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Ask an expert: adult acne

I feel like I’m too old for acne - what can I do about it?

A woman with soap on her faceEven if you breeze through your teenage years with clear skin, you may develop acne when you’re an adult. Acne occurs when the oil (or sebaceous) glands under hair follicles – often on your face, neck, chest or back – get plugged up, inflamed and sometimes colonized with acne-promoting bacteria. Frequently, the glands simply secrete too much sebum, which can block pores and create a breeding ground for bacteria. In mild cases of acne, whiteheads and blackheads (“comedones”), as well as some raised red blemishes, appear. In more severe cases, cysts and deep nodules form around inflamed follicles, causing larger bumps, which can painful.

Hormonal imbalances can play a role in adult acne. Sebum increases with hormonal fluctuations, such as those associated with menstrual cycles, pregnancy and menopause. If you think flare-ups are related to your period, ask your doctor about oral contraceptives, which regulate the release of monthly hormones and prevent imbalances that contribute to acne.

Stress, as well, can disturb sleep, which can compromise your body’s ability to heal. Adequately managing stress and quality of sleep can help contribute to healthy skin.

The use of cosmetics can cause acne and exacerbate flare-ups. If you’re using a product that’s oil-based or doesn’t agree with your skin, your skin will respond accordingly. Look for water-based products with water or aqua as the first ingredient.

Good skin care is essential for successfully dealing with acne. Wash your face twice daily with a gentle soap. Be sure that you use clean washcloths and towels, as well as clean makeup sponges and brushes if you use makeup. Your healthcare provider or a dermatologist may recommend a prescription anti-inflammatory topical cream or gel, which are often used to treat acne. In addition, don’t touch, squeeze or pick at blemishes. This will worsen the inflammation and increase the risk of scarring and the time it takes acne to resolve.

THE EXPERT Dr. Renée A. Beach, dermatologist and head of the Hair Loss program, Women’s College Hospital

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed in August 2020.

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  • Women's College Hospital