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I’m an Adult — Why Do I Have Acne?

When you wave goodbye to your teen-age years, you might think you’re through with annoying zits. That’s it for blackheads and pimples that pop up at the worst times. You could be in for an unpleasant surprise, though. One day, you wake up for work and see a big, red blemish staring back at you in the mirror.  

Frustrating as it is, acne can flare up into your 30s, 40s, and 50s. Sometimes, the cause can be the same problems that plagued your younger self. As an adult, however, there are other factors you may have to worry about. Fortunately, there are acne treatments patients can use that go a long way toward clearing up skin

If you’re seeing acne of any kind appear, it’s important to know why it might be happening. While some pimple prompters can impact everyone, there are a few that affect men and women differently. Understanding what’s causing the breakouts can help you figure out the best way to zap your zits.

As in your earlier battles with acne, you can face two types of flare-ups. Comedones — blackheads and whiteheads — are more surface level. Papules (pimples), pustules, nodules, and cysts can cause more inflammation and develop deeper under your skin. If you’re one of the millions of American adults affected by acne, these common causes could apply to you.

Oily Skin

As a teen, you probably heard a lot about the oily, shiny “T-zone.” It exists when you’re older, too. For both men and women, oily skin does have benefits (more wrinkle resistance and fewer skin care products!). At the same time, though, it sets the stage for acne outbreaks. Too much sebum (oil) can clog your pores, turning them into a hotbed for acne-causing bacteria. 

To limit the oil impact, wash your face twice a day, as well as any time you sweat a lot. Use a mild cleanser and warm (not hot) water. Be careful not to scrub your face. That friction can irritate your skin and actually make your acne worse. Benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or alpha-hydroxy acid creams can also help.

Hair and Skin Care Products 

These products may make you feel more put together, but they can lead to unwanted breakouts at the same time. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, some hair styling products can trap bacteria at your hairline, causing zits. Topical products used before hair removal and some types of makeup, including oil-based foundations, can also plug your pores. 

Use your fingertips to apply styling products. That can keep them out of your hair follicles, helping you avoid blemishes. Be sure to read the labels on skin and hair products, too. Look for ones that are oil-free, non-comedogenic, and non-acnegenic. These products won’t collect in your pores.

Stress

Work. Family. Bills. The source of your stress doesn’t really matter. As an adult, you’re going to get stressed, and research shows those tense feelings are linked to acne. In fact, if you’re a woman, the more stressed out you are, the more androgen your body produces. That’s a hormone that kicks your oil glands and hair follicles into high gear. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop for a few minutes. Take some deep breaths, meditate, or give yoga a try. Go for a long walk with your pup or relax with a good book. Just let the stress leave your body. It will calm your skin and lead to fewer breakouts. 

Hormones

Hormonal swings are common during pregnancy and menopause, and they can mean big acne problems for women as well. As in your younger years, breakouts tend to follow your monthly changes in estrogen and progesterone levels.

Because birth control pills control your hormones, they can also be used to tame your acne. The pills block androgen, keeping your oil production at bay. They’re not a sure fix, though; they can sometimes make acne worse. Talk with your doctor about what’s best for you, and be sure to maintain a good skin hygiene routine.

Underlying Medical Conditions

For some women, an undiagnosed condition can be to blame for adult-onset acne. Specifically, if you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), your ovaries over-produce androgen. It’s a condition that causes acne that is particularly difficult to clear up.

Unfortunately, in these situations, over-the-counter treatments are typically not strong enough. A dermatologist can help you find the right medication, potentially including birth control pills. They could also prescribe an androgen-reducing medication, such as spironolactone, or the prescription-strength retinoid isotretinoin. Work closely with your doctor if you take isotretinoin — it’s powerful and can cause serious side effects.

Family History 

That’s right. There’s no specific acne gene, but you can thank Mom and/or Dad for the pimples and pustules that persist. Actually, you could inherit the tendency for acne in your adult years from any close relative. A grandparent, aunt, or uncle may have passed it on.

On a positive note, inherited acne can be treated. Follow a good skin hygiene regimen and wash your face religiously. Choose oil-free, non-comedogenic makeup and skin-care products. While there’s little hard evidence that greasy foods directly cause acne, limiting them is also a good idea. A diet filled with fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains will be better for your skin and overall health.

Medications

Taking more prescription medications is a not-so-fun part of getting older. Even though the meds can do a lot of good, many also cause acne. Full-fledged breakouts can happen with antidepressants, seizure medicines, certain steroids, testosterone treatments, or B vitamins. 

Prescription-induced acne can be particularly tough to treat. You may need another strong medication to get it under control. Your dermatologist will know for sure. When it comes to the prescription causing your acne, though, don’t quit cold turkey. It can be potentially dangerous, so only stop or make changes after talking with your doctor.

The Return to Clear Skin

Fortunately, in most situations, resolving adult acne can be easier than dealing with the breakouts of your youth. But whatever treatment strategy you choose, give it time to work. Getting your skin back to normal can sometimes take up to three months. Consult a dermatologist if you need to. 

Above all, don’t worry — seeing clearer skin in the mirror is possible. Even in adults, acne is highly treatable.

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