You might have thought you left acne behind when you graduated high school. But here you are, an adult, still getting pimples.

The same things that cause acne for teenagers can cause acne for adults (like excess oil and sticky dead skin cells).

happy young women with acne

Adults experience hormonal changes, especially individuals who menstruate, are pregnant, or going through menopause, and that can create the right conditions for acne breakouts. The good news is that effective adult acne treatments are available and can be found online, with or without a prescription.

Let’s dive deeper into what adult acne is, what causes it, and how to treat it.

What is adult acne?

Adult acne (or acne vulgaris if you want to be fancy) appears on the face, neck, back (back acne), chest (chest acne), and shoulders. Acne as an adult can appear as any of the following types of bumps or lumps.

Blackheads and whiteheads are close to the surface of the skin and generally easier to treat. Blackheads are open pores clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells. They’re dark-colored due to exposure to air (oxidation). If you get blackheads, you’ll likely see them on your face (especially the nose, chin and sometimes cheeks), but they can also occur on your neck, back and chest.

Whiteheads are plugged pores but they’re closed over with a layer of dead skin and oil. They’re typically caused by excess oil and bacteria, and they show up as white or yellowish bumps.

The bigger, more painful pimples, known as pustules and papules, are caused by inflammation and infection of the pores. Papules are smaller raised bumps with no head. Pustules are filled with pus and eventually look like big whiteheads surrounded by an angry inflammed red ring.

You may experience different types of acne on various parts of your body as you age and go through hormonal changes. So keep in mind that the treatments that worked for you as a teen might not work well as an adult or the medications you needed as a teen, you may need again.

What causes adult acne?

acne on cheek

Adult acne can be caused by a few factors: oil, dead skin, inflammation, and bacteria. Your skin’s oil glands (the sebaceous glands) produce oil called sebum, which moisturizes your skin and hair. Acne breakouts happen when your pores and hair follicles become plugged with excess oil and dead skin cells. The clogged pores create the right environment for bacteria to thrive, which causes inflammation and acne.

Adult acne can also be caused/affected by the following components.

Hormone levels

Changes in hormone levels are normal, but it often comes with acne as an unwanted visitor. Hormonal changes caused by the menstrual cycle, irregular periods, pregnancy, menopause, or stopping birth control can cause acne (most often referred to as hormonal acne).

Genetics & health conditions

Sometimes you can’t do anything to prevent your acne breakouts, and the reason might be genetics.

If you have a family history of acne or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) you’re more likely to have with acne breakouts as an adult.

People with endocrine disorders that increase testosterone or other hormones, such as PCOS, Cushing syndrome, CAH, androgen-secreting tumors, and acromegaly, may also suffer from acne.

Acne might not be a direct result of these health conditions, but it can be a side effect of certain medications, such as testosterone, progesterone, and steroids. These health conditions and their treatments can cause hormonal fluctuations that contribute to acne.

Irritation of your skin

Cleansing too frequently or intensely can aggravate your skin and your skin can become irritated from skincare and haircare products. These products can irritate your skin or contribute excess oil that blocks your pores, causing acne. Look for products labeled “non-comedogenic.” These products contain ingredients that won’t clog pores.

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When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release cortisol, prompting your skin to produce more oil. That can lead to clogged pores, an accumulation of dead skin cells, and bacterial growth, which makes acne.


The jury is still out on food as a cause of acne. Everybody is different, however, and if you notice that some foods trigger breakouts, avoid them.

There are some studies that suggest a low-glycemic diet may help reduce acne. Other studies show that limiting dairy intake and increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, zinc, vitamin A, and dietary fiber can help improve acne. While the evidence linking diet and acne is murky, it’s clear that high glycemic diets can exacerbate acne.

How to get rid of adult acne: adult acne treatments

acne on face

Treating adult acne is relatively easy, it’s just about finding the right product or medication that works for you and your skin. For more severe or difficult to treat acne, you might need to seek out a medical professional or the expert doctors at Pandia Health for prescription acne medication that suits your needs.

Over the Counter Topical acne treatments

Let’s start with the ingredients that can help treat and manage your acne without a prescription. Two common ingredients found in cleansers, creams, and treatments can be helpful: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid removes dirt and excess oil from your skin, dissolves the gunk that clogs pores, and reduces the redness and swelling of acne breakouts. Salicylic acid can help decrease the number of pimples that form and speed up the healing process. Adding salicylic acid to your skincare routine can also decrease the excess oil your skin produces that causes acne.

Benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria that cause acne. It also removes excess oil and dead skin cells.

If natural remedies are more your speed, look for products with aloe vera, azelaic acid gel 15, green tea extract, tea tree oil, and zinc.

Topical Retinoids

acne skin treatment

These are topical medications that usually require a prescription to use. Retinoids contain retinoic acid or tretinoin (think the brand name Differin or a product called Adapalene). These medications prevent hair follicles from becoming clogged, which can lead to irritation, infection, and pimples.

To use retinoids, simply clean the affected area using a gentle cleanser and dry it completely. Apply a thin layer of the retinoid and gently rub it into the skin before bedtime. Be sure not to combine retinoids with other acne medications (like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid) at the same time of day, because peroxide or acid can kill the action of the retinoid.


Antibiotics work by killing excess bacteria on your skin and reducing redness and inflammation caused by acne pimples. Antibiotics should be used with benzoyl peroxide to reduce the likelihood of developing antibiotic resistance. You can get an antibiotic as a topical lotion/solution or a pill you take by mouth.

Anti-testosterone medication

Spironolactone is a prescription medication usually used to treat those with hypertension and kidney disease. But it can also be used to clear up acne. Studies show that Spironolactone can reduce acne by 50-100%! It works by blocking androgen (a hormone) receptors in the body, stopping the way skin cells respond to these hormones, and reducing the level of androgens in the body.

Oral contraceptives

Combined (estrogen and progesterone) Birth control pills, on top of preventing pregnancy and regulating your cycle, have the added benefit of helping to treat acne. There’s scientific evidence that all combined birth control pills help treat acne, even though the FDA has approved only 3 specific oral contraceptives to treat acne.

Not currently on hormonal birth control? Want to prevent pregnancy AND treat or prevent acne? Talk to the expert doctors at Pandia Health about your options.

Just a heads up: combining oral birth control and oral antibiotics can make your birth control less effective! So be sure to always use a condom.

Final thoughts

You have a lot of ways to prevent and treat stubborn breakouts. The expert doctors at Pandia Health can help you sort through all your options. We offer online acne treatment, bringing the doctor’s office to you with telehealth services, so you can get the best acne treatment that suits your needs and get it delivered to your doorstep. Say bye to trips to the doctor’s office and the pharmacy! Just fill out our quick health questionnaire, and our expert doctors will evaluate your health history and photos of your problem area(s) to find the best treatment for you for only $35 per doctor evaluation.