Acne is seriously the worst. It terrorises people in their teens, only to return to haunt people well into their 20s, 30s and beyond. It’s just the pits.
If you’re one of *these* people who have been struggling with severe acne for what feels like forever, the good news is that you’re not alone. According to the most recent Global Acne Market Report (yes, this is a thing!), adult acne has been increasing and now more than 90 per cent of the world’s population is affected by acne at some point in their lives, while 80 per cent experience acne from the onset of puberty until well into their 30s.
Australian Skin Clinics’ National Training Manager, Darlene O’Gara confirms that it’s totally normal to suffer from some form of acne well into your adult years. “There are various types of acne that adults can be afflicted with ranging from non-inflammatory acne types such as whiteheads and blackheads, to inflammatory types such as nodules, cysts, papules and pustules,” she says.
Leading New York dermatologist, Dr Janet Prystowsky says the cystic inflammatory type is the most common form of acne, and it’s a skin condition that's usually a little harder to treat. “Adult acne is typically cystic, meaning you get lumpy pimples that if you squeeze them do not drain and [instead] get worse.” She adds that women around their university years and early 20s frequently get this type of acne. “Left to its own devices, this type of acne may not go away on its own until you hit menopause.”
So, what’s the go? Are more adults experiencing more acne outbreaks due to the skin care treatments and products they use? Is it our environment, the food we eat, or is it hormonal?
Well, according to Dr Prystowsky and O’Gara, here are a few things that could be causing adult acne:
Your hormones could be to blame
Fluctuations in hormones (which usually happens before your menstrual cycle), is one of the main causes of adult acne. “Especially the testosterone hormone,” says O’Gara. “Glands in your skin that secrete oil are sensitive to testosterone so if you’re experiencing a high level of testosterone, this will increase sebum production at the base of hairs which could lead to congestion and acne symptoms.”
Dr Prystowsky says your birth control might also be messing with your hormone levels, “I see an increase in acne in female teens and young adults if they use the IUD [Intra Uterine Device] that has hormones in it,” says Dr Prystowsky. “The hormones have triggered significant acne in several of my patients. When the IUD was removed, they responded to modest acne treatment and the problem did not recur.”
Stress could be making it worse
It's not just hormonal changes that you have to look out for. While stress alone isn't the cause of adult acne, it can definitely make the whole situation worse. Stress is actually a top acne trigger because it can stimulate excess oil production and hormonal fluctuations, as well as impair the skin’s ability to heal. Chronic stress can therefore affect the duration and resolution of acne breakouts – meaning they’ll stick around longer and are more likely to result in scarring.
So, what can a person do to prevent stress-related acne breakouts? Well, practicing proven stress-reduction techniques is a good start. Meditation and exercise are two research-proven stress killers. Listening to music has also been proven to be effective in lifting your mood.
Your hair products might be clogging your pores
If you’re constantly breaking out around your forehead area, it could have something to do with the hair products you’re using. “If a haircare product contains a high amount of oil or coating ingredients (for example: hairspray), it can contribute to breakouts, which tend to pop up around your hair line, the upper part of your forehead and the back of your neck. If your skin tends to be on the oily side, hair products with minimal oil content would be best to use,” says O’Gara.
Pollution is adding to the problem
In case you didn’t know, pollution has a profound effect on the functioning of your skin. It can block pores and make your skin congested, causing aggravated acne, not to mention making your skin dehydrated, irritated, and exacerbating existing conditions such as redness, rosacea and eczema.
If you haven’t already started using an anti-pollution product yet, it could be time to get on board. Three of our favourite products that include pollution-fighting ingredients include: Mesoestetic Pollution Defense Ampoules, Dr Barbara Sturm Anti-Pollution Drops and Clarins Extra Comfort Anti-Pollution Cleansing Cream.
You could be using the wrong skin care products
If you have oily skin or are prone to acne flare-ups, you need to cut the rich, heavy creams from your skin care team and instead use products that *actually* suit your skin type - and luckily there are a heap of great over-the-counter products that fit the bill. “A good rule of thumb is to choose products that are labelled ‘non-comedogenic’ or ‘non-acnegenic’. That means the product won't block your pores or cause breakouts. Mineral makeup is also preferable,” says O’Gara.
If you’re looking for a good moisturiser that won’t clog your pores and cause acne, we recommend trying a gel-based formula like Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturising Gel or Belief The True Cream Aqua Bomb. For a good cleanser you can't go wrong with Cetaphil Oily Skin Cleanser and Dermalogica Clearing Skin Wash - they'll leave your skin soft (not tight) after washing.
Check your diet
We've all heard the old wives’ tale that junk food causes acne, but it’s a pretty fuzzy claim and there hasn’t been a lot of evidence to back it up (phew!). However, there are always exceptions – if a certain food clearly makes you breakout, then don’t eat it! O’Gara says, “Although chocolate and ‘junk food’ do not necessarily trigger the outbreak of spots, it makes sense to add more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to your diet. Studies show that foods high in vitamin A and beta-carotene may boost your skin health!”
Dr Prystowsky also notes that you might want to watch out for supplements that contain a lot of casein – as this can cause further breakouts. “Protein powders pushed onto young athletes disrupts hormone metabolism and can aggravate acne tendencies,” she explains.
Adult acne treatment options
The good news? Treatment for acne has come a long way, and there are now a variety of different acne treatment options out there to help you get your skin on the right track. However, it’s important to remember that treating acne is not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal, because different types of acne will require different targeted treatments. Dr Prystowsky recommends undergoing a consultation with a dermatologist to determine the correct treatment program and skin care routine.
“I recommend checking in with a dermatologist and reviewing the issues. Blood work may be necessary and an internist or gynaecologist may also be helpful,” she says. “In this day and age, anyone can get clear skin. It depends on your dedication to the mission and diligence with the treatment plan your doctor recommends.”
Here are four of the top expert-approved adult acne treatment options below:
#1 / Microdermabrasion treatment
“Microdermabrasion is one of the most popular treatments for fighting acne, as it promotes your skin’s rejuvenation process by removing the dead skin cells through diamond-tipped exfoliation,” explains O’Gara.
#2 / Facial peels
O’Gara says professional chemical peels can also be used to treat acne, and they can improve the overall texture and tone of your skin (goodbye, scarring). Usually done in a series of treatments, chemical peels exfoliate the skin on a deeper level than topical exfoliation. It basically removes the outer damaged layer of skin, deeply cleansing pores, minimising breakouts and brightening the complexion.
#3 / Light therapy
LED light treatment is a popular solution for acne (red light has been shown to be anti-inflammatory while blue light kills acne-causing bacteria), and there are a heap of DIY versions on the market if you’re not keen on booking in regular appointments. “The addition of LED light therapy post-microdermabrasion or peel can deeply penetrate and heal the skin, while further eliminating acne-causing bacteria,” notes O’Gara.
#4 / Prescription medication
If you’ve tried everything and you’re still breaking out, you might need to look into oral medication. “My favourite treatment for adult acne is isotretinoin (Accutane). It is the best treatment for cystic acne and the dosage can be tailored to fit your situation so side effects can be minimised,” says Dr Prystowsky. “Of course, pregnancy is a big ‘no no’ if you are taking isotretinoin.”
Prystowsky says spironolactone (a mild blood pressure medication) is another popular medication that can be used to control acne. It basically suppresses androgen levels (male hormones that can trigger acne).
Looking for more of the best treatments for adult acne? Here are six ways to get your hormonal acne under control.
Want to know more about why you’re getting acne in your 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond and looking for how to fix it? Tune into the below episode of Get Lippy to hear international dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross' advice:
Do you suffer from adult acne? What are some of your go-to treatments to clear acne? Let us know in the comment section below.
Main image credit: Getty
Erin Docherty is a Beauty Writer for BEAUTYcrew, Beauty Editor for Women's Health magazine and a Grooming Writer for Men's Health magazine. She has a keen interest in cosmeceutical skin care and is currently working on minimising her 9-step skin care routine – because ain’t nobody got time for that. When she’s not writing about the latest beauty news, or applying copious amounts of serum, you can find her spending all her money in Sephora.