By Erin Lukas
Updated Apr 28, 2016 @ 7:00 pm
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As teens, we always imagined that entering our 20s would be marked with clear, blemish free complexions. In reality, you can still experience massive breakouts even after you’ve become a bona fide adult, and dealing with acne doesn’t get any easier with age.

If your complexion is still acting like it’s in high school, you’re not alone. According to a study conducted in 2008 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, women suffer acne breakouts more frequently than men, and about half of adults age 20-29 suffer from acne breakouts. Approximately 35% of women aged 30-39 have breakouts, 26% of 40-49 year-old women, and 15% of women 50 years and older.

The first step in crushing breakouts as an adult is pinpointing its cause. We spoke with Dr. Michelle Palm MD, MBA, Director of Art Of Skin in Solana Beach, Calif. on what factors commonly trigger acne when we’re well-behind our teen years, and how to tackle these breakouts head-on.


Although acne is most prevalent during adolescence, if you’re still experiencing breakouts as an adult you make be able to thank your parents for that. Your family’s genetics can be to blame for your blemishes and since there’s no way to change your genes, it can’t be prevented. The silver lining is that there’s a variety of treatment options that can help speed up the healing of both whiteheads and blackheads. Dr. Palm notes that depending on the severity of the breakout, a combination of over-the-counter and prescription-strength topical and oral treatments, peels, and even light or laser therapy can be used to treat unsightly pimples.

Beauty Products

That’s right, that new blush or shampoo you’ve been dying to try can cause acne. “Makeup not labeled non-comedogenic, and hair styling products can clog pores leading to breakouts in the area of use,” explains Dr. Palm. Although it might pain you to throw away a barely-used product, Dr. Palm recommends stopping using the offending product immediately to prevent further breakouts, and treat current blemishes with a spot treatment containing glycolic or salicylic acid.


Although our hormones surge during adolescence, adult females from the ages of 20-40 may experience acne due to changes in hormone levels through their menstrual cycles. Typically, these breakouts worsen right before, or at the start of menses. Since these blemishes are driven by the body’s hormone production, it’s difficult to prevent acne that’s the product of changing levels but there are ways of treating it. “Female adult hormonal acne requires medical management,” says Dr. Palm. “Therapies most effective include low-dose estrogen or progesterone birth control pills, an anti-androgen medication spironolactone (a medication that counteracts the effects that high levels of testosterone has on the skin), or a combination of both. These oral medications are often combined with good prescription topical medications.”


A medication you’re taking for another ailment can, in fact, make you break out. Dr. Palm points out that topical, inhaled, or anabolic steroids, like cortisone for example, can cause breakouts related to using the medication. Luckily, there’s a quick fix for this: stop using the medication if you begin to experience abnormal breakouts once you begin using it, and treat the existing blemishes until they’re clear.


This chronic skin condition not only produces redness, but one form called papulopustular rosacea, is characterized by whiteheads and inflammatory acne lesions that typically pop up on the middle of the face. “The best way to avoid rosacea-related breakouts is to avoid triggers that can make it worse like exposing oneself to extreme changes in temperature, extreme exercise, hot beverages, spicy food, and alcohol,” explains Dr. Palm. If extra enforcement is needed to keep these symptoms under control, she recommends regularly applying sunscreen and a gentle moisturizer to avoid aggravating sensitive skin, along with a topical treatment that contains an active ingredient like sulfur, benzoyl peroxide, or ivermectin, most of which require a prescription.


Although it’s rare compared to the other causes of adult acne, diet can be the culprit behind pesky breakouts. Dr. Palm says that the only foods medically linked to acne are dairy and simple carbohydrates. Since it’s relatively unlikely these foods are the source behind your blemishes, she doesn’t recommend practicing dietary restrictions against acidic or inflammatory foods unless your doctor has recommended doing so.