydrates may influence acne.

Myth 3: You need to wash more to get rid of Acne
This is in most cases incorrect unless you have very bad personal hygiene. Studies have found that washing twice a day is more effective than just washing once but washing your face more than two times day tends to dry the skin which can worsen acne.

Myth 4: You don’t need to Moisturize if you have acne-prone Skin

Survey Conducted

Most people think using a moisturizer will worsen acne but this is not true. Acne products tend to contain ingredients that dry the skin thus the need for using a moisturizer. This will prevent dryness and peeling of the skin. Dry skin causes further inflammation which can worsen acne.

Myth 5: You should not wear Makeup if you have Acne
Although there are some makeup that can worsen or trigger acne, there are also formulations that are non-comedogenic or don’t cause acne. Choose lighter and looser foundations like mineral-based products which are not as aggravating to the skin.

Myth 6: Adult acne will Eventually go away on its Own
In many cases, there is an underlying cause for the acne during adulthood. Thus, unless you address such cause the acne problem will not go away on its own. Try non-prescription products and if these don’t work, consult a skin care professional or specialist to determine the primary cause and best treatment.

Does Diet Trigger Adult Acne?
Although the studies on the matter are still inconclusive, there is some evidence that consuming dairy products and simple carbohydrates can trigger breakouts. There are also natural anti-inflammatory foods that can help prevent acne or help clear up the skin. These are highly nutritious natural foods specifically fruits and vegetables. Choose organic produce which don’t contain chemicals that can cause problems like hormonal fluctuations in order to avoid triggering breakouts. Try to avoid blood sugar spikes by reducing consumption of high sugar foods and simple carbohydrates. Instead, choose low glycemic index (GI) foods which don’t cause blood sugar spikes.


Adult acne is actually a common problem that affects a lot of people. Even adults in their 50s can suffer from the problem due to several reasons. Fortunately, there are many treatment options that can get rid of the problem. The first step is trying an over-the-counter product with proven active ingredients like sulfur and salicylic acid. If these do not work then, it would be best to consult a skin care professional.


  1. Ascenso A and Marques HC. “Acne in the adult.” Mini-Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry.
  2. Cunliffe WJ, Goulden V and Stables GI. “Prevalence of Facial Acne in Adults.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
  3. Knaggs HE, et al. “Post-adolescent acne.” International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2004
  4. Collier CN, et al. “The prevalence of acne in adults 20 years and older.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2008
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