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Thought you left your acne years behind in high school? Don’t worry, adult acne is more common than you think. The increase in adult acne has been associated with stress, diets high in carbs and sugars, and hormonal fluctuations. Dermatologists refer to this as adult-onset acne and some people experience it as late as their 30s and 40s!  Staying on top of your adult acne requires a root understanding of why it’s happening and what you can do about it.

How it’s different

Breakouts during your teen years tend to show up in the T-zone (forehead and nose), but breakouts in your adult years often stay localized around the chin, jawline, or side of the face. If you are experiencing hormonal acne, then breakouts will typically appear about a week before your period. It’s also more common to experience inflammation and painful cysts with adult acne (fun, right??).  

Hormonal changes

While you may have thought your acne growing pains were over once you left your teen years, your body will continue to change and adjust its chemical makeup as you age. One of the leading causes of adult acne are those pesky changing hormones that happen around women’s menstrual cycles, during pregnancy, menopause or after starting or stopping birth control pills.  During these hormonal changes, the ratio of estrogen and progesterone levels change, which causes our oil glands to become more active and produce more sebum. More sebum leads to clogged pores and you guessed it – acne!


One big thing that comes with adulthood is...STRESS! Stress causes changes in cortisol levels, which can result in changes to androgen levels. Androgens are male hormones (like testosterone) that are present in the bodies of both men and women.  When our androgen levels rise, our bodies produce more oil and there is an alteration in the shedding of skin cells. Together these changes lead to clogged pores and acne.

So, how do we turn a case for bad blemishes back into a balanced healthy glow?
Topical treatments

If you have monthly breakouts, then it’s a good idea to continuously use an acne treatment between your breakouts. This will help to prevent future breakouts and reduce their severity. To keep your pores unclogged, we suggest using a daily cleanser or acne treatment that contains an exfoliant like salicylic acid or glycolic acid. Microbiome cleansers and treatments are also great for balancing the bacteria on your skin. These products keep your skin barrier strong and protect against the acne-causing bacteria, C. acnes. Topical retinoids are also a great option as they encourage cell regeneration and calm inflammation.

Oral treatments

If your acne is not responding to topical treatments, then you should visit your dermatologist and discuss oral treatment options. Your doctor might prescribe birth control pills like Ortho Tri-Cyclen or YAZ, which are both FDA approved to treat hormonal acne.


Research has shown that a person’s diet can affect the bodies’ sebum production and androgen levels.  For instance, a diet high in dairy, processed foods, white bread, pasta, and white rice can increase your bodies’ sebum levels.  Dermatologists suggest a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation and improve acne symptoms.  Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Fish: mackerel, salmon, anchovies
  • Soy products: tofu and soybeans
  • Nuts and seeds: walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds, chia seeds
  • Dark green-leaved vegetables: broccoli, spinach, and Brussel sprouts
  • Fruits: mangos, blueberries, and avocados
Other causes and treatments

There can also be a genetic factor with acne. If a family member has experienced adult acne then you or other family members may experience it too. Medication use, changes in your diet, or the use of various hair care and skin products can also contribute to adult acne. You can download the Dermala Acne Tracker App (it’s free!) to track your treatment progress and take note of different things that are causing you to breakout. Knowing what’s causing your breakouts will help you know how to treat them.


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