8 Things That Might Be Causing Your Adult Acne—and How to Deal (Without Making It Worse)

What could possibly be making you break out? Any number of things, as it turns out.

You don't have homework, you're not stressing about prom, and you're pretty sure you're in your 20s (or 30s or 40s)—at least last time you checked. So why are you dealing with pimples right now?

While it might seem like some cosmic punishment, adult acne is fairly common and can stem from any number of internal and external factors. You have a little control over some of these factors (like taking off your sweaty gym clothes ASAP), while others are a little less obvious or easy to treat (like your hormones and DNA). But don't worry, solutions exist for even the most deeply rooted causes of adult acne. Here are eight common causes of adult acne, and how to take care of it.

1. Hormones

Thanks to the hormone fluctuations of menstruation, many women notice acne flare-ups on or around their period. Generally, pimples occur when dead skin and sebum (an oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands) get together to block your pores or hair follicles. If you suffer from hormonal acne, you likely get breakouts along your chin and jawline during ovulation (usually 14 to 20 days into your cycle). That's typically when progesterone spikes, stimulating sebum production. Hormonal acne can also pop up during pregnancy or after going off birth control.

2. Stress

This adult acne trigger likely comes as no surprise. Stress incites the endocrine system to produce more acne-influencing hormones—like androgens and cortisol—thereby triggering flare-ups on the surface. If you notice blemishes pop up during times of angst (think: around tricky life decisions, stressful work deadlines, or big, milestone changes), this is likely why.

3. Your Phone

Phones carry a ton of germs and bacteria, so it makes sense that holding it against your face, or touching your face after holding your phone, can lead to congested pores and acne on your cheeks and chin. (Grossed out by how dirty your phone is? Here's how to wipe it clean without destroying it.) In addition to cleaning your phone, avoid touching your face with your hands too much (a good habit to get into in general).

4. Genes

While there's no actual acne gene, genetics can play a role in the complicated and various causes of acne. So it's possible the specific genes you've inherited render your immune system and skin more susceptible to zits (bummer, we know). For example, genetics play a role in things like how your body reacts to hormone fluctuation, sebum production, and stress.

5. Sweat

We're not saying you shouldn't sweat—the act of sweating doesn't directly cause acne. However, sitting in damp, dirty workout clothes, or not showering or washing your face directly after a hard sweat, leaves your skin susceptible to bacteria. To help guard against breakouts, especially on the neck, back, and chest, wear ventilated or moisture-wicking workout clothes, dab your face with a clean towel during workouts, and shower immediately after sweat sessions.

6. Certain Makeup, Skin Care, and Hair Products

Your beauty products could inadvertently be costing you a clear complexion. Certain hair products—serums, oils, sprays, pomades, mousses—could be clogging your pores and inflaming your skin. But styling products aren't the only culprits; your shampoo and conditioner might contain ingredients that aren't doing your skin any favors. If you have sensitive skin, look for sulfate-free soaps and shampoos.

Next, look to your cosmetics: Are you slathering on heavy (read: pore-clogging) creams or accidentally using expired, bacteria-ridden makeup? Look for non-comedogenic (non-pore-blocking) products—from moisturizers to foundation.

7. Over-Washing Your Face

Want to zit-proof your skin? Don't wash your face more than twice a day (unless you really need to). Use a daily mild, non-comedogenic face wash and oil-free moisturizer. Resist the temptation to scrub with acne-busting cleansers everyday. "Use an acne wash only a few times a week to prevent skin from dehydrating, which could trigger more oil secretion and pimples," suggests Gervaise Gerstner, a New York City dermatologist. "If necessary, apply a 2 percent salicylic acid spot treatment to the pimple." And don't forget to exfoliate two or three nights a week with an AHA products (Dr. Gerstner likes glycolic acid pads that remove dead skin, refine texture, and help unclog pores.)

8. Dealing With Pimples Before They're Ready

Don't try to handle a spot before it's white at the top and ready to, well, pop. Why? Getting in there too early only buries oil and gunk deeper into the skin, making it worse. Be patient—wear an oil-free, medicated concealer during the day, and a drying sulfur or clay treatment overnight.

When it's ready, instead of using force, drain it like this: Soak a washcloth in hot water (as hot as you can stand), wring it out, and hold it gently on top of the whitehead until the cloth has cooled off. Then, extremely gingerly, press around it to bring everything to the surface (without leaving a scar).

How to Know When It's Time to See a Dermatologist

If home remedies and over-the-counter treatments aren't helping, it's worth a trip to the derm for a stronger prescription. Gerstner's favorite adult acne treatments to prescribe are a topical retinol and/or oral contraceptives, which are approved by the FDA to treat acne by regulating hormones.

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  2. Columbia Skin Clinic. A guide to pregnancy acne. Accessed August 29, 2022.

  3. Water's Edge Dermatology. Does stress cause acne? Accessed August 29, 2022.

  4. Picardo M, Eichenfield LF, Tan J. Acne and rosaceaDermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2017;7(Suppl 1):43-52. doi:10.1007/s13555-016-0168-8

  5. American Academy of Dermatology. Is your workout causing your acne? Accessed August 29, 2022.

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