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What Causes Adult Acne & How to Treat It

01 Jun 2023

SUMMARY: Dermatologists are seeing daily evidence that acne no longer exclusively affects teenagers. While it has traditionally been seen as an awkward teenage “right of passage,” acne now affects increasing numbers of adult women. 51% of women aged between 20 and 29 suffer from acne, with 35% aged from 30 to 39 affected by the condition1. Adult acne is more common in adult women, but men can suffer from it too2.


Hormonal changes
Outbreaks of acne are often seen during times of hormonal fluctuation. These include3:
  • Around your menstrual cycle
  • During and immediately after pregnancy
  • After discontinuing birth control pills
  • At the time of perimenopause and menopause
In these cases, your outbreaks will usually lessen after your hormones settle down. If that doesn't happen, please see a dermatologist or your general practitioner.

In response to stress, our bodies produce hormones called androgens. These hormones can stimulate the overproduction of sebum, which in turn can lead to acne outbreaks4. Hence it is useful to practice stress reduction techniques.

UV and pollution
When subjected to external stressors – such as UV light, dust, or pollution – imperfection-prone skin undergoes oxidation, triggering a chain reaction: hyper keratinization (a buildup of dead skin cells), sebum hyper production (oily skin), and the oxidation of sebum and impurities present on the surface of the skin. This process can lead to the appearance of new blemishes5.

It's a good idea to protect your skin from the sun, and to cleanse your face regularly at times of high pollution. Look for non comedogenic sunscreens with advanced UVA/UVB protection plus antioxidants such as Anthelios Broad Spectrum Sunscreens.

Family history of acne
Research studies suggest that some people may have a genetic predisposition that may make them more likely to suffer from adult acne6.

Skin and hair care products
Your moisturizer, makeup, sunscreen, or hairspray can trigger outbreaks of blemishes. Look for the following terms on the labels of your products7:
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Non-acnegenic
  • Oil-free
  • Won’t clog pores
Discover our tips for managing acne & oily skin.

Side-effects of medication and undiagnosed medical conditions
Some medications can trigger acne. If you suspect this is the case, please do not stop taking your medication, but talk to your doctor. There are many ways to control acne outbreaks8.


Teenagers commonly suffer from inflammatory acne, whereas adults tend to be affected by retentional acne9.

Common Characteristics of Adult Acne

Inflammatory acne is accompanied by a lot of swelling and redness. It often shows up as papules (pimples that don’t contain pus), pustules (pimples that contain pus), or cysts.

Common Characteristics of Adult Acne

Retentional acne forms when pores become clogged with oil and dead skin cells. It often shows up as whiteheads – that can turn into spots. As the plugged pore grows larger, the oil is exposed to air, and turns black. This is what is known as a blackhead. Many people believe that blackheads are caused by dirt, but that is not the case.

Learn more about the different types of acne.

Whether you're suffering from pimples, whiteheads, or blackheads, the resulting effects on your skin surface – shine, dilated pores, or spots – may make you feel a lot less confident or even dent your self-esteem. It can be really tough to accept having glaring zits on your face when you are well into adult life, doing well at work, having kids, getting on the property ladder and doing all the those that grown-ups are “supposed” to do! The good news is you are in very good company (even celebs get snapped with pesky pimples) and the appropriate adult acne treatment is within your reach.


Skincare tips for adult acne
If you are suffering from acne in your 30s, 40s or around the menopause, specific skincare is essential. Here are some tips from Board-Certified Dermatologist, Dr. Kristel Polder, on how to treat adult acne:
  • To help target blackheads and whiteheads, dermatologists often recommend topical retinoids. These acne treatments penetrate pores to eliminate blackheads and whiteheads and prevent new ones from forming. They work by regulating skin cell turnover to help remove and prevent dead skin from clogging pores.
  • For acne blemishes and pimples, bacteria-fighting properties in benzoyl peroxide based leave on acne treatments can help reduce the number and severity of blemishes.
  • For larger papules, pustules and nodules, a prescription oral antibiotic can help calm inflammation while working internally to reduce the bacteria responsible for acne. If you have acne on the face, neck, chest and back, it’s often easier to take a tablet than apply topical medication to all affected areas.
  • Hormones play a role in female adult acne (ages 25-45). Birth control pills have been shown to be as effective as prescription oral antibiotics for the treatment of acne in women.
  • For cystic nodules and lesions that leave scars, oral isotretinoin is the gold standard to heal acne and have a lasting impact on the skin. There are multiple side effects to this drug, and it must be prescribed by a dermatologist under strict supervision.
Learn more about specific over-the-counter acne treatments options and which is best for you.




On the same topic

Acne & oily skin are concerns for teenagers and adults alike. Learn more about the causes as well as the most effective ways to treat, manage, and help prevent acne & oily skin so you can achieve a clear complexion.

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