First thing’s first: What causes a breakout? Acne is caused by over-active sebaceous glands. These glands produce sebum (oil) and this, mixed with dirt and bacteria, is what causes inflammation of the skin and breakouts to occur. That’s only one factor in the development of adult acne. Teen acne is caused mostly by changing hormones. Fun fact: So is adult acne. But there are other breakout-inducing factors: stress, birth control, low-quality makeup products or cleansers. When you put all those factors together, you get build up ready to burst.
Roughly 40 to 50 million people are troubled with acne. Adult acne in women tends to be more cyclical, especially around menstruation, says Dr. William Huang, assistant professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. It also tends to be lower-grade acne, less severe, and more “smoldering” under the skin on the lower third of the face. This comes from hormonal changes, but also from touching and rubbing the lower half of the face.
Adult Acne Treatment
While there is no cure for acne or best products for acne, there are ways to treat the unwanted bumps. Huang says that there is no universal treatment for acne because people experience it differently. “Just like any condition, there isn’t a magic bullet,” says Huang. “Not everyone is going to get the same results. It depends on the severity [of the acne] and where the acne is located.”
Many over-the-counter acne products work just fine for most adults with acne on the face and body, and the top acne treatments have one thing in common: salicylic acid. This is an active ingredient in most commonly used skin treatments for acne, such as Neutrogena or Clearasil, due to its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to slough away dead skin cells for faster rejuvenation. The only downside to salicylic acid is that it dries out the skin, so use should be limited and it should be applied in conjunction with a moisturizer. Another active ingredient used in topical products for acne is benzoyl peroxide, typically seen in system acne treatments like Proactiv and AcneFree.
For more serious adult acne, or cystic acne, dermatologist-recommended treatments would include oral acne treatments using retinoid. This particular molecule is often times considered the "cure" for adult acne, but not in all people. Its properties regulate cell growth and oil production. If your adult acne is more than just a bump here or there during your monthly cycle, it may be time to speak with a dermatologist about the best treatments for acne.
If you’re experiencing mild to moderate bouts of adult acne, look for products with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to help diminish the red appearance, minimize pain, and clean away the layers of dead skin.
Double Duty Skin Care
As you’ve aged, you’ve probably gotten a better handle on your skin type and how it reacts to certain products. Pay attention to that. Just because you have acne doesn’t mean you can treat it with the harsh cleansers and scrubs you did when you were 15. Opt for more subtle approaches to battling those pesky bumps.
You should know whether your skin type is oily, dry, or combination. Acne treatments can be very irritating; being aware of what works is a great starting point. “You have to be very aware of your aging skin,” says Huang. “Acne medications are irritating; some of the topical retinoids are irritating. That’s universal.”
Huang says it’s best to understand your skin type and use only a certain amount of the acne care product. Finding an anti-aging product that also helps balance the skin is ideal.
When it comes to handling adult acne, Huang tells us what he tells all his patients. “Use all your willpower to not pop, squeeze pinch, or rub,” says Huang. “That will lead to spots. That causes changes in the pigmentation of the skin; that will make the acne spot last longer.”
There are options for those long-lasting spots that just won’t seem to go away. Huang says that an active ingredient in some creams meant for fading brown spots, or reducing dark spots, is actually just a stronger form of sunscreen. A few of the over-the-counter dark spot correcting creams—not all—use 2 percent hydroquinone, a skin lightening chemical. Hydroquinone is also used to lighten other skin spots like melasma, a hyperpigmentation of the skin.
“It inhibits the production of pigment,” says Huang. “There is a worry, though, because it fades all spots. People with darker skin tones have to make sure they’re only using it on the dark spot; it will actually fade all skin. It will lighten the skin wherever you put it on.”
Best practice when using dark spot correctors is to use them in moderation and follow the instructions.
Finding the right kind of coverage is also a key factor in clear skin—a clogged pore is one of the acne-causing culprits. Keeping your skin acne-free could be a matter of using mineral-based and oil-free makeup. “It’s better for the skin,” says Huang. “It doesn’t clog pores as much.”
The best way to cover any blemishes is to use a powder makeup applied with a brush or makeup tool—using your fingers can only push more bacteria into the pimple. If you’re experiencing dry acne, Huang suggests covering the spot with moisturizer before applying cosmetics. Other options would be to use acne-fighting cosmetics that conceal the acne spot as well as help heal.