Adult Acne Overview

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Andreanna Lynn Seymore/Stockbyte/Getty ImagesAlthough acne is often assosciated with the teen years, many adults also suffer from skin breakouts. See more pictures of skin problems.

If you're like most people, the word "acne" probably reminds you of pimply-faced teenagers struggling through that awkward period of youth. However, that image isn't exactly accurate. More and more people past adolescence now report troubles with the condition. Nearly 20 percent of men and 30 percent of women over the age of 20 have some sort of breakout [source: WebMD]. Adult acne can affect a person in two different ways -- persistent acne, when the acne follows a person from puberty into adulthood, and late-onset acne, when people see acne after years of having unblemished skin [source: AcneNet].

Adult acne has just as many myths associated with as the teenaged variety. Some people think it is caused by eating greasy food or a lack of hygiene. Others wonder about treatment: Should you pop pimples, wash your face 10 times a day or simply let the nuisance run its course? Although the cause of adult acne is not always certain, the results are almost always the same: frustrating blemishes on the skin and -- in severe cases -- permanent scarring.


For more information about daily acne care, read Acne-cleansing Diet: Fast Facts.

Although you may be older and wiser, adult acne can be just as embarrassing and cause as much anxiety as the zit you found the morning of the prom. Moreover, adult skin type is often a combination of dry and oily, which can cause problems when trying to treat acne. And for those who are worried about wrinkles, there seems to be an entirely different dilemma -- should you treat the acne and dry out your skin or use moisturizing anti-wrinkle creams that can clog your pores and make your acne worse?

To find out more about what causes acne in adults, keep reading.


Adult Acne Causes

Adult acne is often caused by the overproduction of sebum, an oil created by the skin's sebaceous glands. It travels up hair follicles to the surface of your skin to act as a lubricant for the hair and skin. When excess sebum is produced, it can mix with dead skin cells to clog pores, trapping bacteria underneath. Pimples occur when the trapped bacteria -- typically Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) -- cause inflammation or infection within the blocked pore [source: Mayo Clinic].

Sebum can be overproduced because of an excess of androgens, which are male hormones found in both men and women that stimulate the sebaceous glands. If male and female hormones aren't balanced, acne can occur [source: Libov].Though hormonal swings are often connected to puberty, the body's levels of testosterone and estrogen constantly shift throughout adulthood. Women are especially vulnerable to these fluctuations. About half of all women have increased acne and facial oil the week before their periods [source: AAD]. Women also encounter more acne problems during pregnancy and menopause [source: Libov]. Androgens can also be produced as a bodily response to stress or as a side effect to certain medications such as anticonvulsants, sobriety drugs and birth control pills [source AcneNet].


The many influences of adult acne might seem overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to try to control it. Read on to learn how to treat adult acne.

Adult Acne Treatments

Once adult acne is diagnosed, there are quite a few techniques for treating the condition. Usually, a combination of remedies is most effective.

The most common treatment methods include using topical creams, lotions, gels and solutions. Over-the-counter acne medications work by killing the bacteria that cause the inflammation or by removing excess oil and dead skin cells from the pores. Although these products typically help treat acne flare-ups, many are designed to target adolescent acne and might not work as well as other treatments for adults [source: AcneNet].


Oral medications are a popular alternative to topical treatments. Because adult acne is influenced by fluctuating hormone levels, some medications can help the body to regulate its hormones and better control sebum production. Oral antibiotics have been shown to help get breakouts under control [source: AcneNet].

Laser and light therapies are able to work in the deeper layers of the skin where sebum is created. Lasers are believed to reduce oil production by damaging the sebaceous glands without harming the outermost layer of the skin. Other techniques claim to destroy the Propionibacterium acnes bacteria that cause inflammation in the pores. For example, blue light therapy is thought to destroy P. acnes. Pulse light and heat therapy, a type of which is FDA-approved, is said to both kill P. acnes and shrink sebaceous glands. [source: Mayo Clinic]

If you're not interested in direct acne treatment, chemical peels work on the damaged outer layers of skin with a mild acidic solution. The treatment is believed to remove dead skin cells, clear up blocked pores and boost growth of new skin cells. However, the ability of chemical peels alone to decrease acne has not been proven, no matter how much spas tout their abilities. Chemical peels are often used in combination with a topical cream to increase their effectiveness [source: Mayo Clinic].

Learn more about the types of products most often used when treating adult acne in the next section.


Skin Products for Adult Acne

So which skin product is best suited for treating adult acne? The answer depends on the severity of the outbreak and whether a person is taking medication for other conditions.

There are a number of effective over-the-counter and prescription products that are used to fight acne. Acne cleansers are a daily facial wash that help to remove dirt and excess oils before a breakout occurs. These cleansers often use ingredients such as alcohol, acetone and salicylic acid. Salicylic acid slows down the shedding of skin cells that clog pores [source: Mayo Clinic]. The acid has milder effects on the skin than other acne treatments and may be combined with creams because it fights acne without leaving the skin too dry [source: AcneNet].


Although facial cleansers are useful in preventing outbreaks, spot treatments are effective when pimples have already formed. Spot treatments often come in the form of a gel or cream, and the active ingredients usually have stronger concentrations than those found in facial cleansers. Ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide can help reduce oil and dead skin cells from pores while killing the bacteria that cause inflammation [source: Mayo Clinic].

When over-the counter-medications aren't doing the trick, a dermatologist can recommend more potent prescription creams. One of the more popular options is the antibiotic clindamycin, which is applied directly to the skin to help reduce bacteria that cause infection in the pores [source: Libov].

Because adults fighting acne don't always have youth on their side, they have to find a way to treat both clogged pores and wrinkles. Read on to find out how.


Adult Acne and Wrinkles

People fighting wrinkles have an especially difficult time when they're also dealing with acne. Certain over-the-counter acne medications dry out the skin, whereas most wrinkle creams and lotions moisturize. Luckily, there are a number of products and techniques that have been found to help with both conditions in adults.

Topical retinoids, products of vitamin A that unclog pores, target the lesions underneath the skin. Although retinoids might irritate the skin, they also can reduce the appearance of wrinkles [source: AcneNet]. Acne-treating ingredients designed for adolescents -- such as salicylic acid -- are now being formulated for adults in products including light moisturizers and other anti-aging treatments.


Even though physical procedures such as chemical peels and dermabrasions haven't been proven to decrease acne, they still might have some benefit. They can help to reduce the appearance of wrinkles by stimulating new skin and collagen growth while eliminating the oils and dead skin cells that contribute to adult acne. Laser and light therapy can also improve skin texture and lessen the appearance of acne scars while treating a current outbreak.

However, one of the best ways to treat both acne and wrinkles is to use preventive measures. Wrinkles occur naturally, though premature aging of the skin can occur with overexposure to ultraviolet rays (sunlight) and smoking. By wearing sunscreen and quitting smoking, your body produces healthier skin cells and more collagen, which in turn prevents the occurrence of wrinkles and lessens the chances of an acne outbreak [source: WebMD]. Daily washing with a mild facial cleanser can also help control oil levels and remove dead skin cells, though vigorous scrubbing can aggravate the skin and actually increase acne outbreaks. Once you wash your face, use retinol cream or moisturizer; both minimize the appearance of wrinkles [source: Libov].

Adult acne can be annoying and painful, but there are several options out there to treat it. Talk to a doctor if you have concerns about adult acne and would like some advice as to how to treat it. The solution is out there.

To read more about the causes and treatments of adult acne, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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  • American Academy of Dermatology: AcneNet: "Adult Acne: Effective Treatment Available." (Accessed 7/27/09)
  • American Academy of Dermatology: AcneNet. "Prescription Medications for Treating Acne." (Accessed 7/30/2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology: AcneNet. "Over-the-Counter Products." (Accessed 8/12/2009)
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