And what to do about it. 

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When I was a teenager, I fantasized about all of the things I would have as an adult: my own apartment, a convertible, and clear skin. As a grownup in her 30s, I still have none of those things, but if I had to choose one, I would pick a zit-free complexion. Hands down.

Breakouts, whether they're giant whiteheads or painful cysts, don't get any easier as you get older. Dealing with acne at any age can be frustrating to say the least — especially when no spot treatment, serum, or mask seems to work. That's because the first step to effectively getting your acne under control is understanding why you keep breaking out in the first place.

Here, we explain the most common causes of adult acne, along with the best treatment options.


Yes, your hormones surge during puberty, but these levels change throughout your menstrual cycle every month. "This [adult acne] is more common in women than in men because of ongoing hormonal fluctuations, but some men experience adult acne as well," says AcneFree consulting dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. "Approximately 54 percent of adult women experience acne, versus around 10 percent of adult men."

Typically, hormone-driven breakouts peak right before or at the start of your period and can be difficult to treat. Dr. King says that if topical acne treatments that contain ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide don't work, birth control or anti-androgen medication spironolactone may need to be prescribed by your dermatologist.


"Adult acne is primarily caused by genetics and hormones, but stress levels and diet affect hormones and therefore also play a part," says Dr. King. "Foods with a high glycemic index may contribute to acne in some people, and dairy products may also be a factor for some people." There are studies that suggest that it's the fat in dairy that's linked to acne while others have said it's the sugar in fat-free dairy products that can trigger breakouts.

While more research needs to be done to solidify the link between food and breakouts, if you think that your diet might be the culprit behind your acne, Dr. King suggests trying a diet that's rich in vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and healthy fats. "Focus on foods that have a low glycemic index and are dairy-free to see if this makes a difference in your breakouts."

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If you're using comedogenic products and keep breaking out, it might be time to switch up your skincare routine. These products are made with ingredients that have the potential to clog your pores and lead to blemishes. When looking for new products, err on the side of caution. Dr. King says that adult skin tends to be less oily than teenage skin, so look for gentler formulations. She suggests AcneFree's Sensitive Skin 24 Hour Acne Clearing System, which includes a cleanser, toner, and lotion. "In this kit, the products are designed to hydrate, moisturize, and minimize over-drying while still being effective for acne," she says.


It's true: The air quality of where you live might be what's causing your acne. "Air pollution, including smog, chemicals, and toxins, can clog your pores and contribute to an acne flare," says Dr. King. If you think that air might be what's exacerbating your acne, she says to wash your face with a gentle cleanser twice a day. Kiehl's Dermatologist Solutions Centella Sensitive Facial Cleanser is a creamy cleanser formulated with centella asiatica, a plant extract that's known for its efficiency on sensitive skin types.

No matter the cause of your acne, Dr. King says that trying over-the-counter topical treatments are a good place to start. While salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and adapalene (a retinoid) are some of the most effective options on shelves, they can all be extremely irritating.

"Remember that these products can be irritating to the skin so proceed with caution," she says "Use moisturizers as needed, and decrease the frequency of application if you're not tolerating daily use."

If your acne gets worse or is extremely severe, the best course of action is making an appointment with your dermatologist to discuss prescription oral and topical treatment options.