• What is the difference between adolescent acne and adult onset acne?
  • What are the causes of acne in adults?
  • How can I treat my adult acne?

What is Adult Onset Acne?

You may have thought that the pimple-popping days of your adolescence are far behind you, but are now surprised by regular pimples well into your twenties, thirties and beyond. This is known as adult-onset acne and in most cases, is more common in women than men, however, it can affect both genders. Further information on acne can be found here.

Whilst we’re bombarded with information and advertising targeted at teenage acne, adult acne isn’t as widely discussed. However, a French study found that up to 40% of adult women suffer from persistent breakouts. While teenage acne is caused mostly by excess oil in the glands and is more widespread, appearing commonly on the face, back, chest and shoulders, adult acne is hormonal and tends to appear more severely in more targeted areas such as the jawline, lower face and back.

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How can I tell if my Breakout is Adult Acne?

Adult acne is classed as acne that affects someone past the age of adolescence and is persistent, and tends to be most common in women aged 26-44. Some common ways to tell apart adult acne from the odd breakout include:

You had acne as a teenager: The majority of adult acne sufferers will have presented with acne symptoms in their youth which has either continued into adulthood or flared up again a few years later. So if you had acne in your teens, it may be that your breakouts are more than just random.

You have a relative with adult acne: Almost half of adult acne patients will have at least one first degree relative who had adult acne as well, so your chances are higher if you have a family history.

You can see a pattern of occurrence: As adult acne is hormonal in the majority of cases, it will peak at times where there is a high hormonal activity such as just before your period or at times of high stress. This is because when you’re stressed, your adrenal gland produces the stress hormone cortisol, whilst also releasing testosterone. For a woman, this male hormone can drive the oil glands to produce more oil. If you notice this pattern regularly or are under constant stress, it suggests that your breakout may signal adult acne.

You have other symptoms of hormonal imbalance: Our bodies are complex and therefore, most cases of adult acne may be a symptom of other underlying conditions with one of these being PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) which includes symptoms such as excessive facial and bodily hair as well as irregular periods and fertility problems.
In rare cases, adult acne can signal more serious conditions, so it’s best to visit your GP if your adult acne seems to be persistent and serious.

What are the Treatments Available for Adult Acne?

As with any medical issue, there will be a variety of treatments, and the effectiveness of these will depend on the severity of the acne, past medical history, particularly relating to any previous experiences with acne treatments and the sensitivity of your skin. However it’s important to note that some acne treatments which worked well on your oily teenage skin might actually be drying or irritating on your adult skin.  

Below we’ve compiled a list of the most common treatments for adult acne:

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Home & OTC Remedies

For milder cases of adult acne, there are a number of acne remedies available over-the-counter from your local pharmacy or from beauty stores in the skincare section. Some of the most potent and successful remedies will contain one of the following;

Salicylic Acid: This is mild enough to use all over the face and general body areas, and is readily available in cleansers, toners and acne-targeted treatments.

Benzoyl Peroxide: This is available over the counter in a variety of concentrations, usually 5% or 10%. However, it’s quite drying and is usually recommended only for spot treating to avoid dry, irritated or flaky skin.

Retinol: A vitamin-A derivative usually found in anti-ageing products, however, it’s a great ingredient for treating adult acne as well, particularly in mature skin types which may find other acne treatments harsh or irritating.

These ingredients will help to unclog pores or dry out existing spots, so are good for spot treating, however, they won’t necessarily prevent hormonal acne or treat it completely from the source.

Prescription Treatments

In some cases, your GP may recommend you try something stronger than the OTC options.

Topical treatments include a higher concentration of:

Benzoyl Peroxide:  Duac Gel is an example of Benzoyl Peroxide combined with an antibiotic for clearing up adult acne. It’s available via our online doctor service, so no need to book a GP appointment just for a prescription.

Azelaic Acid: Azelaic acid reduces the growth of the keratin surface skin cells that can block pores. This helps to unblock the pores and sebaceous glands (glands which secrete sebum) and as a result, the sebum can escape. This reduces the formation of blackheads and spots.

Topical Retinoid: Topical retinoids such as adapalene are a commonly prescribed form of adult acne treatment. Differin is an effective topical treatment which takes 4-6 weeks to see results. It’s available directly via our online doctor service.

These are usually enough to treat mild to moderate adult acne, however, those who have more serious acne may be recommended to combine their topical treatment with an oral antibiotic such as isotretinoin which has a high success rate in reducing adult acne with a low risk of serious side effects.

See our range of acne treatments

Oral Contraceptives and Anti-Androgen Therapy

There are a few oral contraceptives which can help to regulate hormones and greatly reduce the occurrence of adult acne. Those used for acne treatment contain ethinylestradiol plus one of the following:

  • Drospirenone
  • Norgestimate

Together, these ingredients target the hormones that can contribute to acne. This can be especially helpful during peaks in hormones, such as during ovulation.  However, oral contraceptives may not be an option for you if you have a history of blood clots, high blood pressure, or breast cancer. You also shouldn’t take these if you smoke.

Androgens are present in males and females, however, females with high levels may end up with high levels of sebum, leading to hormonal acne. The anti-androgen drug spironolactone is sometimes prescribed in cases where high androgen levels are causing the acne, alongside other side effects of high androgen levels.