Best treatments for adult acne

Woman with adult hormonal acne

If you thought your acne days were over when you entered adulthood, the truth is, adult acne exists and it’s on the rise! For many women, this means fighting acne on top of your already extensive efforts to preventing signs of aging.

The unfortunate reality is that dermatology is finding more and more adult women are suffering from acne. Some of the latest stats show that more than 50 percent of women in their 20s and 25 percent of women in their 30s still struggle with acne. Thankfully, acne—even adult acne—is totally treatable! If you’re still suffering from frequent breakouts, read below to help understand what’s causing them and what you can do to get your adult acne under control.

What is the difference between teen acne and adult acne?

Woman struggling with acne


Besides both being extremely annoying, teen and adult acne are similar in that they can both appear in the form of red papules, pustules, and even deep cysts. That being said, there are some discernible differences between the two conditions that are important to take note of;

  • Location: One of the main differences between teen and adult acne is the location of the breakouts (i.e. those friendly zits). Teen acne usually appears on the foreheads and cheeks while adult acne tends to be more prevalent on the lower parts of the face, such as around the mouth, chin, and under the jawline.

  • Persistence: While teen acne is usually easily treatable with the right topical products (and sometimes oral medication), adult acne tends to be a bit more stubborn and difficult to treat...but not impossible!

  • Causes: The triggers of teen and adult acne are also different. While hormonal changes can play a part in influencing both conditions, adult acne is more sensitive to things like monthly cycle hormonal fluctuations as well as diet, lifestyle, and cosmetics.

What are the main causes of adult acne?

While there are a variety of factors that can influence adult acne, we can thank our parents and endocrine system—i.e. genetics and hormonal changes—the most.

That being said, additional factors such as stress, certain medications & supplements, as well as use of the wrong skincare and cosmetics (everything from cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen to makeup and hair products) can also trigger and exacerbate adult acne. What’s even more frustrating is that a lot our attempts to clear these breakouts—such as popping pimples, applying certain topical treatments, and even taking certain supplements (looking at you, Biotin!)—can make the acne worse by causing trauma and irritation to the skin and spreading the acne bacteria to other regions of the face.

What are the effects of using the wrong skincare products on adult acne?

Woman struggling with acne applying makeup in mirror

In your younger years, you may have found that a basic skincare routine was sufficient to keep your skin clear, while some of us may have even washed our face with hand soap (or not at all!) in high school without issue. So it may come as a frustrating surprise that your go-to products and even fancy creams and serums from drugstores or Sephora aren’t helping. In fact, you may find the more products you try, your acne condition ends up even worse.

The bottom line: unless your skincare products are oil-free or clearly labeled for non-comedogenic or formulated acne-prone skin, they are likely contributing to your breakouts. A good rule of thumb? Make sure that all of the cosmetics you’re using are labeled oil-free and non-comedogenic products.

Does exfoliation help with adult acne?
Woman with sand on her face

Exfoliators are one example of a skincare product that’s likely doing more harm than good for your acne. While it may seem like a good idea to exfoliate in order to slough away dead skin cells and prevent clogged pores, exfoliators tend to over-irritate the skin, damaging the skin's protective layer, and ultimately cause more breakouts down the line.

If you’re finding it hard to part with your favorite exfoliating brush or treatment, you don’t have to consider a full breakup. But as long you’re experiencing blemishes, you’ll want to take a break from these products. Once the acne has improved, you may be able to re-introduce gentle exfoliators back into your routine.

Can you treat adult acne with over-the-counter medications?

It is certainly possible to treat—and even completely clear—adult acne with the right over-the-counter medications, so no need to run straight to your dermatologist to get a prescription medication(s). That being said, because adult acne is usually more persistent and therefore a bit more challenging to treat, best results usually require a multi-pronged approach:

  1. Topical Treatment: The first, most important step to treating adult acne is finding a good topical routine with medical-grade acne treatment medications suited to your skin type and acne severity. To help find the right products for your skin, take the free MDacne skin analysis.
  2. Cosmetics: Switching to oil-free makeup and cosmetics to ensure they don’t hinder the effects of your skincare products. If possible, wearing less makeup (or none!) to help the acne clear faster.
  3. Diet and Lifestyle: Committing to lifestyle changes known to help improve adult acne such as improving your diet, stress reduction, exercise, etc.

What are the best ingredients to treat adult acne?
Woman with adult acne applying MDacne treatment cream to face

Salicylic Acid & Benzoyl Peroxide: Luckily, the same ingredients used to treat teen acne are usually very effective at treating adult acne too! The key is to use the right formulas, concentrations, and application technique for your skin. Salicylic Acid (2%) and Benzoyl Peroxide (up to 2.5%) can both be very effective for people who have adult acne with inflamed pimples.

Micronized Formulates: While traditional forms of Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide are usually very effective, they can also be somewhat irritating for many. New, micronized forms these ingredients (smaller particles) such as those in MDacne products can penetrate deeper into the skin pores for better efficacy with less irritation.

Natural Ingredients: While natural ingredients can seem very appealing, they, unfortunately, have little effect on treating acne on their own, particularly persistent adult acne. That begin said, natural ingredients like aloe vera, vitamin c, and other plant extracts can be a great addition acne medications to help increase the efficacy of these ingredients, reduce irritation, and improve the skin’s ability to heal more quickly.

Retinoids: Retinoids are a family of products derived from vitamin A. These retinoids are used as an oral treatment for acne (i.e. Accutane and Isotretinoin) and as topical treatments (prescription and over-the-counter) for mild acne. Retinoids (0.25% - 0.5% OTC) are more suitable for people who experience most a few whiteheads and blackheads and not as much for inflammatory and cystic acne. People with adult acne should avoid gel-based topical retinoids (i.e. adapalene found in Epiduo and Differin), which tend to be more drying and irritating and opt for cream-based preparations instead.

What are the best oral medications to help with adult acne?

Acne treatment supplements in a bowl

  • Birth Control: You may have heard of people going on the birth control pill in their teenage years to help treat their acne. Turns out, the same method can be used for adult acne since some oral contraceptives do hormone-balancing effects that have beneficial effects on acne. That being said, it is important to speak with your doctor or gynecologist first as birth control may not be the best choice for everyone. Additionally, not every hormonal birth control has a positive effect on acne and some can even worsen the condition. Check out the best birth control pills and IUDs for women with acne before talking to your provider so you can go to your appointment informed.
  • Spironolactone: Another great oral medication to help with adult and hormonal acne is a drug called Spironolactone. While this medication is non-hormonal, it can help balance hormones by blocking male-hormones (androgens) like testosterone, which can contribute to oil production and ultimately cause acne in excess.
  • Accutane: Accutane (Isotretinoin) is considered the strongest, most efficacious medication for the treatment and long-term prevention of acne. That being said, Accutane is a very intense drug with many potential (sometimes severe) side effects. For this reason, it should be considered a "last resort" treatment for acne that does not respond well to topical treatments and/or other oral medications.

Best skincare products for adult acne

Now that we know the most effective ingredients to treat adult acne (Salicylic Acid, Benzoyl Peroxide, and Retinoids), how do we choose from the variety of acne treatment products available? The challenge in acne treatment is that even the right ingredients in the wrong forms, doses, or application can get in the way of effective treatment. That’s why we believe it is incredibly important to customize your treatment to your skin type, acne severity, persistence, and sensitives for the best results.

While you may be able to find the right combination of products with trial and error, this can be a frustrating and long process...not to mention, expensive! MDacne works differently by providing personalized acne treatment based on an at-home skin analysis. The skin analysis is totally free and you can try your first customized acne treatment kit for just the cost of shipping ($9). MDacne products combine medical-grade ingredients with plant-based ingredients, such as green tea and vitamins E and C, all of which help reduce irritation, which is super important for people with adult acne and sensitive skin. Click here to take your skin analysis and get your free trial!

*Remember: once you do find the right products—from MDacne or elsewhere— it’s super important that you stick to commit to your treatment plan. As a general rule for acne treatment, you should see initial improvement with your products within 4-6 weeks and optimal results in 12 weeks.

Additional tips to help with adult acne:

Woman with acne caused by stress and excess cortisol

While an effective topical treatment—and for some, the addition of oral medication—is the most important part of effective treatment of adult acne, there are additional things you can do now to help take your treatment to the next level;

  • Stop Touching & Picking: While it can be tempting to try to extract pimple to get rid of them heal faster, resist the temptation to pop, touch, or pick. The chances are high that you'll end up doing more harm than good the more you touch your face.

  • Improve Your Diet: Certain dietary choices are known to contribute to and conversely, help with the treatment of acne. Check out this blog to learn more about which foods to limit and which you should be adding into your diet!

  • Make Lifestyle Changes: Because adult acne has a large hormonal component, stress can seriously exacerbate the condition by spiking cortisol levels and throwing off the delicate hormone balance. The challenge is that when you have acne you tend to stress out, even more, causing a vicious cycle. Make sure you find ways to reduce daily stress such as exercise, yoga, deep breathing/medication, and most importantly...sleep!

  • Patience: Finally, while we know it’s super hard to be patient treating adult acne when you wanted it gone, like yesterday, it’s so important to be patient! Any effective acne treatment—both oral and topical or combination—takes time to show improvement in the skin. It’s important to be patient, stay hopeful, and to stick it out. Switching your routine every other week will only make things worse! If after 3-4 months of your treatment, you do not see significant results, you can then assess and make changes accordingly.

For more information about adult acne, read additional articles from dermatologist Dr. Yoram Harth here!

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