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What causes adult acne?

23 July 2020 in Health

Written by Georgina Newman
Edited by Mike Martin
Reviewed by the Your.MD Medical team

Acne (spots or oily skin) is often a condition associated with teenagers, but it can also affect you in adulthood. People can experience it as late as their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Acne occurs when the small holes (pores) on the skin’s surface become blocked. This happens when too much oil is produced by the oil (sebaceous) glands in your skin and combines with dead skin cells, blocking your pores.

Your pores are connected to your oil glands and hair follicles and if a hair follicle becomes blocked or infected with bacteria, the oil can’t escape. This causes it to expand, forming a spot or pimple.

If you’re still dealing with acne as an adult, or get acne for the first time as an adult, there are ways to treat it effectively. But it may help to understand what could be causing it.

Adult acne causes

Changing hormone levels

Hormones tend to be responsible for acne in teenagers or young adults.

During puberty your testosterone levels are higher. This increases the production of oil in your sebaceous glands, causing acne. But hormones can also cause acne as you get older.

Adult acne is more common in women than men, and this may be due to changing hormone levels that occur in women at different stages of their life.

If your acne only appeared in adulthood, it may be caused by:

  • hormonal changes that take place around your monthly period
  • pregnancy (especially during the first 3 months)
  • the menopause
  • starting or stopping the contraceptive pill
  • polycystic ovary syndrome

Knocked over medication bottle with pills spilled on table

Medications

Acne in adulthood can also be caused by contraceptive injections and some medications used to treat depression, bipolar disorder and epilepsy.

Links have also been made between steroid medications (sometimes taken by athletes and bodybuilders) or topical corticosteroids and acne.

If you’ve been prescribed a medication by a doctor and you think that may be causing your acne, don’t stop taking it -- always speak to a doctor first. They may be able to recommend a different drug if acne is a possible side effect of the one you’re taking.

A family history of acne

Research shows you may be more likely to have acne as an adult if 1 or both of your parents also had it -- though why this may happen is not clear.

Some skin products

Acne can be made worse by using certain cosmetic and cleansing products.

To avoid this, always check that your moisturiser, cleanser and sunscreen is oil-free. Oil-based products can block the pores even more and make acne worse. Look for the words ‘non-comedogenic’ and ‘non-acnegenic’ on product labels.

Scrub and exfoliating cream products on a marble table

Smoking

Some studies show links between smoking and acne in adults, and it’s known that smoking can be a trigger for a flare-up of acne symptoms.

How can I be sure I have adult acne?

If you have acne, it’s most likely to appear on your face (this is true in 99% of cases) and back, and sometimes your chest.

Your skin may be oily and you could have a combination of different types of spots, such as:

  • red bumps (papules)
  • white pus-filled spots (pustules)
  • small black or yellow bumps (blackheads or whiteheads, otherwise known as comedones)
  • larger spots (cysts) which can be distressing and painful, and even leave scars

Acne can cause the affected areas of your skin to feel hot and inflamed. You may also notice that your acne gets worse at times, then improves before getting worse again.

Young woman with adult acne on back

What can you do about adult acne?

There are things you can do yourself to help your skin heal and reduce the risk of your acne scarring. These include:

  • not picking at your spots -- if you do scratch or squeeze them they may take longer to heal and increase the risk of scarring
  • only using oil-free or water-based skin products -- check labels to make sure
  • using a mild soap or cleanser to clean your face -- use warm water when washing, as water that’s too hot or cold may make your acne worse
  • not washing parts of your skin affected by acne more than twice a day -- this can make it worse
  • not wearing too much make-up (this can clog your pores) and keeping your hair away from your face

If your acne is mild, you can ask a pharmacist for advice on available treatments.

However, if you’re concerned about acne it may be best to see a doctor. They will be able to diagnose the type of acne you have and discuss the treatments available with you.

A variety of treatments are used for acne, including creams or solutions that you can apply directly to your skin (topical). Sometimes a doctor may prescribe antibiotics or other medications which you take by mouth.

If your acne is more severe, you may be referred to a skin specialist (dermatologist) for further treatment.

Article Sources

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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