Acne isn’t just a problem for teenagers. Many adults also have acne. Around 80% of adult acne cases affect women, thought to be because of changing hormone levels during periods, pregnancy, medical conditions such as PCOS, or as a side effect of medication.
Adult acne picture
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Exactly what causes acne? Acne develops when dead skin cells and natural oils (sebum) block up tiny hair follicles in the skin. Bacteria work their way into the plugged-up follicles and start multiplying. When the body's immune cells move in to attack the bacteria, the results of the battle are the classic symptoms of acne - swelling, redness and spots.
Acne medications help by interrupting this process in different ways. Some over-the-counter and prescription acne creams help by unplugging the follicles. Others - such as antibiotics - kill the bacteria that move into the follicles and reduce inflammation. Oral retinoids such as isotretinoin work differently by reducing the amount of oil secreted by glands in the skin.
There is no single best acne or spot treatment. Some people do well using one acne cream, while many need a combination of approaches to control their acne.
What causes acne?
Acne can also be a side effect of some medication, including steroids, and lithium that may be prescribed for depression and bipolar disorder.
How does adult acne differ from teenage acne?
Adult acne differs markedly from the spots of your teenage years, both in how it appears and how it’s treated.
In teenagers, you’ll mostly see lots of tiny bumps, blackheads or whiteheads on the skin of the face, especially the forehead, along with occasional cysts on the chest and back. That’s because teens’ skin tends to be a little stickier and they’re more likely than adults to get clogged pores.
In adults, acne is more likely to appear on the lower part of the face, especially around the mouth and jawline. It’s usually deeper nodules or red papules in those areas. The fine little bumps of teen acne can still happen in adulthood, but it’s much less common.
What can adults do about acne?
If you’re troubled by more than the occasional breakout, don’t try to treat yourself with the same products aimed at teenagers.
Most of the over-the-counter products involve salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, which are good for whiteheads and pustules, but not so effective against deeper adult acne.
Talk to your doctor about prescription treatments. Your doctor may recommend one treatment, or suggest combining a cream with an oral medication.
You have several options:
- Prescription creams containing retinoids (derived from vitamin A) to help unplug follicles.
- Combination creams that combine the cleansing agent benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics such as clindamycin.
- Oral contraceptives, which can regulate the hormonal fluctuations that spark breakouts.
- Oral antibiotics, which also act as anti-inflammatories.