Ask a Dermatologist: How Do I Treat Adult Acne?

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If you’re in your late twenties, thirties, or forties and still experiencing the kind of breakouts you were led to believe would end after high school, you’re far from alone. Acne, especially in women, is somewhat of an epidemic at the moment, says dermatologist Nancy Samolitis, MD, who has been treating patients for 18 years and has noticed an uptick in acne cases in recent years. Acne at any age can wreak havoc on self-esteem, but the skin condition can be even more frustrating as we mature because the treatments that worked in our younger years are often no longer effective. Mature skin has different needs as skin cell turnover rate slows with age. As adults we are slower to heal from breakouts and more susceptible to scarring and hyperpigmentation post breakout. Teenage acne and adult acne manifest in different ways and understanding the changes in our skin at those points in our lives is crucial in the search for solutions.

“Teenage acne is sparked by the onset of puberty when hormones stimulate oil production, leading to more oily skin and blackheads and whiteheads in the T-zone region of the face,” says Dr. Samolitis. After puberty, however, male hormones tend to reach a steady state, whereas female hormones fluctuate and are influenced by factors like diet and stress. It’s why both women with genetic predispositions to acne and those with previously clear skin can find themselves dealing with the condition in later years, only this time around, acne tends to behave differently.“They also tend to be cyclic and clearly get worse around the menstrual cycle and predominantly located around the mouth, chin and jawline." Although everyone’s skin is unique, there are certain things you can do on the path to a clear complexion.

It’s more commonly cystic, meaning the pimples are deeper, more painful, take longer to go away, and leave more scarring.

1. Make an appointment with a professional skin therapist or a dermatologist.

Your first step when dealing with any persistent skin condition should be to talk to a professional skin expert who can properly diagnose the issue and present treatment options. Patients suffering with adult acne aren’t just concerned with acne, says Dr. Samolitis, but with scarring and sun damage in the form of hyperpigmentation and fine lines. Treating adult acne can be challenging because adults also tend to have sensitivity, dehydration, and other issues that lead to signs of premature aging.

A professional skin therapist can combine powerful skin services with the right product regimen.

2. Avoid the harsh products you used when you were 13.

Harsh products in the drugstore aisle might have worked well enough when you were a teenager, but according to Dr. Samolitis, as skin ages, it becomes less oily and more sensitive, and those ultra-drying, high-strength spot treatments can irritate and cause further inflammation. One of her favorite ingredients to look for in products? Niacinamide. It’s vitamin B3 and not only does it have great anti-inflammatory properties, it’s also a great anti-aging topical. I’ve found it to be very effective.

A lot of adult female acne really needs to be treated by products targeting aging skin while also treating acne.

Dermalogica’s Active Clearing system is built around this two-in-one attack plan of treating acne while also addressing issues of uneven texture, dullness, and dark spots. The products in the line are formulated with potent breakout-fighters, plus gentle, hydrating, anti-inflammatory ingredients. The Age Bright Spot Fader is the grown-up version of a spot treatment, with salicylic acid to address acne immediately and niacinamide and hexylresorcinol to fade post-breakout marks—all without over-drying.

Apply Dermalogica's Age Bright Spot Fader twice a day at the first sign of breakout.


Dermalogica Age Bright Spot Fader $45.00

3. Customize your routine and find what works best for you.

What works well for one person might not be right for another. It’s important to find a regimen that works for you and stick to it, but to make sure what you’re using is free of as many irritants, like fragrance, parabens, and certain preservatives, as possible.

We love the Dermalogica Age Bright Clearing Serum for its gluten- and- paraben-free vegan formula with no artificial colors or fragrances. Use it after cleansing and under your moisturizer to clear and help limit breakouts while reducing signs of visible skin aging. The lightweight salicylic acid serum gently exfoliates and assists in cell turnover, hydrates and smooths with plant extracts, and brightens with niacinamide and white shiitake mushroom.

Dermalogica Age Bright Cleansing Serum $65.00

4.Examine the role your diet may be playing.

“It’s something that’s proven difficult to study, but there are a lot of factors in the American diet that are likely influencing the explosion of adult acne,” says Dr. Samolitis. “Sugar and dairy are the big ones—we know that sugar can create a hormonal cascade through the stimulation of insulin, and dairy products are loaded with hormones that are fed to the animal.” We’re not saying you need to eliminate these categories from your diet forever, but it’s worth seeing what happens to your skin when you cut back.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Nancy Samolitis, MD
Facile co-founder and anti-aging expert specializes in cosmetic and laser dermatology. She is a leading expert in treating skin disorders such as acne, acne scars, melasma and skin rejuvenation.