Adult Acne Is A Bummer – Here's How To Deal

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I’ve battled adult acne since I was, well, an adult. I only had the occasional (but nevertheless mortifying) pimple when I was in middle and high school. The year I was finishing college and was engaged to my long-time boyfriend was also the year I faced major breakouts that no amount of foundation could conceal. We ordered a then-popular skincare line by mail, and I slowly saw some improvements. I chalked up my adult acne to the stress of working two jobs, planning a wedding, and going to school full time. After the wedding, moving, and taking a summer off, my acne disappeared. Well, for a time period, anyway.

Throughout my adult years, my acne has come and gone. After a particularly bad breakout last winter, which I think was an allergic reaction, I finally went to a dermatologist. She offered me a few topicals, plus warnings to avoid anything that would clog my pores. She also said that acne can take three months or longer to clear up, so I shouldn’t expect immediate results. Much to my dismay, the topicals did little for me. It was only when I made some major dietary changes and drastically simplified my skin care regime that I saw some improvement. This leads me to wonder, for those of us with adult acne, how do we know if our zits are caused by a dietary or dermatology issue?

If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of products out there that promise to give you a blemish-free complexion. Additionally, there’s always cosmetics to cover up the redness, bumps, and scarring. If you’re wondering if those products are pricey, the answer is yes, they are. Plus, attempting to clear up your skin while concealing the zits is trial and error.

Scary Mommy reached out to Dr. Annie Gonzalez in Miami and Dr. Gretchen Frieling Board Certified Boston Area Dermatopathologist, to get to the bottom of the adult acne frustrations. We’re tired of handing over our hard-earned cash on products that don’t work, and in some cases, make our skin worse. Plus, what if the root cause of our pimples is something we’re eating? All the facial cleansers, toners, and moisturizers in the world won’t be able to fix an internal issue.

Whom to see first for adult acne?

Dr. Gonzalez says it’s best for a person struggling with adult acne to visit a dermatologist first, because acne is a common problem that dermatologists deal with. “A dermatologist specializes in the treatment of hair, skin, and hails whereas a dietitian or allergist may not have the same information and resources.” However, this doesn’t mean a dermatologist is your be-all, end-all. Dr. Gonzalez told us that a dermatologist can refer a patient to other specialists if necessary.

What causes adult acne?

Dr. Gonzalez says the primary causes of adult acne include physical and emotional stress, hormones, clogged pores, diet, and contact irritation. Hormonal acne may be caused by fluctuations or too much of a hormone which can result in “a pH imbalance of the skin, inflammation, and excess sebum production” (AKA: oil). Stress is problematic in that it can “create biological changes in the body” which is an acne trigger. Anything that rubs the skin, like a mask, razor, or scrub, can irritate, weakening the skin’s protective barrier. There’s some evidence — though not much — that certain foods like dairy, greasy foods, and high-sugar foods may be the culprit (or at least, a contributor).

If at first you don’t succeed, then what?

Dr. Gonzalez wants you to give your prescribed treatment a fair shot, which is ten to twelve weeks. After this, you might need to try a different route, such as a new medication. She wants us to know that it can take time to find the right treatment for your adult acne. Yes, friends, patience is needed.

But it’s hard to be patient with adult acne.

Dr. Frieling suggests we give treatments four to six weeks to begin showing results, and during this time, it is possible we will see more breakouts. She explains, “Whenever we introduce our skin to a new product, especially a chemical exfoliator with strong acids or retinol creams, it has to bring out the junk before getting rid of it.” She also shared that some active ingredients – specifically vitamin A, BHAs, and AHAs — “trigger cell turnover, prompting your skin to exfoliate.” While we prefer a speedier process, we need to know that breaking out isn’t always bad. Rather, it’s a necessary evil in order to bring out what’s lying in the skin’s deeper layers.

What about natural and homemade products?

Dr. Frieling warns us, “Don’t expect the same results as a clinically tested product.” Natural treatments may not only be ineffective, but unfortunately, might even pose danger due to the ingredients. She also says that patients may have allergies, then haphazardly slather products with unknown ingredients onto their faces. She acknowledges that DIY treatments might be more cost effective, and they aren’t always dangerous.

Adult acne can have an emotional impact on a patient.

Anyone who has suffered from adult acne can tell you that blemishes and scarring aren’t just a physical issue. Just like a teenager can have an epic freakout session over a single pimple, an adult can struggle emotionally with their ongoing battle with acne. Dr. Frieling shares, “Certain studies have found that those who suffer from acne experience social, psychological, and emotional problems similar to those with chronic health issues.” If you find yourself canceling social plans due to your acne, it’s time to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.

I was hoping that by my age (close to forty!), I would no longer be combating acne. What I’ve learned is that the journey to clearer skin is rarely quick and simple, but there are products and changes that can help. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan or perfect, natural treatment which is why having experienced, educated professionals guide you is important. My skin isn’t flawless, but I’ve seen a lot of improvement by visiting both a dietitian and a dermatologist.

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