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How To Beat Adult Acne: Causes, Treatment, Tips, Best Products

What is adult acne?

Adult acne is a common skin condition that affects many people, often causing embarrassment and self-consciousness.

Adult acne is characterized by the appearance of pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads on the face, neck, and sometimes even the back and chest.

I developed adult acne at 26 years old and battled with it for a year before bringing it under control. If you’re reading this article, you might have a similar story.

Illustration of distressed lady with adult acne

I know first-hand how difficult adult acne is to treat, so here’s everything you need to know about the condition: from definitions and causes to treatment and product recommendations.

How adult acne impacts your life

Adult acne can have a significant impact on your life, both emotionally and socially. If you’re suffering from adult acne, you may feel self-conscious about your appearance and avoid social situations, such as parties and dating, as a result.

Acne can also cause physical discomforts, such as itching, burning, and pain. The constant scratching and picking at the acne can lead to scarring, which can be distressing.

Adult acne can affect your professional life, making it difficult to feel confident and presentable at work. This can lead to missed opportunities and a lack of career advancement.

In some cases, adult acne is also linked to underlying mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, that can further affect your quality of life. When this occurs, it’s best to seek help from a mental health professional.

Illustration of distressed lady with adult acne

Causes of adult acne

The causes of adult acne are complex and can vary from person to person. Some of the most common causes include:

  1. Hormonal changes: Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, menopause, and other life stages can increase your skin’s oil production, leading to acne development. Certain medications, such as birth control pills, can worsen hormonal fluctuations.
  2. Stress: Stress can trigger the release of hormones that lead to increased oil production and inflammation in the skin, which can contribute to the development of acne.
  3. Genetics: Acne can run in families, and studies have shown there may be a genetic component to acne development.
  4. Diet: Studies suggest a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and dairy may be linked to the development of acne.
  5. Environmental factors: Exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins can also contribute to the development of acne.
  6. Medications: Certain medications, such as corticosteroids and lithium, can cause acne as a side effect.
  7. Cosmetics and skin care products: Using heavy or oily skin care products, or using cosmetics that clog the pores, can contribute to an acne breakout.

Many people with adult acne have a combination of these factors contributing to their condition. A healthcare professional, such as a dermatologist, can accurately diagnose your case and provide a treatment plan after thoroughly examining your skin and medical history.

Illustration of smiling woman without adult acne

Adult acne treatment: 4 ways to cure adult acne

There are several treatment options available for adult acne, and the best course of treatment will depend on your specific case. Here are the most common four:

  1. Over-the-counter products: Many over-the-counter skincare products contain active ingredients that help reduce the appearance of adult acne. These include salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, and alpha hydroxy acids (more on these in a bit). You can find these products in cleansers, toners, spot treatments, and moisturizers.
  2. Prescription medications: If over-the-counter products are ineffective, a dermatologist may prescribe topical or oral medications. Topical medications include retinoids, antibiotics, and azelaic acid (a type of chemical exfoliant). Oral medications include antibiotics, birth control pills, and isotretinoin (a powerful Vitamin A derivative sometimes sold under the brand name Accutane).
  3. Light and laser therapy: A dermatologist may also recommend light or laser therapy to reduce the appearance of adult acne. These treatments work by killing the bacteria that cause acne, reducing inflammation, and promoting collagen production.
  4. Lifestyle changes: You can effectively prevent and treat adult acne by adopting a healthy diet, managing stress, and avoiding certain foods and skincare products that may be causing or worsening your acne.

To treat adult acne, it is important to maintain a consistent skincare routine that includes cleaning, exfoliating, and moisturizing. Consult with a dermatologist to determine the best treatment plan for your individual case. 

Also, note that adult acne can take several weeks or months to respond to treatment, and you’ll need to be consistent and patient, even after you start seeing early results.

Illustration of smiling woman without adult acne

4 chemical ingredients that help treat adult acne

Some of the most effective ingredients to look for in skincare products include salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, and alpha hydroxy acids. Here’s the lowdown on each chemical compound.

#1 Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid derived from willow bark. It works by gently exfoliating the skin and unclogging pores, which can help to reduce the appearance of acne.

⚗️🧪 Beta hydroxy acid (BHA), an acid derived from plants, is a common ingredient in skincare products, especially those for treating acne. BHA is best for sensitive skin, compared to alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) because of its natural skin-calming properties known to soothe irritated skin.

Salicylic acid is found in many over-the-counter acne products, including cleansers, toners, and spot treatments. My favorite way to use salicylic acid is by applying the serum directly on dry skin after cleansing.

Brands such as Skin Republic and The Ordinary stock salicylic acid serums for around ZAR 250 (USD 14.50).

#2 Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is another popular ingredient used to treat adult acne. It works by killing the bacteria that cause acne and reduces inflammation.

Benzoyl peroxide is found in many over-the-counter acne products, especially spot treatments. Oxy’s new range has one of my favorite spot treatments, retailing around ZAR 70 (USD 4).

It’s best to use benzoyl peroxide during an active breakout. After cleansing your face, apply the benzoyl peroxide on your face for 15-20 minutes, allow it to dry, then rinse off with lukewarm water. 

For sensitive skin, lower the time frame to 10 minutes every other day. As the breakout clears, you can use your benzoyl peroxide cream on the occasional pimple or blackhead that appears.

#3 Retinoids

Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from Vitamin A. They promote cell turnover, which helps to unclog pores and reduce the appearance of acne. 

Retinoids are available in prescription form and often used in conjunction with other acne treatments. Depending on the percentage of retinoids in the skin care product or serum, these compounds can be powerful and highly irritable for sensitive skin. 

For the best retinoids recommendations, see your dermatologist. However, if you are out of the danger zone (that is, not experiencing an active breakout), you can grab over-the-counter retinoids from brands such as Skin Function for around ZAR 217 (USD 12.56).

#4 Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA)

Alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid and lactic acid, are chemical exfoliants that work by removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores. They are key ingredients in various over-the-counter products.

Alpha hydroxy acids can irritate the skin, so it’s important to follow the usage instructions properly and do patch tests before usage.

⚗️🧪 I have highly sensitive skin, so I normally steer clear of alpha hydroxy acids. Mandelic acid is a great substitute for people with sensitive skin, with the same effectiveness as glycolic acid in the long run but much gentler on your skin.

Brands such as The Ordinary stock different types of alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), including the two mentioned here.

Best skincare product recommendations to treat adult acne

At SkynJournal, we’re passionate about the power of K-Beauty products. We recommend** the following Korean skincare products for treating adult acne:

  1. BHA Blackhead Power Liquid by Cosrx
  2. AHA-BHA-PHA 30-day Miracle Starter Pack by Some By Mi
  3. Retinol Intense Reactivating Serum by Some By Mi
Illustration of smiling woman without adult acne

Treat your adult acne today

Adult acne is a common skin condition that affects many people, often causing embarrassment and self-consciousness. It’s tough to live with and can be even tougher to treat. However, there’s hope.

To successfully treat adult acne, it’s important to watch your diet, track your hormonal changes, review your medications, and manage your stress levels. 

It’s also key to maintain a consistent skincare routine and use effective ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, and alpha hydroxy acids. You can use K-beauty products to treat your adult acne today and take control of your skin.

Illustration of smiling woman without adult acne

** Disclaimer: We do not receive any commissions for recommending any products in this article. We’ve chosen suppliers from different regions to cater to our global audience, but you can search for these products at your nearest pharmacy or drugstore or elsewhere online. RehabWithBeth’s skin care product recommendations are not medical advice — please consult your GP or skin specialist.

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