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Adult acne: What causes it and how to treat it

Adult-onset acne can strike in your 30s, 40s and 50s. We asked University of Minnesota Health Dermatologist Ronda Farah, MD, FAAD, explains what causes it and how to treat it.
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What comes to mind when you hear the word “acne?”

If you thought of “teenager” or “puberty,” you’re not alone. Many of us think of acne as a temporary condition associated with our teenage years. But acne can strike adults, too. Adult-onset acne can develop in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, and it can be just as frustrating as the teenage variety.

We spoke with University of Minnesota Health Dermatologist Ronda Farah, MD, FAAD, to learn more about this condition.

“Acne is the most common skin condition in the United States, and it affects up to 50 million people,” Farah said. “It can be a frustrating and socially isolating condition. Beyond the physical symptoms, it can take a mental and emotional toll, causing depression, anxiety, or low self esteem.”

University of Minnesota Health dermatologists provide comprehensive treatment for conditions ranging from acne to skin cancer. Learn more about our care.

About adult-onset acne

Although acne in general can have many causes, adult-onset acne tends to be hormone-related. It often affects women during periods of hormonal change, such as those that occur during pregnancy or while using birth control, Farah said. Menopause is also a common cause of adult-onset acne.

There is also some evidence that stress may play a role in adult-onset acne, Farah added. During times of stress, the body releases hormones—some of which might stimulate oil glands in the skin. Family history may also play a role, because acne can run in families.

Pinpointing the cause is often difficult, which may cause additional frustration among those with adult-onset acne, Farah said.

Treatment options for adult-onset acne

Fortunately, there are treatment options for adult-onset acne. Farah recommends non-comedogenic or oil-free hair and skin care products; topical creams such as retinols and benzoyl peroxide-containing products; and topical antibiotic cream for those who are not pregnant or breastfeeding.

Other treatments target the specific hormonal causes of adult-onset acne.

“When treating women with adult-onset acne, I try to identify the hormone issue causing the acne and then target those hormones,” Farah said. Oral medications, such as spironolactone, can help. Birth control pills and oral antibiotics can also help resolve adult-onset acne.

When to seek a dermatologist’s help

If you’re an adult whose skin is breaking out, it’s important to be evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist, Farah said.

“In rare instances, adult-onset acne may indicate another health problem or disease, so it’s important to be evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist,” Farah said. “A dermatologist can help patients determine what is causing their acne, tailor the treatment to the trigger and rule out any other contributing medical issues.”

The University of Minnesota Health dermatology team is well-positioned to care for patients with adult-onset acne. Our board-certified dermatologists have a high level of expertise in various skin diseases—and their research helps set new standards for dermatology care.

Our University of Minnesota Health Cosmetic Center offers chemical peels and skin resurfacing for acne scarring or discoloration.

 “We can manage the simplest to the most complex acne patients—and address cosmetic concerns—all under one roof,” Farah said.


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