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Adult Acne: What Causes It (And How To Get Rid Of It)

Camille Chulick
Written by
Camille Chulick

You spend your teenage years looking forward to adult life: more money, more freedom, and, of course, clear, acne-free skin. But then you hit your 20’s and you still have those same pesky breakouts you had in your teens. Or maybe you’ve been hit with a sudden, seemingly inexplicable bout of adult acne right in the middle of your 30’s.

Most people associate acne with teens, but unfortunately acne doesn’t just magically disappear on your 20th birthday. Keep reading to learn what causes adult acne and how to get rid of adult acne once and for all.

What is Adult Acne?

Adult acne is defined as persistent breakouts after the age of 25. There are two main types of adult acne:

  • Lingering acne, when your teenage breakouts continue into your 20’s and beyond
  • Late-onset acne, which is that sudden adult acne that just pops up seemingly out of nowhere

But adult acne isn’t just teen acne that’s overstayed its welcome. Adult acne has some key differences from teen acne that make it more difficult to treat.

For example, whereas teen acne tends to crop up all over the face, adult acne is usually focused more in a “surgical-mask distribution” on the lower third of the face. You know—those zits that pop up on your chin and jawline. Plus, adult acne tends to show up more as inflamed cysts rather than those whiteheads and blackheads of your teenage years. And on top of that, since adult skin is more fragile than teen skin, it doesn’t respond well to the ingredients used to treat teen acne.

Adult Acne is More Common Than You Think

If you’re suffering from adult acne, rest assured that you’re not the only one (though it may feel like that sometimes). While the numbers differ depending on the source, it’s clear that adult acne is incredibly common.

One study estimates that up to 50 percent of women experience acne at some point in their lives, with over half of those women experiencing adult acne. A second research study found that 27 percent of female adults had clinical acne, while another 29 percent had mild acne. According to those estimates, 1 in 2 women have struggled with adult acne!

If it seems like this wasn’t a struggle for previous generations, it’s not your imagination. Though no one knows the exact reason, cases of adult acne in women have actually been increasing for the past 20 years.

The good news is that the growing rise in adult acne has lead to a proliferation of skincare products formulated to treat this complicated condition. So there’s definitely hope! But more on that later…


What Causes Adult Acne?

At its core, acne is caused by a mix of:

  • Overproduction of sebum, an oily substance produced by the skin
  • C. acnes, a type of bacteria that lives on the skin that eats sebum, leaving skin red and inflamed
  • Clogging of pores by sticky skin cells, makeup, and dirt
  • Inflammation

The triggers of these acne causes aren’t well understood, especially in adults, but the below are thought to be contributing factors:

Fluctuating Hormones

Androgens like testosterone are the hormones responsible for acne flare-ups. Androgens increase oil production, leading to a growth of oil-loving C. acnes on the skin, which in turn causes breakouts.

It’s no secret that puberty can do some pretty strange things to your hormones, hence the acne that’s so common in your teenage years. But once we’ve reached our 20’s, all that hormonal stuff should have calmed down, right? Wrong.

One of the biggest causes of breakouts is hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle. Right before your period, your estrogen levels drop, leaving androgen unchecked and running wild. Cue the pre-period breakout. But women can also experience this type of hormonal adult acne during pregnancy, perimenopause, and menopause.

Have you recently stopped or started taking birth control pills? Oral contraceptives also alter your hormone levels, which can leave you with zits while your body adjusts to its new normal.


High Stress Levels

You probably don’t need us to tell you that there’s a relationship between stress and breakouts. But what really causes it?

Stress makes the adrenal gland release a hormone called cortisol, which helps the body deal with the stress. Unfortunately, this fluctuation of hormones also increases oil production and inflammation, leading to acne breakouts.

Diet Choices

Some studies report that eating food with a high glycemic index may encourage acne. Too much sugar creates excess insulin, which can promote breakouts. It’s also thought that foods with a high number of hormones, like dairy products, may also lead to more breakouts.



If your skin is producing a lot of oil, it makes sense that you would want to wash your face more often. But washing your face more than twice per day can dry out your skin and cause it to produce even more oil to compensate for the dryness. For best results, use a gentle cleanser like Radiant Cleanser Nectar in the AM and PM only.



How to Get Rid of Adult Acne

Now the part you’ve been waiting for: how to actually treat adult acne. There’s a few different approaches you can take, which is why we suggest keeping a skincare journal. Note which methods you try to clear up your adult acne and how well they work on your skin. Try to incorporate one method at a time (rather than all of them at once), so you can really figure out which ones are working best for you.

1. Don’t Use Acne Treatments Designed for Teens

We’re sorry to tell you that the skincare routine you used to treat your breakouts in high school isn’t going to work for your adult skin. Teenage skin is more resilient than adult skin and can stand up to harsher ingredients. For adult acne sufferers, the skin is often sensitive and those teenage ingredients will leave it red, itchy, and flaky. It’s better to use natural ingredients that nourish your skin rather than punish it.


2. Pay Attention to Your Diet

Some studies have shown that eating a low-glycemic diet can help to clear up acne breakouts. Swap out refined carbs for their whole grain counterparts and limit your intake of candy, soda, alcohol, and other insulin-boosting foods. You can also try lowering your dairy intake or eliminating it from your diet altogether. Pay attention to what you eat and how it affects your skin, then shop for groceries accordingly.

3. Try Stress-Reducing Techniques

Anything you can do to relieve stress can also help reduce your breakouts. Of course, when your stress is caused by your acne, that’s easier said than done! Some stress-busting activities to try include yoga, meditation, vigorous exercise, walking in nature, journaling, coloring, and knitting. Try a few and see what works best for you!


4. Don't Pick!

Adult acne tends to present itself as inflamed cysts rather than your run-of-the-mill whiteheads. Pimple poppers beware: you won’t be able to easily pop these blemishes on your own, and trying to do so can lead to infection and scarring. The only way to get rid of a cyst quickly is to visit your dermatologist for a shot of cortisone.

5. Use Products Designed to Work Together 

If your skincare routine isn’t working for you, it’s time to overhaul the whole thing and start fresh.

Many women with adult acne have a complicated skin care routine that isn’t doing them any favors. Combining multiple products from different skincare lines can actually inactivate their hero ingredients, so the products don’t work anymore. Oftentimes, mixing product lines can make acne even worse.

That’s why it’s incredibly helpful to stick to one product line at a time. Our Clear Skin Kit provides a total clear skin solution with products that are formulated to work together to:

  • Heal breakouts
  • Clear clogged pores
  • Restore dull and lackluster skin
  • Even out skin tone
All of our products are designed for sensitive skin, with nutrient-rich, non-irritating ingredients. Best of all? This system is just four steps, so it’s easy to fit into your busy routine.

6. Stick With It

Remember: no skincare routine works instantly. And altering your skin routine too frequently can actually irritate your skin even more. That’s why it’s important to give your new skincare routine at least two to three months to experience results.

Do you have adult acne? What have you tried to treat it? What were your results? Share your story with other readers in the comments!

Camille Chulick
Written by
Camille Chulick
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Camille is the founder and creator of Averr Aglow. All too familiar with pesky problem skin, she fought the battle against acne and won! Her struggle is your shortcut to a clear complexion. A regular jetsetter, she’ll jump at any chance to hop on a plane, train, or automobile and travel the globe. Any destination is acceptable, although Paris is an easy favorite. On her days off (what are those??) You’ll find her buried in a good mystery novel, or let's be honest, working on new ideas for Averr Aglow.