Adult acne: How to get rid of it and what's causing the spots

It’s not just teenagers who are plagued by pimples. One in 5 women over the age of 25 still suffers from spots - but why and what can you do about it? We found out...

If you thought spots in your teens was bad, wait until you’ve experienced it as an adult.

Far from being just a ‘teen’ problem, millions of women over the age of 20 are finding themselves having to deal with acne in their 30s, 40s and beyond – some 50% are said to have suffered from breakouts in adult life. In fact for some, acne doesn’t occur until they reach later years in their lives.

Part troublesome and a whole lot frustrating, it's massively affecting sufferers everyday lives. And because of that, it seems many of us are looking for miracle answers to treat both acne and the signs of ageing skin.

There are many reasons why you can get acne as an adult, and a whole load more reasons you might get spots on your cheeks, forehead, chin and even neck.

But what is acne anyway? And why are we still suffering past puberty? We asked a host of skincare experts for their insight – and how to sort it, once and for all.

What is acne?

Spots, pimples, zits – okay, so the odd blemish here and there isn’t technically acne but how does a simple spot manifest itself into full-blow acne?

Well it’s all down to hair follicles. Not the ones on your head but the ones on your face and body; every pore on your face is part of a follicle and when they become clogged with dead skin cells and oil, a spot can occur. 

According to skincare expert Paula Begoun, founder of Paula’s Choice, it’s the mixture of oil and cells that can cause a deeper problem.

“That mixture of oil and cells allows the bacteria responsible for acne to flourish inside the follicle instead of remaining on skin’s surface, where it normally resides without causing much trouble.

“The bacteria feasts on the follicle’s contents, which starts a domino effect by producing inflammatory chemicals and enzymes. This process attracts white blood cells to combat the bacteria, which leads to inflammation.

“The last of the ‘precursor’ stages in the development of acne is when the wall of the plugged follicle breaks down, spilling everything inside to nearby skin-leading to lesions or pimples.”

Sounds a delight doesn’t it? And Paula says the key to treating acne is to remember the root of the problem – inflammation.

“Acne is first and foremost an inflammatory disorder, and it’s important to remember that when treating it,” she says.

“Anything you can do to reduce inflammation will help acne heal faster—the reverse is true as well, making the inflammation worse will make the acne worse.”

What type of acne do I have?

One spot does not fit all; basically speaking, there are five types and identifying yours is the first step to sorting it, once and for all.

Paula explains: “While the classic pustule form - if such a thing can be called classic - is what many people typically think of when acne comes to mind, it can actually take several forms.”

What are the different types of acne?

Comedones: This form of acne presents itself in two ways: whiteheads or blackheads. According to the Mayo Clinic, comedones are the non-inflammatory version of acne. When these are closed at the skin’s surface, they are flesh-coloured, slightly raised bumps called whiteheads.

When they’re open, the exposure to air allows the plugs in the hair follicle to oxidize, resulting in a dark or black spot on skin called a blackhead. That dark spot is not dirt showing beneath the surface of skin.

Papules: These are small, raised bumps that indicate inflammation is occurring in hair follicles.

Pustules: Larger than papules, these red, tender bumps have white pus at their tips and are a sign of a more advanced, deeper inflammation.

Nodules: One of the most painful forms of acne, these bumps remain below the surface of the skin and are large and solid. They develop when build-up occurs deep within hair follicles that are severely clogged.

Cysts: Painful, pus-filled lumps that form beneath the skin, and that present an increased risk of scarring due to their depth and collagen-destroying potential.

What causes acne?

Chocolate and alcohol are often blamed for outbreaks of acne. If only it were that easy.

While an unhealthy diet certainly doesn’t help acne – and can exacerbate it if you have it – it isn’t the root of evil. Here are some factors…

Hormones: Whether you’re a teen or a pensioner, any change in your hormone level can cause a flare up. Male hormones in both men and women tends to increase during puberty, pregnancy and the menopause, causing the oil glands to enlarge and produce more and more oil.

Stress: Stress can cause hormonal fluctuations too, pushing your skin’s oil production into overdrive and can cause a breakout.
Medication: Some medications can have an effect on your skin.

Sensitive skin: Products that are too strong or heavy for your skin can easily block the pores and cause an almighty flare-up.

Illness: Some studies have shown a link between acne and Irritable Bowel Syndrome as well as Polycystic Ovaries.

Food: Although rare, you could find you’re allergic to something through your skin! And although there’s been no definitive link, dairy has long been singled out as an acne factor. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, dairy can cause spikes in certain pimple-producing hormones. And some experts have suggest coffee can spike your hormones too.

Hereditary: Sadly, some of us are simply pre-disposed to have spots. 

Rosacea: Adult acne is often a term used for acne rosacea, as it can look similar to acne. It is usually identified by small cysts and red spots on the face, which can go as quickly as they came or hang around until treated.

If in doubt regarding your acne or flare-ups, always visit a dermatologist or skincare specialist who can advise you on the best way to deal with it.

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