Common causes and first line solutions to the pesky problem of adult acne

We talk to a derm about what's really behind the pimples that crop up well beyond our teen years.

We talk to a derm about what's really behind the pimples that crop up well beyond our teen years

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Think you left those pesky pimples behind in your teenage years? Think again. It's not uncommon for acne to pop up again — or appear for the first time! — later in life. According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, acne affects 20 to 30 per cent of adults aged 20 to 40. Fighting acne and fine lines and wrinkles?! Life is so unfair.

So what's causing it? Unfortunately, there isn't one specific cause. "There are so many different factors that play a role in why we break out and where we break out," says Lindsay Barras, education manager at skin care company Dermalogica Canada. She explains that hormones, stress and certain lifestyle factors can all play a role.

While the cause of adult acne is definitely multifactorial, Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto dermatologist and owner of DLK on Avenue, says she often sees women with acne that's been caused by the products they're using on their skin. "When patients first come to see me, we do a product review," she says. "Adult women with acne should avoid heavy creams, lotions and oils." 

If the acne is significant, Dr. Kellett says she will look at a patient's full medical history and at other symptoms that might indicate an underlying health condition. In some cases, acne can be indeed be related to hormones, she says. For example, some adult women who have acne also have polycystic ovary syndrome.

Regular monthly hormone fluctuations can also trigger breakouts. This "cyclical acne" shows up before your period, or it might flare up during pregnancy or menopause, and may help explain why adult acne overwhelmingly affects women: The Canadian Dermatology Association reports that 75 per cent of adult acne occurs in women.

When it comes to stress, says Dr. Kellett, it doesn't cause acne — but it can make it worse. And between work obligations, bill payments, family life and a busy social calendar, it's no surprise that Canadian adults report their stress levels peaking between the ages of 35 to 49. "Stress causes an increase in oil production," she explains. "When someone is stressed, they might also pick at their skin, which can make acne worse."

And as for the theory that our occasional salty, fried, rich or junk food indulgences are causing our acne, there's no strong evidence to support that claim, says Dr. Kellett. "But what I do tell patients is that they should have a good balanced diet with lots of vegetables. If you have the odd piece of chocolate, that's not going to cause acne; but if you eat chocolate every day, that could definitely have an impact."

So, what's the best way to treat adult acne? Dr. Kellett says gel-based products will ensure you're still getting moisture, but they usually won't break you out. She also often recommends topical benzoyl peroxide and exfoliating cleansers. 

For persistent or severe cases of adult acne, Dr. Kellett recommends seeing a dermatologist, who might suggest you try an in-office treatment. "Blue-light therapy and epidermal peels are helpful," she says. "For cystic acne, we [may] do something like photodynamic therapy."

Luckily one of the best anti-aging ingredients out there — regular ol' retinol, perhaps already the star of some of your products at home — also happens to be an effective treatment for some blemishes. "If you have comedonal acne [like blackheads and whiteheads], retinol can be helpful," says Dr. Kellett. 

Here are some newer at-home products suitable for adults battling acne.

Not only is this serum designed to clear and prevent breakouts, but it also aims to target visible signs of skin aging. Ingredients include salicylic acid to gently treat blemishes, plus a combination of niacinamide and white shiitake mushroom extract that, according to Dermalogica, will help brighten and even out skin tone.

Age Bright Clearing Serum, $89, dermalogica.ca

This refreshing gel cleanser features salicylic acid to help fight acne and reduce oil production, as well as grape seed polyphenols, which have antioxidant effects, to address aging skin.

Vinopure Purifying Gel Cleanser, $34, Caudalie

Mix your own custom, peel-off mask with this new release from The Body Shop. With its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, the tea tree oil inside works to treat and calm blemished skin. Unlike some peel-off masks that can tug at skin on removal, this one is gentle enough for sensitive or mature skin.

Tea Tree Anti-Imperfection Peel-Off Mask, $8, The Body Shop

While some acne cleansers can be harsh and strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to dehydration which can worsen the look of lines and wrinkles, this clarifying formula aims to offer up a deep cleanse while moisturizing and soothing the skin. Salicylic acid helps control and clear acne, while honey and rice extracts have hydrating benefits.

Acne Clarifying Cleanser, $67, AlumierMD

Featuring encapsulated retinol, this formula is effective for acne and anti-aging yet still gentle enough to use daily (like all retinol products, gradually work up to daily use). The addition of antioxidants like Tasmanian berry extract also protect the skin from environmental aggressors like pollution and UV rays.

Reversa Retin[A]List Cream, $60, Shoppers Drug Mart (Available Sept. 1)

Beautycounter's latest launch harnesses the power of buzzy bakuchiol, a plant-derived ingredient with skin care benefits some are comparing to retinol. The bakuchiol encourages cellular turnover, while Swiss alpine rose extract has antioxidant effects.

Countertime Antioxidant Soft Cream, $106, Beautycounter

This no-rinse purifying water is formulated specifically for oily and sensitive skin. Use it morning and night to remove makeup, dirt and excess sebum. It's the perfect multi-use product for busy adults.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micellar Water, $19.95, Shoppers Drug Mart

Melissa Greer is a freelance writer, editor and brand consultant. Follow her at @msmelissagreer.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?