There are some elements of our adolescent awkwardness—middle-school dances, braces, curfews—that we’re able to leave in the past, thankfully. For many people, zits aren’t one of them.
“Adult acne, which is known as post-adolescent acne, is much more common than most people are aware of,” says Melissa K. Levin, M.D., the director of clinical research at Marmur Medical in New York. “In fact, nearly 50 percent of patients in their 20s and up to 25 percent of patients in their 40s experience acne outbreaks.”
Though adult acne isn’t fully understood by the experts, there are a few factors that seem to play a role.
1. Your Hormones Are Out Of Whack
Certain hormones, like testosterone, trigger an increase in oil production, which can promote acne, says Levin. A hormonal surge could be the result of your period, menopause, starting or stopping birth control, eating hormone-enhanced foods like non-organic meat and dairy, or even stress, she explains.
“Androgens (a group of hormones that play a role in male traits and reproduction, including testosterone), for example, can spike because of stress, and stimulate oil glands and hair follicles in the skin,” explains Marie Jhin, M.D., a San Francisco-based dermatologist.
If stress has taken control of your life—and perhaps your face, too—meditation, exercise, or therapy might help you reclaim your zen. Also, ladies: Ask your derm about a drug called Spironolactone. “It’s probably my favorite go-to medication for female adult acne,” says Levin. Originally formulated to treat high blood pressure, Spironolactone is also an androgen-blocker, which means it attacks the chemicals that spark hormonal acne, she adds.
2. You’re All Clogged Up
Heavy skincare products, like lotions and makeups and even sweat, can create a barrier between your skin and the air,clogging pores and potentially causing acne flare-ups, says Jhin. Levin suggests only using products that say ‘non-comedogenic’, ‘non-acnegenic’, ‘oil-free’, or ‘won’t clog pores.’
Basic hygiene works wonders, too. “Make sure sweat is off your face immediately after the gym and makeup is off your face at the end of the work day,” says Kavita Mariwalla, M.D., a dermatologist in West Islip, New York.
3. You’re Over-Scrubbing
We hate to break it to you, but trying to wash acne away won’t actually work—and it might just make it a lot worse. “Over-cleansing, using 10 different products, or exfoliating every single day can leave you with dry, irritated skin,” says Levin. Your skin normally has a protective lipid layer that keeps out potential irritants and maintains skin cell turnover, she explains. Without this layer your skin is vulnerable to irritants and slow to recover. Not to mention, all those dry skin cells can clog your pores and make breakouts even worse, Levin adds.
The fix: Simplify your skin-care routine. Consider a gentle hydrating cleanser, a topical medication (prescribed by your derm, if necessary), a moisturizer, and sunscreen your daily staples, suggests Levin.
From there, add one additional product to your routine at a time—so long as your skin isn’t irritated. Look for products with alpha hydroxyl acids (chemical exfoliators that de-clog pores), antioxidants (which neutralize molecules called free radicals that damage your cells), and vitamin C (a particularly potent antioxidant frequently used in dermatology), Levin says.
4. You’re Eating Too Much Sugar
Zits won’t quit? Hands off the white bread! “Data supports the idea that a diet packed with foods that are high on the glycemic index (all of your sugary foods, like cakes, white bread, and so on) can increase your risk of acne, says Levin.
Though the data currently suggests a weak connection, there’s a possibility that dairy may also wreak havoc on your skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, three recent studies have found positive associations between milk consumption (skim, in particular) and adolescent acne. “We suspect that the hormones and growth factors present in milk have a role in the acne connection,” suggests Levin.
To encourage healthy skin from the inside out, make sure you load up on all of the good stuff. “A healthy diet promotes healthy skin,” says Levin. “Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein get broken down into vitamins, minerals, and amino acids—like collagen and elastin—that your body uses to build and support skin structure and function.”