What Causes Adult Acne?

Why Do I Have Adult Acne?

Woman cleansing her face
Photo: David De Lossy / Getty Images

You'd have thought that by your age you would have outgrown your acne.  So why are you breaking out now?

Acne is the most common skin disorder in the United States, and not just for teenagers.  Many adults have acne, too.  It's frustrating problem, especially when you expected to leave your skin problems behind in high school.

Acne can happen in both adult men and women.  But what causes acne during adulthood?

Acne is Triggered by Hormonal Factors

Just like during the teen years (puberty, anyone?) fluctuating hormones can cause acne flare ups.

Androgens are hormones released from the adrenal glands, the ovaries, and the testes. These hormones stimulate the sebaceous glands, also known as oil glands, increasing oil production and creating skin that is more prone to pore blockages and breakouts.

Adult-onset acne most commonly affects women because, let's face it, women are more "hormonal" than men.  Sharp hormonal fluctuations occur during ovulation and menstruation, pregnancy, perimenopause, and menopause, and can also be caused by using certain birth control medications. Women may see their acne suddenly develop, or worsen, during these periods of life.

Adult acne may strike women at a greater rate than men, but that doesn't mean men are immune to acne.  For the guys, acne usually starts in the teen years and then lingers into adulthood.

Men tend to have more severe and longer lasting acne than women, because of the higher levels of testosterone within the body. It is not uncommon for acne in men to last 10 years or more, if left untreated.

Your Cosmetics may be Clogging Your Pores

If you suffer from adult-onset acne you may want to take a closer look at your cosmetics, including cleansers, moisturizers, makeup, and hair care products.

Certain products, especially those with an oil-base, can block pores and create an impaction within the follicle. This blockage is called a comedo, and it's the very beginning of a pimple.

Comedones (the plural of comedo) are non-inflamed acne blemishes, and look like little bumps or blackheads across the skin. These blemishes can become inflamed, and your typical pimple is formed.

To keep pore blockages from forming try to avoid oily skin care products, and use only those marked as noncomedogenic. Be aware, however, that even noncomedogenic products can trigger an acne breakout.

Certain Medications and Conditions can Cause Breakouts

Sometimes adult acne can be a symptom of an underlying problem, like polycystic ovary disease.  Ladies, if you have other symptoms such as increased hair growth and weight gain in addition to acne, you should talk to your doctor.

The use of steroids, certain birth control treatments, hormone therapies and other medications can also cause acne breakouts. Again, talk to your doctor is you believe your prescription medications are triggering or worsening your acne.

The Predisposition to Acne is Heredity

Acne tends to run in families. If one of your parents had acne at any point in their lives, your chance of hitting the adult acne "jackpot" is higher.

And, while it may seem obvious, adults with oily skin types are more likely to get blackheads and blemishes. Skin type is hereditary as well.

Here's What You Can Do About Your Adult Acne

Adult acne can be frustrating, but don't give up hope.  Nearly every case of adult onset acne can be successfully controlled with the right treatment. 

Mild breakouts can usually be cleared with OTC acne treatments.  But, be prepared, adult acne can be stubborn.  You very likely will need help from a dermatologist to get your adult breakouts under control.

These articles will help get you started on your treatment journey:

What Can I Do About Adult Acne?

The Best Adult Acne Treatment Options

Everything You Need to Know About Adult Acne


Del Rosso JQ, Harper JC, Graber EM, et. al.  "Status report from the American Acne & Rosacea Society on medical management of acne in adult women, part 1: overview, clinical characteristics, and laboratory evaluation."  Cutis.  2015 Oct; 96(4):236-41.

Tanghetti EA, Kawata AK, Daniels SR, et. al.  "Understanding the Burden of Adult Female Acne."  J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014 Feb; 7(2): 22–30.