8 Surprising Causes of Adult Acne

adult acne

Now that you are matured, you’re way past the problems that caused teenage acne breakouts, right? Well, your random breakouts might suggest otherwise.

Puberty is the most common cause of acne. Around 8 in 10 preteens and teens go through this. (1) But hormones aren’t the only thing to blame for those pesky pimples. So if you thought you left acne and blemishes behind with that first High School crush, think again.

The fact remains that 15 percent of adult women have acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). (2)

“What’s interesting is that you can get it [as an adult] even if you didn’t have it as a teenager,” says Francesca Fusco, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. (3)

Even though  the pimples looks the same, adult breakouts are different from the kind you had in high school.

“Adult acne is usually on the lower half of the face; teen acne is typically on the upper half,” Dr. Fusco says. “Adult acne is also deeper and appears as cysts, or ‘under the skin’ pimples, which can’t be drained.”

Teen acne usually sits on the skin’s surface, she says.

So what’s causing those embarrassing acne today? One culprit: unstable hormone levels. This includes premenstrual dips (aka period pimples), and fluctuations that occur during peri-menopause. (4)

Cosmetics, your skin-care regimen, and lifestyle choices may also be to blame, as well as factors you’ve never considered.

1. Too Many Skin-Care Products Can Trouble The Skin, Causing Acne

adult acne
Black woman putting on face lotion

You might experiment with several new skin-care products a year. That’s good for the cosmetics industry but bad for your skin. (5)

Switching products or adding a new one before giving it a chance to work “challenges your skin with new preservatives and active ingredients, which can be irritating and cause breakouts,” says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, the founder and director of Fifth Avenue Dermatology Surgery and Laser Center in New York. (5)

And here’s a shocker: Even anti-acne products can cause blemishes if you use too many. (5)

“I have patients who have acne because they switch between four or five different acne creams or use an astringent, facial wash, and spot cream, all with acne-fighting ingredients,” Dr. Frank says. “This tears their skin apart.”

Solution Whether your goal is fighting wrinkles or zapping zits, pick one or two products and give them at least four to six weeks to work.

“It takes that long for skin to turn over, so you really have to give it that adjustment time,” Frank explains.

Need another reason to stop dabbling with acne “cures”? You’ll save money at the drugstore and free up space in your medicine cabinet.

2. Heavier Sunscreens May Promote Acne Breakoutsadult acne

Sunscreen is a must-have if you have acne-prone skin, but which sunscreen is right for you?

“People with acne or acne-prone skin should look for oil-free, noncomedogenic sunscreens,” says Yoram Harth, MD, a dermatologist and the medical director of MDacne in San Francisco. “Heavier” sunscreens, which aren’t labeled as oil-free, can clog the skin pores and cause more acne, he says.

Sunscreens have two types of active ingredients. Chemical agents that absorb into the skin and protect against harmful ultraviolet rays, and physical agents (also called mineral sunscreens) that sit on the surface to create a sun shield. (6)

Physical sunscreens are often recommended for sensitive skin because they deflect the sun’s rays. But these sunscreens can be thicker, leaving a white cast on the skin and possibly clogging pores, whereas chemical sunscreens are invisible, very light, and leave the skin shine-free, explains Dr. Harth.

Solution If you develop acne after using a physical sunscreen, you may need a product that isn’t as thick. Switch to a sunscreen with chemical ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, methoxycinnamate, or octocylene. And don’t forget to wash your sunscreen off your skin after a day in the sun. Even the most sheer, lightweight sunscreens can clog pores if left on overnight.

3. Facial Hair Removal Can Lead to AcneFacial Hair Removal

Here, you’re trading one complexion problem — facial hair — for another: bumpy skin.

Topical products applied to your skin before or after hair removal can be comedogenic (meaning they clog pores and promote acne), says Fusco. (6)

Keep in mind that itchy bumps after hair removal might not be true acne, but rather “an irritation of the hair follicle that causes a transient rash,” she says. (7)

Solution Relieve the rash by applying a warm compress to your face three to four times a day. If this doesn’t work, see your doctor. You may need an antibiotic to clear the rash.

To reduce bacteria on your skin, clean hairy areas before de-fuzzing and use noncomedogenic products that won’t clog your pores. (6)

4. Your Makeup Remover May Trigger AcneTrigger Acne

Pore-clogging cosmetics can combine with your natural skin oil to cause breakouts called acne cosmetica. (8)

The problem isn’t only the products, but also how you remove the makeup, Frank warns.

“Either women clean their skin in a cursory manner, or because they’re wearing mineral makeup they think they don’t need to wash their face thoroughly,” he adds.

After a long day, makeup, oil, and dirt build up. This is a triple threat that can easily clog your pores, trapping acne-causing bacteria and triggering breakouts.

Solution Look for noncomedogenic products, and wash your face thoroughly — and gently — every night. Gently apply makeup, clean your makeup brushes every week, and don’t share cosmetic products.

5. Hairstyling Products That Touch Your Skin Can Trigger Acneadult acne

Breakouts caused by hair-care products are so common that there’s a name for them: pomade acne. (9)

“Styling products seep oil onto the forehead, which can trap acne-causing bacteria in your pores,” says Richard Fried, MD, PhD, the director of Yardley Dermatology Associates in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and the author of the book Healing Adult Acne. (10)

Clogged pores become inflamed, resulting in redness, pus, and ultimately blackheads and whiteheads along the hairline and forehead. (11)

Your hairstyle matters too: Bangs make acne worse by bringing skin-clogging hair products right against your forehead. (12)

“Many times, what you’re using on your hair winds up on your face, especially if you use products with spray applicators,” Dr. Fried says.

Solution Apply products with your hands and keep them away from your hairline. After applying, wipe your skin with facial cleanser to remove any stray styling product.

6. Cell Phones Can Transfer Acne-Causing Bacteria to Your Facecell phone causes acne

All that on-the-go chatting is great — keeping you in touch with friends, family, and the office. But for your complexion? Not so much.

“Throughout the day, you expose your cell phone to surfaces with bacteria on them, and when you talk on the phone, you put this bacteria close to your mouth,” Fusco says. (13)

Plus, if you’re constantly on your cell phone (or regular phone, for that matter), rubbing it against your face can lead to “acne mechanica,” which is pimples caused by friction. That bacteria transfer can also happen when you touch your face after texting on your cell phone.

Solution Give your phone a rest every once in a while, and clean it with an alcohol wipe daily.

7. Dry Skin, Like Oily Skin, Is Also a Culprit for Acne Breakouts

It’s true that oily skin is the cause of bad breakouts, but so is the other extreme. “Dry skin can have microscopic cracks and fissures in which bacteria can multiply and cause adult acne,” Fusco says. Plus, dry skin flakes can clog pores.

Solution Gently exfoliate your skin a few times a week and hydrate with a noncomedogenic moisturizer intended for dry skin.

8. A Diet High in Processed Food and Refined Carbs May Lead to adult Acne

As teens, we believed that greasy grub and chocolate cake caused our pimples. And that might hold true for you now that you’re an adult.

“The latest scientific evidence suggests that high-carbohydrate diets may predispose you to adult acne,” Fusco says. Specifically, diets high in refined carbohydrates (“white” foods including white bread and white pasta, along with crackers, cake, and cookies) that are high on the glycemic index may increase the development and severity of breakouts, yet more research is needed. (14) The glycemic index is a scale that gauges how much a certain food can affect blood sugar levels. (15)

There may also be a link between acne and dairy, according to Harth.

“Dairy products have been shown in multiple studies to increase levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), that can trigger or worsen acne breakouts,” says Harth. “One of the most triggering forms of dairy is cow’s milk, especially low-fat milk, which contains a large amount of progesterone-like hormones and has a higher sugar content” than full-fat milk. (16)

Solution Cut back on snacks, like chips and ice cream, and switch to whole grains, veggies, fruits, and high-protein foods.


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