Ah, acne. You know what we’re talking about here: that painful bunch of blemishes that crops up during your adolescent and teenage years, then vanishes back into the void from whence it came a few years later, not to linger or remain past this time. Right?
Oh, no. That’s wrong. So very, very wrong.
Unfortunately, acne is something that continually happens to folks of all ages and, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t just magically go away when you turn eighteen or twenty or even twenty-five. In fact, it can stick around for years after that, causing stress and anxiety well into your thirties and forties and beyond. (1) The owners of CLEARSTEM understand this all too well (both in their thirties but still very acne prone).
If you’re one of the unlucky fifty-odd percent of adults who still struggle with frequent breakouts well into adulthood, then it’s totally understandable to want to finally get rid of it once and for all. But before you can do that, you first need to understand what exactly adult acne is, what’s causing it, and then – and only then – can you tackle it head-on. (2)
Ready to learn more about adult acne and how to get clear skin as an adult? Keep reading, friends, as we’re ready to dive deep into the subject with you. And before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to getting smooth, blemish-free skin for good!
What is Adult Acne?
So, what is adult acne exactly, and what sets it apart from “normal” or “teenage” acne? Believe it or not, adult acne is really not much different than adolescent acne. In fact, the only thing that differentiates it from other types of acne is the fact that it occurs, well, while you’re an adult. It is just more commonly affected by adult-like things, such as birth control and medications.
In other words, that spot that just showed up before your big date is not significantly different than the one that appeared on prom night to crash the party. Whether it’s a pustule, a closed comedone, or even a nodule (a.k.a., cystic acne), these are all types of acne that can happen to anyone, no matter your age. If you get acne as an adult, then you’ve got adult acne, friends.
Adult Acne Causes
Alright, so you’re an intelligent, health-conscious go-getter busy in your awesome life and you’ve got adult acne to deal with. First- you are NOT alone, and this isn't your fault.
While it can be incredibly frustrating to have to deal with these spots while you’re also juggling a career and a family, it doesn't mean that you have to be stuck with it for the rest of your life. Let’s go ahead and take a closer look at what could be causing this.
If your skin is still breaking out as an adult, it might not be a bad idea to take a look around you to figure out where it’s coming from. For instance, does your mother or your father have acne? Chances are, if your parents (or grandparents!) had acne, then you’re more likely than not to also have it. (3)
We’re going to say this once, and we’re going to say it loudly enough for the peeps in the back to hear it, but nearly all acne is affected by hormones. In fact, most types of acne breakouts can be traced back to male hormones known as “androgens.” By increasing sebum production and making your skin cells more sticky, these androgens are likely to blame for your adult acne. (4 & 5)
This does NOT mean you necessarily have a hormone imbalance though. There could be something in your vitamins that is spiking your testosterone (like excess B12).
If you’ve been gunning for a big promotion at work or your kids are on your last nerve, then it’s highly likely that you’ve noticed an increase in acne breakouts on your face. Well, there’s a reason for that: stress. Studies have shown that stress is a huge player in acne, and if you’re feeling frazzled, it just might be to blame for it. (6) It’s critical to have a self-care practice that is stress-reducing, and to structure your day around centering activities, like morning journaling, 10-minute walks in the day, sunlight in the morning, breathing with intention.
Unfortunately, some types of medication can also lead to acne breakouts. Some over-the-counter supplements (such as vitamin B12, for example), as well as prescription medications (like lithium, wellbutrin, adderall, or certain corticosteroids), have been implicated in acne pathogenesis. However, you definitely want to be sure to talk to your doctor before stopping any treatment. (7)
Topical Products with Pore-Clogging Ingredients
Any topicals that you may be using can also be to blame for your acne. Whether it’s that new conditioner you’ve just started or the makeup you’ve been using for years, or your SPF. They can all be triggering your acne. You must check all existing products for pore-clogging ingredients as your first mandatory step in getting clear.
If your breakouts have seemingly come out of nowhere, then take a closer look at any new products you’ve been using. (8) Remember: “clean” and “organic” are not the same as acne-safe.
Another one of the more common adult acne causes can be due to underlying health issues. Sure, it can feel like your body is trying to kick you when you’re down, but please don’t despair! However, if you suffer from certain medical conditions (such as PCOS, Cushing syndrome, or other endocrine disorders), they may be causing your acne – and a talk with your doc just may be overdue. (9)
Diet & Gut Health
Finally, diet could be to blame for your adult acne. For instance, sugar has been proven to be inflammatory and can lead to acne, as will dairy products. If your breakouts are persistent, even if you’re doing everything else seemingly right, then it may mean that it’s time for a dietary overhaul. (10) Similarly, gut health and digestion are common issues for those of us with acne. If you have tummy issues be sure to get in with a functional medicine pro or a dietician. Western medicine will not help you with this, so you must look outside the system for these types of holistic practitioners.
Options for Adult Acne Treatment
Here are some key steps to get rid of adult acne. Some are basic and others more specific. Fortunately, good adult acne treatment doesn’t necessarily require the use of harsh prescription medications, nor does it require a complete lifestyle change. Here are a few tips to help get the ball rolling:
- Wash your face for at least 60 seconds at night. We know, we know. You’re probably tired of being asked if you actually wash your face, and we have no doubt that you do wash yours on the regular, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Use a gentle cleanser, then follow up with an exfoliator and the right acne-safe moisturizer to clear the pores and protect the skin barrier.
- Change up your diet. Skip the dairy, say no thank you to the sugar, and steer clear of that nightcap. Booze is also a major no-go on acne, and the link between your liver and acne is well documented.
- Get some “actives”. Vitamin C, alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs, respectively), a healing collagen serum to address laxity and scarring, and bakuchiol are all great options when it comes to combating adult acne. Be sure to incorporate them one at a time and let your AHA or BHA sit alone on clean skin for at least 10 minutes before adding the next step (otherwise it won’t work)
- Speak to your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that may be causing your acne, such as gut dysbiosis (and the correlation between gut health and acne is also pretty clear-cut) or PCOS, and professional intervention may be warranted.
- Take a holistic approach. Getting plenty of sleep, drinking at least 64 ounces of water per day, and even striving for regular exercise can all be beneficial. These things cost literally nothing, but the perks of doing them will pay for itself many times over in your quest for clear skin! You can also connect with CLEARSTEM’s acne nutritionist who can help you get to the root cause of your acne and guide you to healing your skin from the inside out! (10, 11, & 12)
What to Look for in Skincare
If you’re ready to start your very own skincare regimen, then there’s a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. After all, what may work for one person’s skin type may not work for yours. That said, these are a few things that you should look for when building up a skincare routine:
- Know yourself. For instance, do you have combination skin, dry skin, or oily skin? Products that work for people with oily skin, for instance, may wind up stripping and harming your acid mantle if you’ve got dry skin. Conversely, you may not want to use heavy occlusives if you have easily-clogged pores.
- Know the ingredients. Depending on your skincare goals, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the right combo of ingredients for your skin type. If you’re looking for more moisturization, for instance, squalane is a great pick. If you’re looking for gentle exfoliation, an alpha-hydroxy acid may be your best bet. Always be sure to check your products for any pore-clogging ingredients!
- Know the steps. You don’t need 10 steps, but you do need a few. Wash, exfoliate, moisturize, use a mineral based SPF to shield from scar damage, like this tinted sunscreen which also acts as an anti-inflammatory skin protectant.
- Know your doctor. If you’re throwing treatments at your skin and nothing seems to be working, then it may mean that you need to pay a visit to a healthcare professional. Some issues may be out of the scope of a dermatologist, though. So if you have a condition like PCOS, you may actually need to seek out an endocrine specialist (and reach for a hormonal acne supplement for an added boost).
- Check your supplements for high levels of certain nutrients. There's a whole separate playbook that you can access here for specific guidance.
Also, something else to bear in mind is that not all ingredients are made the same. In most cases, reaching for all-natural ingredients is always going to be a better idea than using lab-made synthetics. Treating your body with love and respect is going to yield the best results when treating your adult acne, hands down.
If you’re still dealing with acne as an adult, we totally understand your feelings about it and empathize with you. We are you. Having adult acne stinks, and it can really cramp your style. Fortunately, you can treat it and get rid of it for good, and it doesn’t require harsh medications (like Accutane, spironolactone, or even antibiotics) to manage it.
At the end of the day, you need to remember that your body is a complex ecosystem, and treating your skin with love is more than just using creams and washing it twice a day. Yes, these things help, but you need to take a holistic, whole-body approach to managing your complexion. And by doing so, you can finally have that smooth, blemish-free skin that you’ve always dreamed of!
Source 1: Perimenstrual Flare of Adult Acne https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4142818/
Source 2: Adult Acne Versus Adolescent Acne https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788264/
Source 3: Genome-wide meta-analysis implicates mediators of hair follicle development and morphogenesis in risk for severe acne https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290788/
Source 4: Profiling and Hormonal Therapy for Acne in Women https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3969667/
Source 5: Adult female acne: a guide to clinical practice https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6360964/
Source 6: The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5722010
Source 7: Drug-induced acne and rose pearl: similarities https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900370/
Source 8: Are your hair care products causing breakouts? https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/causes/hair-products
Source 9: Acne and systemic disease https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19932324/
Source 10: Effects of Diet on Acne and Its Response to Treatment https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7847434/
Source 11: Acne Severity and Sleep Quality in Adults https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7445853/
Source 12: Dietary water affects human skin hydration and biomechanics https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4529263/