Battling Adult Acne
10 Surprising Causes of Acne in Adults
You’re long past the problems that caused teenage angst. Or are you? Those random breakouts might say otherwise. But hormones aren’t the only thing to blame for those pesky pimples. From hairspray to traveling, learn about 10 surprising causes of adult acne and how you can zap those zits forever…Thought you left breakouts and blemishes behind with that first crush? Think again. More than half of women over 25 still have acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
“And you can get it [as an adult] even if you didn’t have it as a teenager,” says Francesca Fusco, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Though the pimples look the same, grown-up breakouts are different from the kind you had in high school.
“Adult acne is usually on the lower half of the face; teen acne is typically on the upper half,” Dr. Fusco says. “Adult acne is also deeper and appears as cysts, or ‘under the skin’ pimples, which can’t be drained.”Teen acne usually sits on the skin’s surface, she says.
So what’s causing those embarrassing zits today? One culprit: changing hormone levels. Premenstrual dips (aka period pimples) and fluctuations that occur during perimenopause can cause – or increase – a breakout.
Cosmetics, your skin-care regimen, and lifestyle may also be to blame. Here are 10 surprising cause of acne in adults:
1. Hair-styling products
Breakouts caused by hair-care products are so common, there’s a name for them: pomade acne.
“Styling products seep oil onto the forehead, which can trap acne-causing bacteria in your pores,” says dermatologist Richard Fried, MD, PhD, director of Yardley Dermatology Associates in Pennsylvania and author of Healing Adult Acne (New Harbinger Publications).
Clogged pores become inflamed and result in redness, pus and, ultimately, blackheads and whiteheads along the hairline and forehead.
Your hairstyle matters too: Bangs make acne worse by bringing skin-clogging hair products right against your forehead.
“Many times … what you’re using on your hair winds up on your face, especially if you use products with spray applicators,” Dr. Fried says. Zit zapper: Apply products with your hands and be careful to keep them away from the hairline. Afterward, give your skin a quick swipe with facial cleanser to remove any remaining styling product.
2. Facial hair removal
Here, you’re trading one complexion problem – facial hair – for another: bumpy skin. Waxing, tweezing, shaving and depilatories can make skin tissue swell, sending acne-causing bacteria and skin cells deeper into pores.
Topical products applied to the skin before or after hair removal also can be comedogenic (meaning they clog pores and promote acne), Dr. Fusco says.
If your bumps itch, they may not be true acne but rather “an irritation of the hair follicle, which causes a transient rash,” she says.
Zit zapper: You can relieve the rash by applying 1% hydrocortisone cream before and after you de-fuzz.
To reduce bacteria on the skin, clean hairy areas thoroughly before de-fuzzing and use products labeled “noncomedogenic,” which means they won’t clog your pores.
3. Skin-care products
The average woman tries 5-10 new products a year. That’s good for the cosmetic industry but bad for your skin.
Switching products or adding a new one before giving it a chance to work “challenges your skin with new preservatives and active ingredients, which can be irritating and cause breakouts,” says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, founder, and director of Fifth Avenue Dermatology Surgery and Laser Center in New York.
And here’s a shocker: Even anti-acne products can cause blemishes if you use too many.
“I have patients who have acne because they switch between four or five different acne creams or use an astringent, facial wash and spot cream, all with acne-fighting ingredients,” Dr. Frank says. “This tears their skin apart.”
Zit zapper: Whether your goal is fighting wrinkles or zapping zits, pick one or two products and give them at least 4-6 weeks to work.
“It takes that long for skin to turn over so you really have to give it that adjustment time,” Dr. Frank explains.
Need more reason to stop dabbling with acne “cures?” You’ll save money at the drugstore and free up space in your medicine cabinet.
4. Your makeup remover
Pore-clogging cosmetics can combine with your natural skin oil to cause breakouts called acne cosmetica.
The problem isn’t the product. It’s how you remove makeup, Dr. Frank says.
“Either women clean their skin in a cursory manner or – because they’re wearing mineral makeup – they think they don’t need to wash their face thoroughly,” he adds.
After a long day, makeup, oil, and dirt build up – a triple threat that easily clogs pores, traps acne-causing bacteria and results in breakouts.
Zit zapper: Look for noncomedogenic products and wash your face thoroughly – and gently – every night.
Ever wonder why you come home from a vacation and your skin looks like the surface of the moon?
The change of environment – humidity, weather or even water (minerals, fluoride or other elements) – can trigger acne.
“Your skin’s not used to those things, so it’s being challenged and reacts by breaking out,” Dr. Frank says.
Zit zapper: You can’t change the weather or humidity where you visit, so wash your face with bottled water if you can, and avoid using hotel soaps.
Your skin is already adapting to environmental changes, so don’t pile on epidermal stress with new products.
Sunscreens have two types of active ingredients: chemical agents, which protect against harmful ultraviolet rays by being absorbed into the skin, and physical agents, which sit on the surface to create a sun shield. The latter is bad news for your complexion.
“Physical sunscreens, which include zinc oxide or titanium oxide, may prompt more sweating beneath them and thus, more acne,” Dr. Fried says.
Zit zapper: Read the ingredients list and skip sunscreens with pore-clogging physical agents. Use products with chemical ingredients like avobenzone (Parsol 1789), oxybenzone, methoxycinnamate or octocrylene.
And pick gel formulations because they’re less likely to clog pores.
7. Your diet
As teens, we believed that greasy grub and chocolate cake caused our pimples. And that might be true for you at this age too.
“The latest scientific evidence suggests that high-carbohydrate diets may predispose you to acne,” Dr. Fusco says.
A small 2008 Australian study found that carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (for example, soda, sugary snacks and junk food) increased the development and severity of breakouts. Those who ate low glycemic index foods seemed to have less severe acne, researchers found.Making big changes to your diet may also trigger acne.
“The body interprets this abrupt change as stress and causes hormonal fluctuations that may lead to acne flare-ups,” Dr. Fried says.
Zit zapper: Cut back on snacks, like chips and ice cream, and switch to whole grains, veggies, fruits and high-protein foods. Make gradual dietary changes, so your skin has time to adjust.
Are you worrying about that deadline for a big project? Relationship troubles keeping you up at night? While stress alone can’t spark breakouts, it can exacerbate them.
“Stress can worsen acne by leading to a release of inflammatory chemicals called neuropeptides and hormonal changes,” Dr. Fried says.
Even “good” stress, like vacationing or getting ready for a big celebration, triggers breakouts. That’s why a huge pimple pops up on your wedding day or before a big date.
Stress also increases the severity of breakouts, Dr. Fried says, by making pore cells get thick, sticky and clogged. The result? Bigger, redder, and more inflamed and painful pimples.
Zit zapper: Use acne products with ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to clear up stress-induced breakouts. To prevent future flare-ups, find a way to calm your nerves, whether it’s yoga, deep-breathing or watching a chick flick.
9. Cell phones
All that on-the-go chatting is great, keeping you in touch with friends, family, and the office. But for your complexion? Not so much.
“Throughout the day, cell phones can be exposed to many surfaces that have bacteria on them,” Dr. Fusco says. When you’re talking on it, you’re putting bacteria close to your mouth, “and the warmth and moisture create a great environment for bacteria to thrive and cause acne.”
Plus, if you’re constantly on your cell phone (or regular phone, for that matter), rubbing it against your face can lead to “acne mechanica,” pimples caused by friction.
Zit zapper: Besides giving your phone a rest every once in a while, clean it with an alcohol wipe or hand sanitizer daily.
10. Dry skin
It’s true that oily skin is the cause of bad breakouts, but so is the other extreme. “Dry skin can have microscopic cracks and fissures in which bacteria can multiply and cause acne,” Dr. Fusco says. Plus, dry skin flakes can clog pores.
Zit zapper: Gently exfoliate skin a few times a week and hydrate with a noncomedogenic moisturizer (which won’t clog your pores) made for dry skin.
For more information, visit our Skin Health Center.