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16 common causes of adult acne flare-ups

adult acne cause

Acne isn't only a teenager's problem. It's a skin condition that can affect adults too. In fact, adult acne can be even more frustrating because it appears at a time when you least expect it. Adult acne can have numerous causes, ranging from hormonal changes to the use of inappropriate cosmetics. Identifying and understanding these causes is crucial to manage and preventing adult acne flare-ups effectively. Let's delve deeper into these common causes.

Wrong Cosmetics:

Many makeup and skincare products contain oils and other ingredients that can clog pores, leading to breakouts. These are known as comedogenic substances. If you're prone to acne, it's advisable to use non-comedogenic, oil-free products. These products are specially formulated not to block the pores, reducing the risk of acne. A good example of an oil-free product is MDacne's oil-free sunscreen.

Oral Contraceptives:

Some oral contraceptives contain higher levels of progesterone and lower estrogen levels, a balance that can exacerbate acne. Consult your doctor if you're on birth control and struggling with acne. They may be able to recommend a pill that balances your hormones differently or suggest a non-hormonal contraceptive method.

Stopping Oral Contraceptives:

Discontinuing birth control pills can also lead to acne breakouts. This is because the sudden change in hormone levels can trigger an overproduction of sebum (oil), leading to clogged pores and acne. It may be worth discussing with your healthcare provider if you're considering stopping your birth control pills. They might suggest a gradual decrease in dosage or provide other recommendations to help minimize the impact on your skin.

Improper Face Cleansing:

How you cleanse your face can also contribute to acne. Excessive face washing or harsh exfoliators can strip your skin of its natural oils. This can lead to an overproduction of sebum, clogging your pores and leading to breakouts. Ideally, wash your face twice a day using a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser. Also, avoid scrubbing your skin harshly and always pat dry instead of rubbing to minimize irritation. A good example of a mild acne cleanser is the medicated MDacne's hydrating cleanser that provides effective skin cleansing without overdrying the skin and damage to the skin barrier.

Pimple Picking:

Touching your face frequently or picking at your pimples can spread bacteria and cause inflammation, leading to more severe acne and potential scarring. Avoid touching your face unnecessarily, and resist the urge to pick or pop pimples.

Menstrual Cycle:

Hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle can cause acne flare-ups. This is especially true if you experience deep and sometimes painful acne cysts under your chin and jawline. Hormonal acne is typically characterized by its location on the lower part of the face and its cyclical nature, often worsening in the days leading up to menstruation. Check this post for more info on hormonal adult

Certain Medications:

Certain oral medications can cause your skin to break out. These include drugs used to treat epilepsy, drugs containing iodine, and some antidepressants. Some biological agents, particularly TNF alpha inhibitors and immunosuppressants such as azathioprine and ciclosporin, are also known to trigger acne. If you suspect that your medication is causing acne, consult your doctor before discontinuing it. They may be able to suggest an alternative medicine or provide strategies to manage the side effects.

Medications known to cause acne or make acne worse include:

  • Halogens (iodides, chlorides, bromides, halothane)
  • Antiepileptics (carbamazepine, phenytoin, phenobarbital)
  • Antituberculous drugs (ethionamide, isoniazid, rifampicin)
  • Antidepressants (lithium, amoxapine)
  • Ciclosporin
  • Epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors
  • Biologic agents, particularly TNF alpha inhibitors (rare)
  • Azathioprine and ciclosporin

Muscle-building Hormones:

Supplements like whey protein, often used for muscle building, can contribute to acne. Research suggests that consuming whey protein can stimulate the body to produce insulin, which in turn may lead to increased sebum production, promoting acne. If you suspect your protein supplement is causing your acne, consider switching to plant-based, whey-free protein products, which are less likely to cause acne.


An often overlooked cause of acne is toothpaste, especially those that contain fluoride. It is one of the causes of acne around the mouth and lips, often referred to as perioral dermatitis. Fluoride isn't the only potentially problematic ingredient in toothpaste; sodium lauryl sulfate, a common toothpaste ingredient, can also contribute to breakouts. If you notice acne in these areas, you might want to try switching to natural toothpaste without these ingredients.

Hair Products:

What you put in your hair can also impact your skin. Hair gels, sprays, and other styling products can easily seep onto the forehead, clogging the pores and leading to acne. This is often referred to as "pomade acne." Avoid applying too much product near your hairline, and consider switching to non-comedogenic hair products.


Your diet can play a significant role in the health of your skin. While the old myth that greasy foods and chocolate directly cause acne has been largely debunked, certain foods can exacerbate acne. Foods with a high glycemic index, such as white bread, sugary drinks, and fried foods, can spike blood sugar levels, leading to inflammation and increased sebum production. Additionally, some studies have linked dairy products, especially cows' milk, to acne. If you notice your skin diary identify any potential triggers. It's important to note that everyone is different, and what triggers acne in one person may not have the same effect on someone else. Maintaining a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains benefits overall health and can help keep your skin in good condition.


Stress can also be a significant factor in adult acne. When stressed, our bodies produce more cortisol, a hormone that can increase oil production in the skin, resulting in acne. Stress management techniques, such as yoga, meditation, or even regular exercise, can help keep cortisol levels in check and minimize acne flare-ups.

Environmental Factors:

Environmental factors can also influence the occurrence of adult acne. For instance, living in a city with high pollution levels can expose your skin to harmful pollutants that can cause inflammation and clog pores. Additionally, high humidity can cause excessive sweating, which can mix with oils and bacteria on the skin's surface to block pores.


Lastly, genetics can play a role in adult acne. If your parents struggled with acne, you might also be genetically predisposed to it. While you can't change your genes, understanding your genetic risk can help you take proactive steps to manage your skin health.

It's important to remember that everyone's skin is different, and what works for one person might not work for another. It's always a good idea to consult a dermatologist if you're struggling with adult acne. They can help identify the potential causes and provide a tailored treatment plan to help manage them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Why is my acne getting worse as an adult? Adult acne can worsen due to several factors, including hormonal changes, stress, improper skin care routine, certain medications, or even dietary habits.

  2. Does stress cause adult acne? Yes, stress can exacerbate adult acne. When you're stressed, your body produces more cortisol, a hormone that can increase oil production in the skin, potentially leading to acne.

  3. How can I prevent adult acne? Preventing adult acne involves maintaining a consistent skincare routine with products suited to your skin type, managing stress levels, maintaining a balanced diet, and avoiding known triggers. If your acne persists, consider consulting a dermatologist.

  4. Can certain foods cause adult acne? While it's a myth that greasy foods and chocolate directly cause acne, some studies suggest that foods with a high glycemic index and dairy products can exacerbate acne in some people.

  5. Is adult acne common? Yes, adult acne is quite common. It affects about 25% of adult men and 50% of adult women at some point.

  6. Can cosmetics cause adult acne? Certain cosmetics can contribute to adult acne, especially those containing oils and other ingredients that can clog pores. Opt for non-comedogenic, oil-free products to minimize this risk.

  7. Can I still get acne if I wash my face regularly? Yes, you can. Excessive washing can strip your skin of its natural oils, leading to the overproduction of sebum and potentially causing acne. It's recommended to wash your face twice a day with a gentle, non-comedogenic cleanser.

  8. Why do I get acne before my period? Hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle can increase oil production, potentially causing acne. This type of acne is often cyclical and may worsen in the days leading up to menstruation.

  9. Does stopping birth control cause acne? Yes, it can. Discontinuing birth control pills can lead to a sudden change in hormone levels, which can trigger the overproduction of sebum and lead to acne.

  10. Can a workout cause acne? Working out can cause acne if sweat mixes with oils and bacteria on the skin, clogging the pores. Always cleanse your face after a workout to minimize this risk. Also, certain supplements used for muscle building, such as whey protein, can contribute to acne.

Remember, it's crucial to understand the causes of your acne to treat it effectively. If over-the-counter treatments aren't working or your acne is causing you distress, it's time to see a dermatologist. They can provide you with a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and skin type.

In conclusion, adult acne is a common issue caused by various factors, including hormonal changes, diet, stress, certain medications, and even the type of cosmetics you use. By understanding these causes, you can make informed decisions about your skincare routine and lifestyle habits, helping you to manage and potentially prevent acne flare-ups. Your journey to clearer skin may require trial and error, but with patience and perseverance, you'll find the best regimen for you.

More info:

Adult-onset acne: prevalence, impact, and management challenges
9 tips to prevent adult acne breakouts
Best natural skin-clearing supplements for adult acne


  1. Bhate, K., and Williams, H. C. "Epidemiology of Acne Vulgaris." The British Journal of Dermatology 168, no. 3 (2013): 474-485.
  2. Dréno, B., Bettoli, V., Araviiskaia, E., Sanchez Viera, M., and Bouloc, A. "The Influence of Exposome on Acne." Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology 30, no. s5 (2016): 1-8.
  3. Lucky, A. W., Biro, F. M., Huster, G. A., Leach, A. D., Morrison, J. A., and Ratterman, J. "Acne Vulgaris in Premenarchal Girls: An Early Sign of Puberty Associated with Rising Levels of Dehydroepiandrosterone." Archives of Dermatology 133, no. 3 (1997): 308-314.
  4. Draelos, Z. D. "Cosmetics and Acne: Progesterone, Oil-Based Makeups, and Cosmetics-Related Acne." Dermatologic Clinics 31, no. 1 (2013): 119-125.
  5. Silverberg, N. B. "Whey Protein Precipitating Moderate to Severe Acne Flares in 5 Teenaged Athletes." Cutis 72, no. 2 (2003): 161-164.

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