In fact, acne is the eighth most common skin disease worldwide. And the number of people who get adult acne has gone up over the past two decades — especially in females. One study found that 85 percent of females and 15 percent of males have adult acne.
Mild adult acne may consist of blackheads, whiteheads, or small pustules. In its moderate form, adult acne might also include papules, which cover one- fourth to three-fourths of the face or body. Severe adult acne often comes with more extreme redness, swelling, irritation, and deep cysts. Another condition, rosacea, is often referred to as “adult acne,” but is different from classic acne because the bumps are usually smaller and they appear all at once, in cycles. Here’s everything you need to know about adult acne and how to treat it.
The causes of adult acne
Nearly all adult acne is caused by inflammation and clogged pores. Sometimes the condition runs in families, but even when that’s the case, there’s usually one or more triggers that bring on the acne.
Fluctuating or excessive male or female hormones can lead to adult acne because of changes they create in the entire body and the environment of the skin. This can lead to a pH imbalance, inflammation, differences in circulation, or excessive production of oil (sebum). Hormonal fluctuations occur in the process of aging, and for females, during:
- the postpartum period
Hormonal acne usually appears as deep and cyst-like, and is often tender or painful.
Anything that irritates the skin can lower the skin’s defenses and cause a protective reaction that leads to inflammation. This may include harsh cleansers or razors used against dry skin.
Emotional stress creates biological changes in the body that can lead to many of the other triggers of adult acne. When you’re feeling scared, anxious, or pressured, your adrenal glands make more of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes an imbalance in the skin.
Physical stress can also trigger hormonal changes, weakened immunity, and inflammation. It may arise from:
- extreme weather
- lack of sleep
- exposure to environmental irritants
Some research shows that people who have allergies and migraines, and those who smoke, are also more likely to have adult acne. Air pollution may also be contributing to the rise in adult acne.
Excess oil can clog pores, and a rapid turnover of skin cells can lead to backed up hair follicles. In both cases, the result is usually acne.
Bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes causes acne when it’s present in the skin, especially if it manages to build up. Most people don’t get acne because of poor hygiene, however. The bacteria accumulate underneath the skin and can’t always be reached through surface cleansing.
Experts don’t agree on whether or not food causes breakouts. But many believe that excessive white flour products, sweets, dairy, and fast food may contribute to adult acne.
Some medications have definitely been found to trigger adult acne, including certain corticosteroids, antidepressants, and epilepsy treatments. Although contraceptives are used to treat adult acne, certain formulations may also cause it. Your doctor can help you choose the best formula for your needs.
Treating adult acne
There are a number of treatments for adult acne, including home remedies, over- the-counter (OTC) products, and prescriptions. Because treatment results can vary from one person to the next, some people like to try one or two at a time to figure out what will work best. For some, OTC remedies work quickly, but if they don’t provide the results you really want, a doctor can help you determine whether a prescription might work better.
There are several powerful home remedies for adult acne, including oral supplements you can take and substances applied directly to the skin. Some of the most effective treatments are:
- apple cider vinegar
- aloe vera
- green tea extract
- tea tree oil zinc
- vitamin A
Several OTC and prescription-strength medications have been approved to treat adult acne. A doctor may prescribe oral hormonal treatment. The others you would apply directly to your skin. These treatments include:
- hydroxy and other beneficial acids
- oral birth control pills
- retinol, or its prescription form, retin- A
- salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide
- blue light therapy
Acne in your 20s, 30s, and 40s
Hormonal changes can continue throughout your 20s and 30s as your body adjusts to adulthood. In females, polycystic ovary syndrome or the menstrual cycle are often the cause, while males can look to the high testosterone levels of youth. At any age, pregnancy and breastfeeding can also cause adult acne. In the 40s and 50s, females may experience very different hormonal fluctuations that are related to menopause, and the years leading up to it, known as perimenopause. Males also experience a hormonal shift as they grow older, known as andropause. To treat hormonal causes of adult acne, speak to a doctor about possible tests and age-specific recommendations. Although the precise treatments may be different, a nutritious diet, exercise, and a dedicated skin care routine may help.
It may not be ideal to have to deal with acne long after the teenage years are behind you, but the good news is that you’re not alone — and there are many treatment options. Experiment with a few different options to find the treatment that works best for you, one that leaves your skin clear and vibrant.