Causes of adult acne

Adults can get acne well into their thirties and beyond. For some, the acne onslaught that began during adolescence just never lets up. This is called persistent acne, and it happens to more women than men. And late-onset acne can hit those who never suffered teen acne at all. Late-onset acne can also be the reappearance of acne, like a bad high school yearbook photo someone posts on your Facebook profile.

Adult acne tends to pop up around the mouth, chin, and jaw, though the pimples and nodules can appear on the back and chest as well. No matter what your age, acne is caused by excess build-up of dead skin cells, bacteria, and sebum - the natural oils that lubricate the skin.

This sort of build-up is par for the course during the hormone roller-coaster of puberty, but is much less common in adulthood. A person may be genetically predisposed to acne. And in rarer instances, acne is a visible sign of a more serious medical condition. Tumours of the adrenal gland or ovaries may trigger acne, and polycystic ovary syndrome may be spotted by a combination of symptoms including acne, excessive facial hair, thinning scalp hair, and irregular periods.

In most cases, though, the most likely causes of adult acne are:

  • the ebb and flow of a woman's hormones: A woman may be more prone to pimples at points along her ride on the hormone tides of menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause. This is why birth control pills may be prescribed to women struggling with acne, since oral contraceptives containing estrogen and progestin can stabilize the hormonal fluctuations of the monthly cycle. Aside from contraceptives, a woman can track her cycle to plan ahead for potential breakouts.
  • the effects of starting or stopping medications: If a woman stops taking birth control pills, she may notice more frequent breakouts. Use of other types of medication may activate acne, including corticosteroids and anticonvulsants. Do not stop taking a medication because of acne. Talk to your doctor about your concerns.
  • the body's response to stress: When you kick into high-anxiety mode, your body kicks up its production of a certain kind of hormones called androgens. And those androgens crank up your oil glands and hair follicles and make you more prone to pimples, pustules, and general skin trouble.
  • the products you use on or near your skin: Cosmetic products can clog pores, an invitation to acne. And hair care products - sprays, gels, pomades - can have the same effect. Keep this in mind when applying makeup or styling your hair and consider switching to non-comedogenic products, which are specially formulated to not clog pores.

Treating adult acne

Acne comes in all shapes and sizes - the plugged-up pores of blackheads and whiteheads, deep lumpy cysts beneath the skin, or red, raised pimples. Ways to treat acne vary, too, and may depend on the type and severity of your blemishes and breakouts.

Take a hands-off approach. Resist the urge to pop, poke, and pick at pimples and other acne spots. Touching and squeezing can worsen blemishes, prolong breakouts, push pus and sebum deeper down into the skin, and cause infection, scabbing, scarring, and discoloured patches on the skin.

Be gentle. Another urge common among those with acne is to over-scrub, over-cleanse, and over-treat. Washing your skin too frequently and with too much gusto can cause further irritation. Use a mild soap or cleanser only twice daily, and pat dry.

Avoid irritants. You may notice that certain types of personal care products inflame or irritate your skin. Watch out for your skin's reaction to rubbing alcohol and astringents, too-abrasive exfoliating scrubs, greasy hair or cosmetic products that touch the face, and moisturizers containing cocoa butter or oils. Choose water-based or non-comedogenic products that will not clog pores.

Try topical treatments. Topical treatments - treatments applied directly to the affected skin - are probably the most popular approach to treating acne. Common ingredients in creams and gels include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, retinoids, and antibiotics. Benzoyl peroxide helps to clear away acne-causing bacteria and dead skin cells, while salicylic acid and retinoids help to unclog pores and prevent breakouts. Antibiotics kill bacteria that contribute to clogged and inflamed pores. Wait about 15 minutes after washing your face to apply topical acne medication to avoid possible irritation. Talk to a doctor or dermatologist to find out which type of treatment is right for you.

Opt for oral treatments. Your doctor or dermatologist may recommend that you take oral medication to treat acne. An oral antibiotic may help to reduce the amount of acne-triggering bacteria present in your skin. Oral retinoids may be necessary for severe cystic acne. Oral contraceptives help to reduce the amount of sebum a woman's skin produces, thus reducing the risk of breakouts.

Seek further treatment. In some cases, dermatologists advise in-office procedures to treat acne. You might be asked to consider chemical peels; laser or light therapy; manual draining or extraction of blackheads or cysts; or injections of corticosteroids to prevent scarring and inflammation.

Whichever treatment plan turns out to be right for you, be sure to follow all medication label instructions and the advice of your doctors. Do not expect immediate results, as visible improvements to skin may take up to 6 to 8 weeks.

What can you do about acne scars?

Though a pimple can ruin your day, most acne clears up quickly and you can forget all about it. But some types of acne leave scars that last for years. Scar treatments can reduce the prominence of scars and improve the appearance of skin. However, make sure you talk to your dermatologist about what to expect. Restoring your skin to the way it looked before may not be possible.

The first hurdle to scar treatment is clearing up existing acne. Discuss options with a dermatologist, including the safest, most effective ways you can treat scars. Once acne has resolved, you may be advised to try a topical scar cream or gel to reduce the appearance of superficial scars and skin discoloration. Products containing collagen-boosting ingredients, including retinol, vitamin C, and glycolic acid, may plump up the skin around a scar and make it less visible.

For mild scarring, a dermatologist may recommend a skin resurfacing treatment, like a chemical peel or microdermabrasion. In laser resurfacing, a dermatologist uses a laser to slough off the top layer of skin to reveal smooth new skin beneath. Dermabrasion procedures use manual techniques to remove the damaged layer of skin. Indented scars may respond better to "filler" injections.

Babies get acne, too?

Neonatal acne may emerge on a baby's cheeks, chin, and forehead within the first 3 to 4 weeks after birth. Less common, but sometimes more severe, infantile acne develops in babies who are 3 to 16 months old.

More boys than girls get the small red bumps or pus-filled pimples that seem to flare up when baby cries or fusses. Parents needn't fret: most cases of baby acne are temporary and require no treatment. The causes of baby acne are not completely understood. It is thought that the pimples could be brought on by the hormonal shifts that mothers experience throughout pregnancy. Rarely, baby acne may indicate an underlying hormonal problem.

Usually no medical treatment is needed. Seek your pediatrician's advice if baby acne worsens or does not clear up after 3 months. A doctor may prescribe a topical (skin-applied) medication or an oral antibiotic. In the meantime, take tender loving care of your infant's delicate skin:

  • Clean baby's skin gently. Wash baby's face with warm water a couple of times a day, and add a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizing cleanser or facial soap a couple times each week. Use a soft touch to pat-dry baby's wet skin.
  • Protect baby's pimples. Keep baby's nails trimmed short so she won't scratch her lesions. As with other types of acne, poking or picking at baby acne can lead to infection, irritation, and scarring or pitting.