What It’s Like to Live With Adult Acne

‘It’s embarrassing to be sitting in a room full of adults and feel like you have a teenage problem.’


For many of us, acne is a phase: Aggravating, sure, but once puberty comes to an end and our hormones settle down, our faces mostly clear right up. Not everyone is so fortunate, though, and while their teenage years may be long behind them, the same old acne follows them into adulthood. 

“Having adult acne is incredibly frustrating, because it can feel like there’s no end in sight, whereas teenage acne feels like a temporary result of hormonal changes,” says Evan Powell, who suffered from severe breakouts well into his 20s. “When I had adult acne, I fixated on it every time I looked in the mirror. I became incredibly self-conscious in social settings and found myself believing that my acne was all anyone could focus on. Obviously that wasn’t the case, so you can see how adult acne led me to have an irrational perception of myself.”

Linda (an alias to protect her privacy) still deals with adult acne at the age of 26. “For a while, I felt a sense of unfairness that I had no skin problems as a teenager, and now all of a sudden I had more pimples than ever,” she says. “At times, it interfered with my confidence in ways that damaged my ability to put myself out there as a freelancer or in a professional setting. It feels like a problem for young people, so to be in a more mature space and have to deal with that is a little confusing. It’s a bit embarrassing to be sitting in a room full of adults and feel like you have a teenage problem. As an adult,  you lacking confidence could affect your income or your ability to be social more than it might matter for someone in high school.”

The real trouble with adult acne is that it can result from any number of things. “There are several potential causes of adult acne, and different factors play a role in different people,” explains dermatologist Rajani Katta, author of Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. “We definitely know that genetics and hormones play a role, but how you take care of your skin and what you eat can also play a role for some individuals.”

In which case, if you suffer from adult acne, there are some preemptive steps you can take before resorting to prescription treatments. “In terms of skincare, it’s important to wash your face daily, and sometimes twice daily,” Katta suggests. “It’s especially important to cleanse after working out. It’s also important to pay attention to oily products that can trigger acne, such as hair-care products that can cause breakouts on the forehead.”

“In terms of diet,” Katta continues, “foods that lead to higher levels of blood sugar have been shown to trigger acne. That means it’s important to stay away from processed carbohydrates and added sugars. There have also been multiple reports of some individuals breaking out after whey protein supplements or shakes. That’s probably because some people (not all) seem to be more sensitive to dairy.”

Linda has yet to consult a dermatologist about her adult acne, but she has tried her best to find remedies in the form of skincare products. “I’ve never gone to a dermatologist and been given a routine, but I use these dot things that I put on my pimples,” she explains. “Spot treatments of salicylic acid have been something that helps me as well.”

Katta also recommends salicylic acid, but she does mention some potential downsides. “In terms of skincare products, if you have oily skin, then a cleanser for acne-prone skin may help — most of these contain either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, and they may help mild cases of acne, although they can cause irritation for some people,” she says. “For acne on the back, body washes that contain benzoyl peroxide can also help, although you have to be careful because sometimes they can cause irritation. For some individuals with mild acne on the face, I recommend benzoyl peroxide creams or gels that are applied to the skin and left on, although again, this can cause irritation.”

If those treatments fail, however, visiting a dermatologist should be the next step. “For acne that’s more severe or that’s starting to scar,” Katta says, “I always recommend seeing your dermatologist for prescription-strength treatments. Once you develop acne scarring, it becomes harder to treat, which is why we emphasize the importance of early effective treatment.”

Powell went down that route and was recently able to mend his acne with the help of a prescription medication called isotretinoin. “At first, I was apprehensive to try isotretinoin because of reported side effects,” he says. “Instead, I resorted to Googling acne remedies obsessively, ordering a wide variety of products and hoping they would provide a magical cure. After exhausting what felt like all of my options, my roommate recommended that I go for isotretinoin. She swore by the drug and assured me that, so long as a dermatologist is carefully overseeing my usage of the drug, I wouldn’t experience any extreme side effects. Her dermatologist made me feel incredibly at ease by prescribing a low dosage of isotretinoin and pointing to her successful track record. Lo and behold, isotretinoin changed my life. When my skin cleared up, I felt liberated and was finally able to focus my attention toward more important things.”