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Adult Acne: What Causes It and How to Get Rid of It

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s h.Once you hit your 20s you tend to think you’ve left your acne days behind you, however, this isn’t always the case. Even if you’ve managed to escape the dreaded pimple epidemic as a teenager it can still kick off when you’re older. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that adult acne occurs more frequently in women with about 50% of females suffering from acne in their 20s… eek! But men are catching up too, with 42% of males in the same age group reporting this often painful and inconvenient skin complaint.

Acne is a result of dead skin cells and natural oils blocking your hair follicles. Once bacteria get into these blocked follicles they start to multiply like nobody’s business and your immune cells immediately launch a defensive attack (shout out to your immune cell army, right?!). Anyway, when your immune cells are fighting off the bacteria you end up with a few battle scars as a result, i.e. the swelling, spots, and general redness associated with acne,

So Why Does Your Skin Think You’re 16 Again?

There are a LOT of reasons for breakouts of adult acne and it’s often hard to pin down, but you can usually look at it as a combination of diet, stress, lifestyle, and hormonal changes. But even if your skin thinks you’re 16 again, the same products you used then probably aren’t going to work now. Adult skin requires a different approach to younger skin to reduce the effects of post-acne scarring and premature aging. 

Your Skin Care Regime (or lack thereof!)

If you’re following the same skincare regime you had in your teens, you need to change it up. And if you don’t have a skincare regime at all, you need one! It doesn’t have to be super complex, all you have to do is make sure you cleanse your skin properly every day. Which does NOT mean washing it with soap and water which will completely dry it out and make your problem even worse. Follow this simple daily routine to improve your skin:

  1. Wash your face no more than twice daily
  2. Cleanse using warm water and a gentle mild cleanser
  3. Massage your skin with your hands or a soft washcloth
  4. Dry your skin by patting it lightly
  5. Apply a light moisturizer

Diet: High GI Foods and Dairy

The role between gut health and all other aspects of health is well established. This also applies to your skin. Research has found that high glycemic index foods (i.e. bread, rice, pasta) may contribute to acne. This is due to the insulin spike that results from a high GI diet, as this triggers excess oil production and inflammation. A US study showed that following a low GI diet significantly reduced the amount of medication they needed to treat their acne and 87% of patients reported less acne as a result of this dietary adjustment.  

Hormone-heavy foods such as dairy products are often also at the top of the dermatologist’s “no” list for anyone suffering from breakouts. Dairy can lead to an increased prevalence of acne. Researchers believe this is due to other hormones or the high sugar levels in milk. 

If you think your dairy intake might be the cause of your acne, it’s easily rectified. Cut down or eliminate dairy and try some dairy-free alternatives such as nut milk and the various dairy-free food options now available on supermarket shelves.

Prescription Medications 

Whilst some medications can cause acne, a number of medications can also help to control it. Antibiotics and retinoids can help to treat acne on a prescription by your regular doctor. If your acne is persistent it might be worth having a chat with a medical professional to see what your options are here.

If you don’t think your acne warrants a doctor’s visit, you can try out a topical cream from your local pharmacy. Anything containing benzoyl peroxide or retinoid is always a good bet. 


Back in the days of our ancient ancestors, cortisol was usually only produced as a reaction to extreme danger (we’re talking hungry bear in the woods danger). But in the stress of our everyday lives can cause cortisol to flood your body at the mere thought of an imminent deadline or work meeting. A study in 2017 researched the link between acne and stress in 144 female medical students and discovered that women experiencing high levels of stress had the worst occurrences of acne. This happens because stress triggers an increase in oil-producing hormones such as cortisol and this oil blocks pores which leads to those dreaded breakouts. 

If your acne is triggered when you’re in an overly stressful period of your life, the only way to deal with it is to take a timeout and get that stress under control. There are lots of ways to reduce stress such as exercise or medication and you’ll find the benefits to both your physical and mental health are most definitely worth it. 

Just Like Your Teens, Your Acne Won’t Last Forever

Although adult acne can be incredibly frustrating, it tends to come and go and it isn’t something you’ll be stuck with daily for the rest of your life. By implementing some lifestyle changes like the above tips, you’ll find that your breakouts reduce in frequency and may even stop completely.

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