Like grunge clothing and your 90210 obsession, your teenage acne seemed like a passing phase -- except many of us are still breaking out in our 30s, 40s, and even 50s. What gives?
Both teen and adult acne are triggered by hormones. When you were a teen, puberty was the driving force. Now that you're all grown-up, those shifting hormones are typically caused by grown-up things: pregnancy, menopause, even stress from your job, explains Karen Hammerman, M.D., a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. The aging process can also make your skin more vulnerable to breakouts. "As you age, the cellular walls around pores weaken," says Hammerman. "This makes your pores stretch out and become larger, which means they're more likely to become clogged with surface dirt and debris from the skin's top layer," she says.
The end result: a whopper of a zit -- or several. But unlike the oil slick that was your skin as a teen, your complexion now tends to be drier (with some oily patches) and more sensitive. Treating it with the products you once used as a teen will only cause dryness and irritation. We asked Hammerman to share some "grown-up" ways to tackle adult acne.
Acne products are typically formulated for a super-oily teen -- too harsh for adult skin, which is more fragile, dry, and more sensitive, says Hammerman. If you're easily irritated, don't go for full-strength active ingredients such as 10 percent benzoyl peroxide and 2 percent salicylic acid. "Stick to benzoyl peroxide products in the three percent range and salicylic acid gels, pads, and cleansers in the half percent range," says Hammerman. Try Paula's Choice Clear Regular Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment with 2.5 percent ($17, paulaschoice.com). On the natural front, tea tree oil is known to reduce acne-causing bacteria and quell inflammation. Try The Body Shop Tea Tree Blemish Fade Night Lotion ($20, ulta.com).
Topical retinoids (like over-the-counter retinol) have been proven to clear up zits by preventing dead skin cells from clogging pores. They've also been proven to tighten pores and smooth fine lines and wrinkles by promoting collagen growth. So, why aren't you using one? Try Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0 ($72, skinceuticals.com), which also contains skin-calming bisabolol to off-set any irritation.
Washing your face is crucial for preventing acne. To make it more effective, Hammerman suggests looking for a cleanser with salicylic acid and alpha hydroxy acids (think glycolic or lactic acids) to help gently exfoliate pore-clogging dead skin as you wash. Hammerman likes June Jacobs Anti-Aging Blemish Control Foaming Cleanser ($48, junejacobs.com), which combines salicylic acid with lactic and malic acids, tea tree oil, and skin-soothers such as turmeric.
"It's widely agreed that diet plays more of a role in adult acne than it does with teen breakouts," says Hammerman. Dermatologists have ID'd sugar as one of the biggest culprits. Raised insulin levels from sugary, refined carbohydrates may trigger a release of hormones that inflame follicles and increase oil production, she says. In addition to reducing sugar, Hammerman suggests increasing your intake of omega fatty acids (find them in salmon, walnuts, and flax, or in fish oil supplements) to reduce underlying inflammation that can trigger acne.
Physical activity can help acne in two ways: It reduces stress levels, which will help keep those acne-causing stress hormones in check. "It also helps your skin by increasing your blood circulation, which sends more oxygen to your skin cells and carries cell waste away," she says. Just be sure to shower right after, as sitting in sweaty workout clothes can cause breakouts.
The products you use in your hair can also contribute to pimples. "Pomade acne is a breakout caused by hair care products including conditioner, shampoo, gel, and hairspray," says Hammerman. It happens when those stylers seep into skin, usually around the hairline, and trap acne-causing bacteria, she says. If you're breakout prone, switch to oil-free stylers and try to keep hair strands off your skin.
If different products and lifestyle tweaks aren't doing the trick, you may need to enlist the help of a dermatologist. Cystic acne can benefit from a cortisone injection, which shrinks bumps down fast, says Hammerman. Those with severe hormonal acne (usually on the jawline and chin area) may need a prescription to help get hormones back on track. Dermatologists are also seeing good results from blue light therapy, which uses blue light wavelengths to kill acne bacteria, and Isolaz, a treatment that combines a bacteria-killing laser with a suction device to deep-clean pores.