How to treat and avoid acne in your adult years

Far from strictly being a symptom of our awkward teenage years, acne can strike in adulthood too.

Adult acne can result from a combination of factors including puberty, genetics and other less common causes, according to dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto, the author of The Skincare Bible.

The good news is it can be treated and even avoided in many cases with the right lifestyle choices.

Why it happens

While there’s no such thing as an acne gene, certain genetic markers can increase the likelihood of acne.

“Genetics are thought to play a role in the development of acne, mainly due to the size and activity of the oil glands being inherited from our parents,” Dr Mahto says.

Less common causes of adult acne include sensitivity to cosmetics and medical conditions that can cause hormonal fluctuations.

“Hairstyling products such as waxes or gels that contain ingredients like lanolin, beeswax and petroleum jelly, as well as medications (such as corticosteroids, lithium, iodides) can cause acne, while polycystic ovarian syndrome, in which androgen levels are higher than usual, is another trigger,” she says.

Look for ingredients such as retinol, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, zinc, tea tree oil, benzoyl peroxide, niacinamide, lactobionic acid and retinyl palmitate.

Stress out

Cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone, is released from the adrenal gland in a bid to self-calm.

While the hormone itself doesn’t cause acne, a small amount of testosterone is released with it, increasing oil production that can lead to clogged pores, which can cause — you guessed it — acne.

Clean and clear

“Many people believe there’s a link between acne and dairy consumption, however, I don’t think everyone with acne needs to cut dairy out of their diet,” Dr Mahto says.

“But if you’re one of the small percentage that has a clear connection between eating dairy and breaking out in spots, then there’s reason to reduce or eliminate it.

“I advise my clients to stay away from using facial oils, cleansers and thick, creamy textures in products. Stick to light or gel-like formulations. Ideally the product should be labelled as non-comedogenic.

“Look for ingredients such as retinol, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, zinc, tea tree oil, benzoyl peroxide, niacinamide, lactobionic acid and retinyl palmitate.”


How to prevent and treat acne

Regardless of your acne severity, a simple skincare routine should be your first approach.


Often overlooked, this step is crucial for those who wear make-up and experience clogged pores. Don’t be too vigorous. Aim for a clean base in preparation for the actual cleansing process.


Use a light, non-comedogenic cleanser, which doesn’t clog pores. In light, circular motions cleanse your skin. This promotes blood flow and helps reduce puffiness in the process.


Depending on your skin type, use an easily absorbed moisturiser. If you’re particularly dry, an acne-friendly serum can also
be incorporated.


For clogged pores, look for a treatment containing salicylic acid, which works as an exfoliant. For acne spots, use a product containing benzoyl peroxide, which helps kill bacteria.

Written by Charlotte Brundrett