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Adult Acne: Why You Get It, How to Fight It

By Amanda Gardner
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD

Acne isn’t just for teens. Many people have it as adults.

Temi Zeitenberg got acne in college, just as most people her age were outgrowing it. Because of her acne, "there were times I would not leave the house," says Zeitenberg, an attorney in Boca Raton, Fla.  

It doesn't have to be that way. There are steps you can take to turn your skin around at any age.

What Causes Adult Acne?

There are many reasons you can break out as an adult. Stress or changes in your hormone levels, like menopause or switching or stopping birth control pills, are two possibilities.

Some medications, including lithium, antiseizure drugs, and corticosteroids, can cause acne.

Your dermatologist can help you figure out why your acne is happening. In some cases, it may be related to another condition.

Daily Skin Care

"It's very important to cleanse your skin every day," says dermatologist Doris Day, MD, of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Follow these steps:

  1. Wash your face no more than twice a day.
  2. Use cool or warm water and a gentle cleanser.
  3. Use your hands, a baby washcloth (it's gentler than a regular one), or a cleansing brush for 30 seconds].
  4. Pat (don't rub) your skin dry.

The types of products you can use to curb your acne include:

Cleansers.  Cleansers wash away dirt, grime, makeup, and pollution, Day says. A good cleanser will also let other skin products reach your skin and work better. Choose gentle cleaners that won’t strip your skin, says Jonette Keri, MD, PhD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Over-the-Counter Creams and Lotions. Retinoid creams or lotions can help clear your skin and also lessen wrinkles.  Products made with sulfur can be good for the occasional spot treatment.  Benzoyl peroxide is another acne fighter. Use benzoyl peroxide products only occasionally, because they can dry out your skin, Day says. You could also try a milder benzoyl peroxide product.

Cosmetics: Some cosmetics include salicylic acid, which fights acne. In general, look for skin care products that say on the label that they are noncomedogenic (which means they don't clog pores) or non-acnegenic (they don’t cause breakouts).

Prescription Medications: Medications that affect hormones, like birth control pills, can help control acne. You might also discuss antibiotic pills and prescription retinoids with your dermatologist. There are also antibiotics that are effective. Doctors may prescribe Aldactone (spironolactone), which was first made to treat high blood pressure, to treat acne. "That works miracles but it can take three months to kick in," Day says. Isotretinoin is another prescription drug for acne, but you can't take it if you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant.

High-tech solutions: Light therapy, or PDT, uses lasers to treat acne. Some people say it hurts.  Vacuum therapy also works with lights. Both of these options can be expensive.

Don’t pop your pimples. Your dermatologist can likely treat the problem in their office.

After years of struggling with different treatments, Zeitenberg now has her acne under control. She takes Aldactone twice a day as well as birth control pills. She cleans her face both morning and night, and uses retinoid or benzoyl peroxide wash as needed.

"I don't even know how to put it in words," she says of the changes to her skin. "I can leave the house without makeup."

Reviewed on August 23, 2013

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