How to Get Rid of Adult Acne

Key Takeaways

Your days as an awkward teen may be over, but that doesn’t mean your acne disappeared as you stepped into adulthood.

Adult acne is a common condition with a lot of possible causes and a lot of potential treatment options. According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, 20%–30% of adults between the ages of 20 to 40 experience acne. 

Acne isn’t dangerous, but that’s not the point. Body image is an important part of our mental health, and acne that persists into adulthood can disrupt our self-confidence. Keep reading to find out what may be causing your adult acne and what you can do for clearer skin.

Causes of acne in adults

Adult acne is caused by a variety of reasons, so we’ll break it down by direct and indirect causes:

Direct causes of acne

  • Excessive oil production
  • Clogged pores
  • Bacteria
  • Inflammation

When the sebaceous glands of the skin make too much sebum — oil that hydrates the skin — your skin gets oily and you can get clogged pores

Several factors can cause excess oil production, such as over-cleansing, pollution, certain skincare products, hormonal fluctuations, genetics, etc. 

Sometimes oil production stimulates the production of bacteria, which can multiply and cause inflammation (redness and swelling). Whether or not the inflammation is near the surface or deeper inside the skin will determine the kind of acne: for surface-level inflammation, you’ll see a “pustule”, whereas “papules” (pimples) and cysts can develop when the inflammation is deeper. 

You’ll see a whitehead when oil starts to break through the surface of the skin. If the oil becomes oxidized, that’s when you’ll see a blackhead. 

Indirect causes of acne

  • Hormonal fluctuations
  • Stress
  • Skin and hair products
  • Medications
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Genetics

Hormonal fluctuations

After ovulation, the body increases its production of progesterone — which also increases your skin’s production of sebum (oil). Male hormones like testosterone, produced in people of all genders, can also increase sebum production.

Changes in hormone levels are also why acne gets worse around your menstrual cycle, during or after pregnancy, during perimenopause and menopause, and when you stop or start using hormonal birth control. 


Stress — or the release of stress-related hormones as part of the body’s stress response — doesn’t cause acne alone, but it can make acne worse

When people experience acute stress, they can scratch or pick at their skin, which exacerbates existing acne. When people experience chronic stress, they may be sleeping poorly, eating poorly, and ignoring skincare — all of which can make acne worse.

Skin and hair products

If you have oily or combination skin, make sure you’re using “noncomedogenic” products that don’t cause pore blockages (comedones). Oil-free, water-based products are best for oily skin. 

Hair products may also cause forehead acne, because gels, creams, or sprays may linger on your skin all day after application in the morning. Also make sure you’re rinsing your hair properly after shampooing, as any leftover product can cause the skin to break out. 


Medications like lithium, anti-seizure drugs, and corticosteroids can cause acne as a side effect.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is a hormonal condition that causes the ovaries to produce an abnormal amount of androgens, which then cause acne, hair growth, and weight gain. While the cause of PCOS isn’t known, many people with PCOS are insulin-resistant, which is also thought to trigger higher levels of androgens.  


Your risk of acne increases if one or more of your parents have also struggled with acne at some point in their life. One twin study of women with acne found that acne is a “highly heritable disease with significant additive genetic effects.”

A note on diet and acne: It’s a myth that greasy foods cause acne, but small studies have found that a low-glycemic index diet may decrease acne severity because it lowers spikes in blood sugar, which are linked to inflammation. 

Other studies suggest cow’s milk may also be linked to inflammation, so some people see an improvement in their acne if they avoid dairy-containing cow’s milk. 

More research is needed, but you can try eating low-glycemic index foods and eliminating cow’s milk — always under the supervision of a healthcare provider — to see if it works for you. 

Adult acne treatment

There are several treatments for adult acne, and they come in three forms: topical medications, oral medications, and therapies (such as light therapy or chemical peels). Your healthcare practitioner will be able to advise you on what treatments are best for you skin and lifestyle.

Can I prevent adult acne? 

You may not be able to avoid adult acne altogether if you’re predisposed to it, but you can definitely improve your skin by following some general principles. 

1. Don’t pop pimples. You can increase your risk of infection and scarring.  

2. Wash your face no more than twice a day. Use an oil-free, water-based cleanser with a soft washcloth or cleansing brush.

3. Clean your skin after exercise that makes you sweat. Sweat doesn’t cause acne, but it can make it worse because bacteria love sweat’s moisture.

It’s important to remember that acne is a recurrent and relapsing condition that may always need therapy. Treatments can take months to see effects, so sometimes a therapy trial needs three to six months before you start to see changes.

Want to talk to a healthcare practitioner to explore options for taking care of your skin? Start your free assessment with Felix.

Medically reviewed by


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