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What causes acne in adults?

June 1, 2020 • read

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What causes acne in adults?

Getting acne as an adult can seem like a raw deal. Aren’t you supposed to have grown out of it by now? 

Although acne is thought of as a teenage experience, a huge number of adults deal with acne too. One study found that 15% of men and 85% of women involved had adult acne. 

This nagging skin condition can leave you searching for the holy grail of products, treatments, and regimens. But what actually causes adult acne? Is it something you’ll have to live with forever, or is there a solution that actually works? 

Let’s start out by defining acne. Acne is the term for when your pores and hair follicles get clogged with bacteria, resulting in pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, and cysts. Nearly all acne you get in your adult years is caused by inflammation and clogged pores. 

There are several causes for adult acne, some of which are simply out of your control. This makes it tricky to pinpoint the exact cause of your acne. We’ve laid out some of the most common causes of adult acne below.

1. Hormones

Whether you’re a teen or an adult, hormones are the main culprit behind acne. When you’re a teenager, puberty causes increased levels of androgens. As an adult, the hormonal reasons behind acne are different. 

In women, premenstrual syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and menopause contribute to adult acne. The fluctuations in hormone levels that each event brings is the trigger. These fluctuations can result in increased sebum production in your skin’s oil glands. 

Men also go through hormonal shifts over the years. At around age 50, some men experience andropause, where testosterone levels dip. Too much testosterone can cause adult acne in men. Some men are genetically predisposed to having higher than usual testosterone levels. Elevated levels can also be caused by testicular or adrenal tumours.

2. Contact irritation

Our skin is protected by a moisture barrier, also known as the acid mantle. The moisture barrier is made up of sebum and controls the pH level of your facial skin. It prevents dirt, bacteria, and other contaminants from penetrating your skin. And, it locks in moisture, helping your skin stay healthy and bouncy. 

Many things in your daily life can aggravate your skin’s moisture barrier. Harsh cleansers, scrubs, razors, fragrances, and even detergents from your clothing can irritate your skin. If you’re finding your skin is sensitive, it might be worth it to switch to fragrance-free soaps and to stop exfoliating for a while. 

3. Skin-clogging products

Oftentimes, simpler is better for your skin. Many facial moisturizers, makeup products, sunscreens, and hair products contribute to adult acne. Adult chin or forehead acne could be caused by pore-clogging ingredients in an everyday product. If it’s happening to you, consider using something with a short list of straightforward ingredients instead. As well, some cosmetics such as foundation and powder layer over your pores and can become contaminated with bacteria.

4. Picking

When you have a pimple on your face, it can drive you a bit crazy. Every time you pass a mirror it’s all you see. That’s when your hands might unconsciously travel to your face, and start squeezing at the offending zit. Pump the brakes! Picking at your pimples only drives bacteria further down the pore, and drastically increases your chances of developing acne scars. 

If taken too far, squeezing your zits can turn into excoriation disorder. People with this disorder often have very pronounced lesions and scarring from picking their face relentlessly. It’s better to keep your hands off your face, and let your skin clear up on it’s own. 

5. Stress

It’s not much help to say “avoid stress.” Stress is a fact of life, especially when you’re an adult with bills to pay and a family to take care of. The key is to find ways to manage your stress levels. Stress can mess with your skin by increasing levels of a hormone called cortisol, which is involved in your “fight or flight” response. Your skin’s oil glands have cortisol receptors, and produce more sebum when they’re activated. 

6. Diet

A big aspect of acne is general inflammation levels throughout your body. Diet directly impacts this. Western diet, with lots of omega-6 fatty acids and refined sugar, can cause chronic inflammation. Admittedly, there’s controversy over whether the role of diet in causing adult acne is overhyped. Some people break out reliably when they eat fried or sugary foods, while other people see no effect no matter what they eat.

7. Medication

Some medications have a tendency to cause acne. These medications include corticosteroids, antidepressants, and epilepsy treatments. Some hormonal contraceptive methods are also known to trigger acne in adults.

Caring for acne at home

So, now we know some of the main causes of adult acne. Let’s talk about adult acne treatments!

The key to reducing incidental adult acne is a good skincare routine. Following smart skin practices to reduce incidental acne:

  • Wash your face twice daily with mild water and a gentle face wash compatible with adult acne
  • Use a gentle, fragrance-free facial moisturizer. 
  • Exfoliate with acids, not scrubs. You can use lactic, salicylic, glycolic, or fruit acids to name a few. 
  • Remove your makeup every night before bed. 
  • Use non comedogenic skincare products, makeup, sunscreen, and hair products. These are less likely to clog your pores.
  • See a dermatologist to get a professional read on your skin. 

If you have more stubborn acne that won’t budge with self-treatment, it’s extremely helpful to see a dermatologist. You can ask your family doctor for a referral, or do an online consultation without a referral. Dermatologists are very effective at diagnosing skin conditions from viewing photos you send them. 

What types of treatments do dermatologists do?

A dermatologist may perform a wide range of treatment depending on their assessment of your skin. Some common treatments include:

  • Light therapy, such as photodynamic therapy. 
  • Chemical peels. 
  • “Drainage and extraction,” where the dermatologists manually extracts pimples. 
  • Steroid injection for cystic acne. 
  • Prescription of topical or oral medication for acne in adults.

Getting adult acne can be frustrating, but the good news is that it’s usually very treatable. Especially with a dermatologist’s help, there are many products and therapies that deliver great results in clearing up acne and restoring balance to your skin. Want to see a dermatologist from the comfort of your home? Our dermatologists can usually see patients within 24 hours. You’ll be on your way to finally closing the door on the acne chapter of your life. 

Speak to a dermatologist online.

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