By Kristin Limoges

Published on September 2, 2018

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

It goes without saying that dealing with acne is a frustrating, delicate, and complicated dance everyone has to learn the steps to at some point in our lives. No matter how old you are, it’s an unenjoyable, sometimes nonsensical journey. But it feels even more cruel to encounter acne as an adult. I mean, we are somewhat trying to trick our skin to act younger—with retinols, Vitamin C, and lasers—but, hey, not that young.

A zit here or there every so often? Alright, not my favorite, but okay, I can deal. A zit or two or three… and enlarged blackheads chronically? Not cool. I wasn’t born with perfect skin, but like many others, everything was fine and dandy until puberty hit. (Ahh, that cruel mistress puberty and the hormones she calls friends.) I think back to freshman year in high school, and remember my face literally pulsating in pain from severe, inflamed acne. I tried to kill it with fire (i.e. very strong chemicals), but finally killed it with kindness (and dermatologist-prescribed creams).

Afterwards, I went years without really thinking about zits or acne, until I became a beauty editor, and coincidently, my acne wanted to join me on the job. Thankfully not at that adolescent level, but there just always seem to be a zit or two lurking around.

Every single body is different, but here are a few things we know (and don’t know) about adult acne, and what products and ingredients help tackle those pesky little spots. After all, to know thy enemy is to defeat it, right? It’s also worth saying that zits are not embarrassing, nor are you alone. Be curious, but do not beat yourself (or your skin) up.

Are these suggestions foolproof? Nope, of course not entirely (as I write this, there is a small zit perched on my chin watching me type). But have these tips personally and dramatically reduced my overall acne, and blackheads? Yes, very much.

So, where to start? At the root of it all: what causes acne.

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Is adult acne different than adolescent acne?

Yes, in a multitude of ways.

Hormones

“Adolescents are facing the challenges of aggressively shifting hormones associated with going through or having gone through puberty,” says Mathilde Thomas, co-founder of iconic French skincare brand Caudalie. “For adults, the rise in stress and pollution are likely factors in increasing blemishes.”

That’s not to say hormones aren’t also coming back to wreak havoc on skin as an adult though, too. The surge of hormone fluxuations in your 20s and 30s can make your skin feel 13 all over again. And the miracle of pregnancy can cause troubles, too.

Skincare

Yes, your skincare regimen can ironically be a big factor. “Having the wrong product that irritates the skin or is too aggressive can also lead to flare ups,” says Thomas.

“Most people outgrow their breakouts due to changes in hormones, but adults make the mistake of treating the entire face with harsh and drying products,” says Domino favorite, and celeb aesthetician Renee Rouleau. It’s tempting to think the harsher the better, but what it’s really doing is disrupting the skin barrier, and leaving it more susceptible to inflammation and breakouts, says Amity Spiegel, an aesthetician at clean beauty mecca CAP Beauty.

“If one’s diet is poor, the gut is then weakened, and that will lead to acne.”

Internal Factors

And if that wasn’t enough, working out can be an issue, too, thanks to the potential clogged pores from sweating. Exercise can oxygenate your cells, which is great for your skin, but just make sure your skin is clean before and after working out.

Your gut also plays a big part. As we’ve discovered, good gut health equates to your overall health, and that especially includes your skin. “I think it is hard to say one reason is the cause, but in general busy stressful lifestyles, lack of sleep, poor digestion and gut health, inflammation, diets lacking in minerals and nutrients, all play a part in our skin and overall wellness,” says Spiegel.

The other part of gut health? Your diet. “If one’s diet is poor, the gut is then weakened, and that will lead to acne,” says expert aesthetician Carrie Lindsey of Carrie Lindsey Beauty. “Stress and hormonal acne look different in skin than a dietary breakout, in that the first two are most often cystic and inflamed, while acne and or breakouts from diet tend to be smaller. This type of breakout consists of pustules and a lot of times hives/rash like breakouts.” (This level of analysis is exactly why an expert aesthetician, like Lindsey, can be key to unlocking exactly what is triggering your acne.)

Mystery

Honestly though, there might be more factors, we’re still not entirely sure what causes adult acne. “It’s not known why this is on the rise but some suspect it’s due to the increased stress in American society or possibly a condition known as adrenal fatigue,” says Rouleau. “But, the jury is still out on this.”

So, your confusion and frustration for adult acne is well placed. It really is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. And you are certainly not alone, the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, noted in a recent study that 54 percent of women 25 and older have low-grade, persistent acne.

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

What to do?

Change Your Diet

I wish I could tell you pizza would fix everything, but unfortunately a diet rich in vitamins is the way to go. Focus on increasing the Vitamin B-rich foods (like broccoli, spinach, and almonds), as well as a Vitamin B supplement, specifically B5, says Spiegel. Also add in a probiotic if you haven’t already (Seed and The Nue Co. make great ones) and consume probiotic-rich foods (like kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha). And while Vitamin C is great for your skin topically, it’s also great in supplement form, too.

Watch to see how your gut and skin react to certain foods. “Generally avoiding or limiting dairy, sugar, and gluten are things to investigate removing from your diet to see if they are causing your breakouts,” says Spiegel. “I have also had clients remove alcohol and meat from their diet, and it has helped their skin tremendously.”

Try Clean and Gentle

If you didn’t grasp it by now, being kind to your skin is the way to go. A big fan or devotee or clean beauty? That doesn’t mean you can’t treat acne still. “I prefer clean and natural ingredients in skincare as the healthiest way to care for one’s complexion,” says Thomas. “Formulas that help to treat the skin without being too harsh or causing it to react adversely are key.”

You might be surprised with how effective gentle products can be (we’ll dive into some below). “I think with any acne, less is more,” says Lindsey. “Our bodies are really intelligent. We do not need to overly control what happens naturally. Acneic skin is already compromised, so stripping, peeling and further breaking it down is not the way to go in my opinion. Be gentle with your skin.”

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Photo by Alpyn

What does gentle mean when it comes to skincare? Try to exchange your everyday basics for less irritating options. Try out a gentle cleanser, like the just-launched Alpyn Bubbling Cleanser, which removes makeup but is very nourishing.

Get excess oils and makeup off with a balancing toner, like the iconic Indie Lee CoQ-10 Toner (one of my favorite products ever). Toners are great for all skins, even acne-prone ones, just make sure you stay away from stripping ones with alcohol in them.

Spiegel suggests an exfoliating serum with lactic acid, once or twice a week at night, to exfoliate and keep pores clear. Also, a “linoleic acid rich oils such as safflower, sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seed to cleanse and moisturize the skin will balance oil production and keep the barrier of the skin healthy,” she says. And sunscreen has a (unfair) reputation as a prompt for acne, Spiegel says to look for non nano zinc oxide sunscreens, which protect skin, but also calm skin.

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Adjust Your Routine

If your breakouts are occasional and the areas of flare ups are inconsistent, adjust the aggressive products you might be already using. “The bottom line is that once breakouts become less common, you need to adapt your routine to what the skin needs right then—not what it needed a few years ago when your breakouts were more frequent,” says Rouleau.

Starting in your 20s and on, you could start transitioning into preventative skincare, but Rouleau cautions that does not mean rich, heavy products—those formulas can block the pores and cause more breakouts. “I can assure you that anti-aging products do NOT have to be thick or rich to be effective; there are many potent youth-enhancing ingredients formulated in lightweight bases that deliver amazing results,” she says.

A Vitamin C antioxidant serum is a great place to start because it protects the skin and helps with the beginning signs of aging. Rouleau’s Vitamin C&E Treatment is a great, gentle option.

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

What products to try?

Money can’t fix everything, but there are a bevy of products that might be a game changer for you.

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Photo by Caudalie

Beloved French brand Caudalie has just released a new line entirely dedicated to tackling acne—gently. “I developed our new Vinopure line with naturally derived non-irritating salicylic acid and antibacterial, antiseptic essential oils (plus lots of other ingredients that control oil and promote a healthy glow),” says Thomas.

We’re really loving the Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Serum ($49), which uses that natural salicylic acid to address blackheads, pores, breakouts, and excess oil.

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Photo by Renee Rouleau

The queen of defeating acne, Rouleau, has a lot of products based on acne control, but her BHA Clarifying Serum ($49.50) is fastly becoming one of my ultimate favorite products. It’s meant for skin that has more occasional breakouts, and is so highly effective at keeping pores clean and preventing future breakouts—without being drying whatsoever. It’s quite extraordinary, even for sensitive skin like mine, it hasn’t caused a moment of irritation. And it’s dramatically cleared up my excessive blackheads on my nose (thanks to the salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acid in the formula). Big fan, huge!

Have you noticed a trend here so far? Salicylic acid is your friend. It works great in a cleanser, too. Verso founder Lars Frederiksen suggests using one (they’ll soon have a super effective version hitting the market) to unclog pores and get rid of excess sebum.

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Photo by iS Clinical

The number one recommendation from expert aesthetician Lindsey? The derm-beloved iS Clinical Active Serum ($135). “This serum is magic,” says Lindsey. “It is a plant based, super well balanced mix of glycolic acid derived from sugar cane, lactic acid extracted from bilberry fruit and lastly willow bark extract which is commonly known as salicylic acid.” Ease it slowly into your regimen, once or twice a week to start, and always only at nighttime.

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Photo by Shani Darden

A retinol is still one of the most beloved solutions for both acne-prone and aging skin. “I think a retinol serum at night is key for any anti-acne routine to reduce sebum and calm inflammation and turn cells over quicker,” says Spiegel.

And the most highly recommended retinol I hear more about than any other brand? Aesthetician Shani Darden’s Retinol Reform ($95), which is gentle enough for everyone, but still incredible effective. I’ve even heard the phrase “life-changing” thrown around a lot when it’s brought up.

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Photo by Epicuren

A potential sleeper hit just might be this product I’d never heard of before, too. Lindsey has used Epicuren Brazilian Propolis Serum Moisturizer ($44) for nearly 20 years, and swears by its ability to fight acne without drying out skin. “Propolis is antibacterial while also being a humectant,” she says. “Humectants help bind moisture to the skin. I love it for this reason.” It does have honey in it, so make sure you test it out on a patch of skin before applying it all over, to assure you don’t’ have a possible bee allergy.

Speaking of bees, try Manuka honey. Lindsey is a huge fan: “Not only be ingested, but also used as a cleanser or a weekly treatment mask. It’s calming, antibacterial, hydrating and just plain yummy. A staple product for any skincare junkie.”

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Photo by Renee Rouleau

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the best exfoliating peels to gently but effectively remove excess sebum and skin. Rouleau’s Triple Berry Smoothing Peel ($88.50) is great for once a week treatments to keep skin smooth and even-toned. “When you put in the extra effort, you’ll get the reward of healthier-acting and younger-looking skin,” says Rouleau.  

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Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

Bonus Round for Stubborn Acne

Tried a handful of those above tips and products and still no luck? Time to bring in the big guys. Your dermatologist might just have the answer for you, from prescription creams to, when needed, lasers.

You can also consult the experts. “If you have true hormonal acne you should approach it by diving deep into your hormones and making sure your cycles are regular and healthy—seeking out a holistic gynecologist or naturopath if you need,” says Spiegel. “Once you get your hormones balanced holistically your skin will follow.” It might also be helpful to have bloodwork done by either to see if there are imbalances in your body that can be helped with diet or natural supplements.

A nutritionist or an acupuncturist may be able to provide dietary and supplemental support, too.

When in doubt, some parting words of wisdom: “Try not to attack or strip your skin, think of it as a living organ that needs to be balanced and supported,” says Spiegel. “What is it trying to tell you? Our bodies are our guides.”

Keep on treating your skin:
Why I Stopped Covering My Acne Once and For All
This Is the Best Face Mask We’ve Ever Tried
Apparently, We’ve All Been Popping Our Zits Wrong