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Bad News for Boomers: Middle-Aged Acne Common, Especially Among Women


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Oct. 27, 1999 (Atlanta) -- It's usually considered an adolescent problem, but new research finds significant facial acne can persist well into adulthood, especially in women.

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, focuses on 749 adults from age 25 to 58. Many of the subjects, including most of the women, had some form of acne -- mainly mild. But when it came to severe cases of acne, four times as many women were affected than men.

Specifically, the researchers found acne to be present in 54% of adult women and in 40% of men. Severe acne was found in 12% of the women and in 3% of the men -- and those subjects overwhelmingly reported (82%) that their adult acne was a carry-over from adolescence.

The study did contain a bit of good news for adult acne sufferers: while mild acne continued past the age of 45 in about a third of the participants, severe acne virtually disappeared as subjects approached that age.

The researchers say their study was prompted, at least in part, by a sharp upswing in the average age of patients referred to the dermatology department at the Leeds General Infirmary in Leeds, England -- from 20.5 years a decade ago to 26.5 years now. But dermatologists who spoke with WebMD say they're not sure whether a trend seen in doctors' offices can necessarily translate over to the general population.

"One problem is, we only see the patients who walk into our office," says Gary Peck, MD, at the Washington (DC) Hospital Center. "But certainly in a particular setting, there are lots of women in their 20s and 30s who have mild forms of acne." Peck is the director of clinical research in the dermatology department.

Peck says he's not sure whether that indicates an increased prevalence of adult acne or simple "pimple paranoia" -- given even small acne outbreaks are sometimes enough to send adults hurrying off to the dermatologist's office. Peck attributes this hypersensitivity in part to the "perfect skin" image presented in some magazines.

Another dermatologist says a sizeable prevalence of adult acne is about what he'd expect. "Most dermatologists treat more adult acne than adolescent acne," says Christopher Harmon MD, a dermatologist in private practice who is also an instructor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. "The myth is that acne is an adolescent disease."

In fact, Harmon says escaping acne's wrath during adolescence offers no guarantee it won't get you later. "The most common statement I hear men and women make is, 'I'm 30 years old and look at all these zits ... and I didn't have any as a teenager.'" Harmon explains some cases of adult acne occur as a response to changes in the bacteria of the skin -- a normal development -- and subsequent infection of the pores. He says other forms of adult acne include acne rosacea, which usually pops up after the age of 25, and in women, there's also perioral dermatitis which is characterized by acne lesions around the mouth and nose, plus dry, itchy skin.

One thing the study's authors say doesn't change between adult and adolescent acne is its potential psychological impact. Their advice: treat problematic outbreaks as early as possible. Harmon agrees, "We know the sooner we're treating acne ... the greater we impact the disease."

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