Adult acne is fast becoming one of the most common skin complaints amongst women. From hormonal flare-ups to dietary triggers, here’s what to know if you want to change your spots.

As a beauty writer, it’s easy to predict makeup trends based purely on the quantity of same-y products that land on my desk. Skincare, though, feels somewhat different. While it may be trend-led to an extent, it seems more reactive – as though it’s formulated in response to the dermatological needs of the masses.

With adult acne statistics reaching near-epidemic highs (and more frequent drops of adult-onset acne solutions on my desk), it’s clear that more of us than ever are suffering well beyond our teenage years. Yet, for such a prolific and growing skin concern, its causes, aggravators and remedies remain misunderstood. 

Spots, present in adulthood or otherwise, all begin in the same way – or, rather, the same place. “Acne is a chronic inflammatory condition of the skin affecting the hair follicle, and so, can occur anywhere on the body where hair is present,” explains Sinead Gallagher, co-owner and problem skin expert at Renew Aesthetic Skin Clinic.

It’s not the follicles that are to blame though, but the tiny sebaceous glands that secrete a lubricating oily matter (sebum) into the hair follicle for daily lubrication and protection. Our skin is constantly regenerating itself and shedding dead cells which can block the hair follicles, allowing bacteria to settle in the area and cause infection.

“Typically, this inflammation is what separates adult acne from the blackheads and whiteheads of your younger years, and blemishes tend to be focused on the lower half of the face, particularly the jawline,” continues Gallagher.

How hormones play into the situation

Recent studies from the International Dermal Institute suggest that adult acne affects more than half of all women aged 21 to 30, over a quarter of women aged 31 to 40, and 12 percent of women aged 41 to 50, but rather frustratingly, there is no specific test for it. As females are five times more likely than male counterparts to suffer with later-life acne, logical reasoning might point towards a hormonal trigger, but it’s more complex than you might think.

Breaking out during pregnancy, around the menstrual cycle and when changing methods of contraception is accepted to have direct correlation with fluctuating hormones – especially a rise in androgen levels – which trigger a process of higher sebum production, changes in skin cell activity, inflammation.

Research has also noted that women who experience acne around menopause usually have androgen levels within the normal range, but falling oestrogen levels. As hormone levels reach ‘tipping point’, the unbalanced ratio can lead to additional stimulation of the sebaceous glands and trigger acneic outbreaks. 

A stress-related hormone called CRH, or corticotropin-releasing hormone, is another adult acne culprit. CRH can bind to receptors in the skin’s sebaceous glands, and that binding drives up the skin’s oil production and may influence the inflammatory processes. Dietary habits too can leave the skin susceptible to spots. Studies have found that foods with a high glycemic index can cause a spike in blood sugars, which prompts the body to release insulin, an excess of which can trigger your oil glands.

Evidence-based research has also noted that acne can be irritated by dairy products, as the hormones in milk interact with our own, confusing the body’s endocrine system.

No quick fix

Much like the vagueness surrounding adult acne’s diagnosis, its treatment has no quick fix either, but depending on the severity, the combination of a thorough home care routine and specialised treatments have been proven to help. “If you’re mid-flare-up, resist all urges to go for harsh, abrasive products which will strip the skin of natural oils and yes, even acne-prone skin requires a moisturiser,” advises Gallagher.

Localised spot-treating products containing the antibacterial benzoyl peroxide can help to penetrate the pore, but retinoids are the mainstay of reducing and preventing acne as they treat the tendency for dead skin cells to clump and clog the pores. A slow and steady approach is best: flaking, aggravated skin isn’t any more preferable to spotty skin.

If you don’t trust yourself to be restrained, leave it to the professionals. Try the Beta Lift Peel, (€170), at Aesthetic Skin Clinic, which involves a medical grade beta-hydroxy acid resurfacing peel to effectively reduce acne lesions, while providing antibacterial and antiseptic benefits too. Ultimately, we all just want to be happy in the skin we’re in and skin concerns, even in adulthood, by their very nature can cause emotional distress, so it’s important to treat them with respect and patience.

Good job, as grown-ups, we have those attributes by the bucket-load right?

Products that can help 

Cleanance Anti-Blemish Kit, €29.40, Eau Thermale Avène

Refining Night Cream 0.5 % Retinol, €20, SkinCeuticals

Vinopure Blemish Control Serum, €31, Caudalie

Drying Lotion, €17.50, Mario Basescu

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