Adult Acne Causes and Treatment

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Jill Daniels, Freelance Medical Writer

Jill Daniels is a freelance health writer based in New York City. She spent several years writing for WebMD, including their Weight Loss Clinic and Fertility Center programs. Jill has also written/reported for publications including InStyle, People and Women's Own. She received a degree in journalism for Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.


November 11 2008

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Adult Acne Treatment

You thought you had successfully moved beyond the acne of your youth, and now it's back again. What's going on? Adult acne is actually quite common. It's different than teenage acne, though, which means it's best to treat it differently. If adult acne is plaguing you, don't despair. Here's what you need to know.

What Causes Adult Acne?

Acne, at any age, is caused when the body produces too much of the oil that's meant to naturally moisturize the skin. That oil and excess skin cells and bacteria accumulate in the pores. The following have been found to be triggers of adult acne:

  • Family history of acne
  • Stopping birth control pills
  • Taking certain medications such as corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, and sobriety drugs
  • Fluctuating hormones at times like pregnancy and menopause
  • Stress
  • Hair and skin products, particularly those that have oil and greases in them

For women, adult acne is particularly severe around the time they ovulate and their period. Adult acne should not be confused with rosacea, which is a skin condition in which whiteheads and blackheads do not occur.

How to Get Rid of Acne

Although adult acne can be frustrating and annoying, there are several treatment options available. The key is to find the one that's right for you and your situation -- and to know when it's time to seek the professional help of a dermatologist to help you fight your blemishes.

Keep Cleansing

A good cleansing regimen can help a great deal. Washing your face with a gentle facial cleanser twice a day is recommended. You may want to exfoliate with a salicylic acid treatment 2 to 3 times a week to help clean out pores and any blackheads that may be lurking. Salicylic acid cleansers tend to clean out pores better than grainy scrubs. Just make sure not to exfoliate too much or to scrub too hard. You don't want to irritate or inflame your skin.

Topical Adult Acne Treatments

Creams, lotions, solutions and gels are all available for adult acne. Keep in mind, however, that the over-the-counter topical acne treatments that you can find in the drug store often irritate adult skin, which can make adult acne worse. Good ones to try are those that combine benzoyl peroxide and a topical antimicrobial, such as erythromycin or clindamycin. A prescription is required for these products. A topical retinoid (including Retin-A) may also be effective and some of these are available over-the-counter (although the more effective retinoids may also require a prescription). Products that contain sodium sulfacetamide and sulfur have been known to work and are available over-the-counter. There are definitely options out there.

Oral Medications to Treat Adult Acne

Because adult acne often occurs due to hormonal shifts, an oral medication like birth control pills or other medications may be helpful to help decrease these fluctuations and control the acne. Oral antibiotics may also be helpful in getting adult acne under control. Talk to your doctor about the best adult acne treatment option for you.

The Accutane Option

Very severe cases of acne are best cleared up by Accutane (generic name: isotretinoin), a five-month course of treatment that is considered the most effective acne treatment available. People on Accutane, however, need to be closely monitored. Accutane is highly likely to cause serious birth defects if it is taken during pregnancy. To prevent birth defects, if you are prescribed Accutane you will have to register with a website and prove that you are using an effective birth control method.

Special Skin Treatments

Microdermabrasion can be used to take off the upper layers of your skin, which can help improve surface irregularities and stimulate new skin. Light chemical peels with glycolic acid or salicylic acid may also help by unclogging pores, opening blackheads and whiteheads and stimulating the growth of new skin. Laser treatments may also help, but these can get very expensive.

The Dermatologist Is Your Friend

If you're experiencing adult acne, particularly if it's serious, don't underestimate the power of a good dermatologist. You may want to try to treat your acne with over-the-counter options, but you should remember that the dermatologist has a bevy of products – and likely many samples -- that can help clear up your skin. Antibiotics, azelaic acid, retinoids and birth control pills are all options.

A dermatologist can also help address occasional outbreaks by injecting a corticosteroid directly into the lesion to quickly decrease swelling and pain, and lower the potential for scarring.

What Not to Do

As tempting as it may be, do not squeeze, pop or pick at your acne. Doing so can not only cause a great deal more irritation to your skin, but it can also cause scarring. When your dermatologist addresses your acne to remove blackheads and whiteheads it's called acne surgery. When you do it yourself it's called popping pimples -- and it almost always leads to trouble.

Keep in Mind…

If you're going to wear cosmetics, use ones that are oil free and "non-comedogenic" or "non-acnegenic. And make sure to thoroughly remove your make-up every night. Also look for shampoos that are labeled "non-comedogenic" or "non-acnegenic. And make sure to wear daily sun protection because certain acne treatments increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun.