How To Banish Adult Acne For Good

What Causes Adult Acne

By Kali Kushner 

Acne. Most of us deal with it at one point or another in our lives, When I was in high school I couldn’t wait to finally “grow up”, I wanted an apartment, a car, a job, my own dog, and I wanted clear skin. I always had a little bit of teenage acne in high school and thought it was severe.

That was until I turned 20 and actually developed severe cystic nodular acne. In a matter of months my skin went from relatively blemish free to completely covered in pimples and acne scars. Without any changes in diet, skincare, or lifestyle, I wasn’t exactly sure what brought about my sudden surge of acne and began to feel lost, isolated, and confused. I remember looking around in my college classes, and most of the time being the only one in the whole room with noticeable acne.

shelf with acne skincare products


That was when I realized I was getting adult acne.  That being said… it was a whole other ball game, but this guide will help you learn all the ins and outs of adult acne. 

Here's What Causes Adult Acne

Adult acne is more common in women. Here are the likely reasons why you may be getting adult acne:

  1. High Stress
  2. Hormonal Imbalance
  3. Poor Gut Health
  4. Menopause, Pregnancy, or Menstruation
  5. Too Harsh Skincare Products
  6. Food Intolerances and Poor Nutrition


It goes without saying - adulting is hard work. It seems the older we get, the more responsibilities we inherit such as full time work,  car payments, buying a house, having kids, even just making ends meet to pay bills at times can seem impossible.

There are two kinds of stress that can cause adult acne: emotional stress and physical stress.

The emotional stress causes a biological change in the body that can lead to many other triggers of adult acne especially when you’re feeling scared, anxious or pressured.  Physical stress comes from extreme weather, lack of sleep, illness, dehydration and exposure to environmental irritants.

Stress can be a huge trigger for adult acne. As we know, when you breakout, you stress out more from the new breakouts and then things just seem to spiral out of control in a vicious cycle.

When you’re stressed, the hypothalamus is triggered, hence releasing this corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH)  that stimulates our pituitary gland.  Your adrenal glands make the stress hormone cortisol and a bit of testosterone is created as well. This can be a huge driving force causing the oil glands to overproduce oil (which we all know is a huge root cause of acne). 

Hormonal imbalance 

Hormonal acne isn’t just acne that pops up around menses – it includes acne during any hormonal shifts, and it's common in women with PCOS

It’s all about balance. As you age,  your hormones begin to change, in fact they change pretty frequently with every life stage.

Hormonal acne can range from mild (a few pimples around your period or when you’re stressed) to severe and chronic. One thing is for sure, though, hormonal acne can be very frustrating to live with and treat.

Hormones are responsible for the production levels in our oil glands in skin. Interestingly, oil glands do not have the ability to produce acne until they are fully matured. This is why children (unless glands are matured) do not experience acne. The four biggest hormones which affect our skin health are estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, and thyroid hormones.

Fluctuating or excessive male or female hormones can lead to  adult acne because of changes they create in the entire body which affects the sebum production and health of the skin. 

Gut Health

The first thing most people look for is a topical product to clear acne, but what if acne had more to do with how you eat?  

Battling the inflammation in our digestive system in a few ways can be the strongest route to healing acne.

Listen to your gut instinct! There’s a balance of good (probiotics) and bad bacteria that live in your digestive tract. When this balance gets thrown off by stress, poor diet, or lack of sleep, or illness, the bad guys start to take over. Even prolonged usage of antibiotics can throw off this delicate balance, interfering with digestion and resulting in gut and nutrition issues. 

It’s no wonder that  diet plays a vital role in your skin’s health as well. You know what they say, you are what you eat. Beyond drinking a ton of water and getting plenty of fresh veggies, more and more dermatologists (alongside nutritionists) are advising their clients to carefully consider what’s  making an appearance on their forks.  Anything that causes a spike in blood sugar can, theoretically, increase inflammation and insulin levels, therefore leading to pimples and excess oil.

Questions to ask to find out if your  acne is caused by poor digestion:

  • Do I break out after eating certain foods such as sugar, dairy or meat?
  • Do I experience stomach aches or weird stomach noises after eating certain food? Do I “pass gas” a lot? Do you have bad flatulence that smells?
  • How are your experiences in the toilet? This is a very personal topic but when you go to the bathroom, do you have regular, smooth stool movements? If not, something is like wrong with your digestive system which is likely to contribute to your acne.  


Menopause, Pregnancy or Menstruation 

Back at it again with the hormones.  From my experience,  Adult Acne is like 70% hormones, 15% diet, and 15% skincare - however it could be different for each person. Of course my opinion on that is always shifting but hormones always take up a huge part, they’re basically at the root cause most adult acne cases,  so if they’re frequently changing of course your skin will break out!

If you are going through huge life changes like menopause or are pregnant, your hormones are going through significant changes. Even monthly periods create an imbalance in hormones, leading to that stubborn monthly breakout.

Hormonal acne may be caused by influxes of hormones from:


  • menstruation
  • polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • menopause
  • increased androgen levels


These hormonal fluctuations can also aggravate your acne issues by increasing your overall skin inflammation, oil production in the pores, clogged skin cells and production of acne causing bacteria known as  Propionibacterium acnes or P acnes for short.

Frequent Or Harsh Cleansing

Wait, you can wash your face too much? Yes, yes you can.  Again, as you age everything is constantly changing so we can’t expect to continue using the same skincare routine and see results, we have to change along with it!

Although  acne isn't caused by not cleansing your face, there's no doubt that regular cleansing is an important step in your acne treatment routine. But exactly how many times a day should you be washing your face?  

A twice-daily cleansing, morning and night, is just enough to clean away makeup, dirt, and extra oil hanging around on the skin, but not too much to be irritating. If you get sweaty or especially dirty, a third cleansing might be needed. What products you use to cleanse your face is also important. Stronger isn't always better. The skin on your face is delicate, so you don't want to use harsh cleansers or soaps.

Food Intolerances and Diet

So it’s not the stereotypical foods like greasy pizza and chocolate that cause acne, but foods that create a spike in inflammation like dairy and refined carbs can have a profound impact on your skin. Acne sufferers already naturally have   higher levels of inflammation (IGF1) so when something like dairy or refined carbs is consumed, it can cause an excess of insulin or inflammation, resulting in cystic acne.

If you suddenly have a horrible flare-up, despite no historical skin problems, it could be that you’ve recently developed food intolerance. While food intolerances are mainly seen as a digestive issue, skin conditions such as acne are a common symptom of food intolerance.

For a long time, I was in denial of the link between food and skin. I wanted to believe so bad that my acne could be completely cured solely through the use of topical and prescription drugs and that  diet had absolutely nothing to do with it. Deep down this was mainly because I didn’t want to change my diet, I mean who does? 

Acne is of course, genetic, however, that doesn’t mean certain foods won't exasperate or improve your condition.

Examples of potential acne causing foods  are the following:

  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Caffeine
  • Sugar
  • High glycemic food (e.g. nuts and sushi)
  • Alcohol
  • Corn
  • Gluten (e.g wheat and yeast) 


Treating Adult Acne

There are treatment options for  adult acne such as home remedies, over the counter products and prescriptions. However, just like any skin care product, results would vary from one person to another. There are some whose skin improves through OTC remedies and some from other treatments. It takes a lot of patience when you want to see positive outcomes or results for your adult acne.


Home Remedies – Some or several effective home remedies for treating your adult acne may include oral supplements or topical treatments. Household products may also serve as effective home remedies and these are – apple cider vinegar, aloe vera, green tea extract, tea tree oil, zinc, Vitamin A and probiotics.


Medical Treatment – Your dermatologist or skin specialist may prescribe some oral or topical treatments you can take or apply directly to your skin to treat adult acne. These are:  hydroxy (AHA and BHA) and other beneficial acids, oral  birth control pills, spironolactone (Brand name: Aldactone) , antibiotics, retinol (or retin-A), salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, sulfur and  blue light therapy.


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