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Treating Adult Acne

Mar 12 2021
7 min read
A young woman in her bathroom applying a facemask.

Even though you probably expected to leave breakouts behind in your teen years, you may find yourself still treating acne as an adult...

...And if you do, you’re not alone. In fact, acne is the most common skin condition, impacting 40 to 50 million Americans. Despite its ubiquity, and no matter the wisdom we’ve gained since high school, it’s not uncommon to feel embarrassed or stressed by a flare-up.

Why do you have acne now? Those determined to identify the cause of their acne may point the finger at greasy snacks or rich dinners, and while there is a growing body of research to suggest that diet may play a role in acne, the effects of hormones and heredity can’t be overlooked. Fluctuations in androgen or estrogen levels may stimulate oil glands to overproduce sebum (skin oil), which, along with dirt and a buildup of dead skin cells, can clog pores. Those hormonal changes may be brought on by stress, certain medical conditions and—for women—pregnancy or menstrual cycles. And if you are genetically prone to be sensitive to the bacterium P. acnes, you are more likely to suffer from inflamed pores, which lead to pimples.

First and foremost, it is important to always remember that beauty comes from the inside-out—it’s not just how you look, but how you feel and what you project to the world. But if you think that improving your acne will make you feel more comfortable and confident, working to clear it up is a worthy goal. Effective treatments for adult acne exist, but you may need to explore different approaches until you find one that works for you.

These tips can help set you on a path to clearer skin:

Seek Out Otc Treatments

Cleansers and creams containing either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can work well for mild cases of adult acne; some are appropriate for your face and body, while others are only suitable for one or the other. The former ingredient helps unclog pores and keep them clear; the latter fights acne-causing bacteria and helps dry up excess oil. Studies have also shown that tea tree oil can reduce the inflammation associated with acne, though it tends to work more slowly than benzoyl peroxide. Clay, which often comes in the form of masks (sometimes called mud masks), has also been shown to dry pimples.

Use these products, available in most drugstores, according to their instructions. Using one too often, or at the same time as other products, may cause excessive drying, which can make breakouts worse. For the same reason, avoid scrubbing skin too aggressively when washing. Some people have also found that electronic cleansing brushes, which use sonic frequency to clean and gently exfoliate pores that may be clogged with oil, dirt and make-up, can help prevent breakouts better than washing alone.

Adopt a Hands-Off Approach

Touching your face or picking or squeezing pimples, whiteheads, blackheads and clogged pores can further inflame blemishes, drive bacteria deeper into skin and even cause permanent scarring, so try to avoid the temptation. Also avoid resting your face or chin on your hands, or pressing your phone right up against your cheek, where it can transfer oil and bacteria that has collected on the device to your skin. Since even your best efforts can’t prevent this entirely, be sure to wash your hands often and clean your phone regularly.

Rethink Your Beauty Routine

Certain products can make treating adult acne more difficult. Switch to lightweight oil-free moisturizers and sunscreens, and read labels to make sure all of your products, makeup included, are noncomedogenic (this means they have been tested and shown not to clog pores).

Consider Your Diet

Recent studies have taken a closer look at the link between various foods and acne, and results seem to suggest a stronger connection than previously thought. Foods with a high-glycemic index, such as sugary drinks and sweets made with white flour, have been shown to cause an increase in acne, for example, while a diet rich in low-glycemic foods such as whole grain breads and whole grain pastas may reduce acne. Probiotics, meanwhile, have been shown to balance the gut and hence the immune system, which provides an opportunity to decrease inflammation. “There’s growing evidence that a healthy gut mirrors healthy skin,” says Stephen Brewer, M.D., a doctor at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. These connections are still being researched, but there’s no doubt that a diet rich in whole foods and probiotics and low in fatty foods and sugary snacks is beneficial to your whole body. “Your skin is essentially a porthole look at your overall health,” Dedhia says, so what’s good for the inside is good for the outside, too.

Give It a Rest

This is easier said than done, but because anxiety and stress send hormones that can affect your skin on a rollercoaster ride, it’s crucial to adopt strategies that help you manage tension. Moreover, it is believed that stress disrupts the balance of healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, causing inflammation in the body—including the skin. Make sure that you carve out time to relax and manage you stress effectively. Exercise, yoga and meditation are all good bets, as is consistently getting a good night’s sleep.

See a Dermatologist

It takes time for any treatment to work, but if your skin hasn’t improved after about three weeks of diligently trying the above strategies, discuss prescription options with a doctor. Professional treatments tend to be effective on tough acne, and a doctor can help you figure out the right one or combination of medicines to help. Retinoids are commonly prescribed, as they control oil gland output and speed up cell turnover to keep pores clear. Your dermatologist may also prescribe topical or oral antibiotics to fight P. acnes, or birth control pills to regulate hormones and keep breakouts in check. Low doses of the prescription blood pressure medication spironolactone have also been shown to have anti-androgen effects and thus help reduce the severity of acne, particularly in women, so you may consider talking to your doctor about this option as well.

For cystic acne, painful nodules originating deep within skin, your doctor may suggest a mild steroidal injection. The anti-inflammatory solution helps cystic acne quickly disappear without scarring. Or, in some cases, he or she may refer you to an endocrinologist to check for underlying medical conditions. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, for example, causes an increase in androgen hormones which can lead to weight gain, excessive hair growth and bad breakouts.

With persistence, patience and a positive outlook, you will find a regimen that works for you and regain clear, healthy glowing skin.

A headshot of Dr. Stephen Brewer

About the Expert

A headshot of Dr. Stephen Brewer

Stephen C. Brewer

MD, ABFM, Medical Director

Dr. Brewer knows from experience that the key to balancing a busy professional life with personal wellness is to find a plan that works with your lifestyle. He is passionate about helping our guests discover that balance for themselves.

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