What to do about adult acne

by Leigh Matthews April 04, 2020

What to do about adult acne

Acne is often framed as the scourge of teenagers everywhere, but adults get acne too. There are many different types of adult acne and types and causes vary from person to person. Figuring out what’s causing your acne is half the battle to figuring out the most effective remedy. This article summarises to the top 7 strategies to help keep adult acne under control.

1. Avoid being sedentary

Woman exercising at homeAdult acne can be an external sign of internal troubles, such as problems with blood sugar regulation and inflammation. Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight can improve something called insulin sensitivity. Basically, this is the ability of your body’s cells to respond to the hormone insulin which helps move sugar from your blood and into your cells to be used as fuel (or stored).

It’s also good to avoid sitting for long stretches of time. Try to get up and move around every half an hour to keep your metabolism ticking along nicely and encourage your body to respond to insulin. Keeping your blood sugar in check means you’re less likely to have increased inflammation and acne flare-ups.

2. Stay zen to prevent flare-ups

Doing crafts at homeStress and acne are linked in a whole host of ways. For instance, stress can affect levels of hormones such as cortisol and androgens that influence the growth of skin cells and the production of sebum (the oily substance in the skin). Too much sebum and rapid skin cell turnover lead to clogged pores, which can lead to acne. In one observational study, daily stress made acne worse in a third of adult women.

Where you can, make changes to avoid unnecessary sources of stress. This might mean something as drastic as changing your job, moving house, or taking a break from a partner who is a source of stress.
Where stress is unavoidable, find healthy ways to handle it, such as:

Practising meditation daily
– Doing yoga and/or getting other regular exercises
– Reading as escapism
– Listening to music and dancing!
– Taking a relaxing bath
– Drawing, painting, or crafting
– Making use of adaptogenic herbs (like Rhodiola Rosea) and calming natural health products like L-theanine.

      Above all, avoid unhealthy coping habits such as comfort eating or smoking. We all know that smoking is bad for our general health, but why is it linked to adult acne? In short, smoking contributes to acne by:

      • Increasing free radical damage to the skin, leaving it more vulnerable to infection.
      • ‘Stealing’ antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, which can impair collagen production and skin hydration.
      • Affecting blood circulation, meaning poor nourishment of the skin.

      Indeed, nicotine causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels), which can reduce the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the tiny vessels in the skin. This makes it harder for the skin to heal, which could lead to increased acne scarring.

      Stress can also affect blood sugar levels and digestive health, both of which are linked to acne. Indeed, some studies have found that adults with acne are more likely to have digestive distress.

      3. Practise good sleep hygiene

      Woman sleeping deeplyNot enough sleep or poor-quality sleep is an emerging cause of adult acne. While it’s not entirely clear why sleep restriction and acne are connected, it’s likely due to all the well-known negative effects of a lack of good sleep. These include increased sensitivity to stress, hormonal upset, poor immune function, and slower healing.

      So, if your acne has flared up recently, check in on your sleep patterns. Avoid any of the following:

      – Staying up late
      – Using screens in the evening
      – Drinking caffeine after dinner
      – Too much light in your bedroom (get blackout curtains)
      – Too much noise in your bedroom (consider a white noise machine)
      – Overheating – have your bedroom thermostat set to a couple of degrees lower than the rest of the house

      – Sleeping on an old, lumpy or foam mattress – mattresses usually need replacing every 8-10 years. Choose a mattress made with natural latex, wool, and cotton to help with temperature regulation and avoid off-gassing chemicals that can disrupt sleep.

        Finally, if you find that you’re waking up in the night, this might be a sign of low blood sugar. In this case, eat a small, protein-rich snack before bed, such as a rice cracker with peanut butter.

        4. Hydrate sensibly

        Not drinking enough water can leave skin dry and vulnerable to cracks. This exposes the skin to infection, which can cause acne.

        Hands with waterStay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. This might be in the form of filtered tap water or as herbal, caffeine-free teas and will depend on the season of the year and on how much exercise you do (whether or not you are sweating).

        Remember that food also contains water, so this needn’t all be in the form of just water. In any case, don’t reach for a soft drink or a processed juice, because sugary drinks are a cause of acne in themselves.

        5. Skip the sugar, ditch the dairy

        Healthy SaladA high-carbohydrate diet, especially one with a lot of refined (processed) carbs is a well-known adult acne trigger. Too much ‘instant’ sugar from refined cereals, biscuits, soft drinks, cookies, cakes, bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, and so on can increase inflammation and compromise immune function.

        A high GI diet can even upset your microbiome and disrupt the gut-brain axis, which might then upset your emotional health, all of which contributes to acne development.

        For many folks, lactose intolerance is a big acne trigger, as is sugar. And, hey, guess which food typically contains lots of sugar and dairy? Chocolate! That’s right, the idea that chocolate and cheese cause acne isn’t too far from the mark, it’s just that the mechanism at work is a bit more complex.

        Several studies have linked dairy products to acne, including one that found an increased risk of severe teenage acne in high school students consuming dairy (5). One 2018 meta-analysis including data from thousands of people concluded that eating dairy increased the risk of acne by around 25%.

        If your acne flares up whenever you eat a certain food, pay attention to that. Ideally, work with a nutritionist or dietitian who can help you keep a food and symptom diary to identify triggers. As a general rule:

        • Switch simple, refined carbs for more complex carbs and cut down overall carb intake.
        • Pair any carbs with healthy proteins and fats (to slow down the rush of sugar into your bloodstream).
        • Keep sweet treats to a minimum – once or twice a week instead of as a daily dessert.

        6. Nourish your microbiome

        Fermented Food kimchiAn imbalance in gut bacteria (and bacteria on the skin) can lead to acne. This can be a direct result of having too few good bacteria to fight off the acne-causing bacterium Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes; formerly called Propionibacterium acnes). Or, it might be a result of intestinal dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance) leading to a leaky gut and increased inflammation throughout the body.

        When bad bacteria damage the gut and cause it to become ‘leaky’, foods that didn’t use to cause you a problem might suddenly trigger a sensitivity reaction or even an allergy. Symptoms of food sensitivity may include, you guessed it, acne.

        Probiotics could help keep adult acne under control, with some studies finding that certain probiotic species such as Streptococcus salivarius and Lactococcus sp. HY449 had a direct effect on C. acnes. A diet that contains prebiotic foods such as artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, and many other fresh fruits and vegetables may also help by supporting a healthy microbiome.

        Look for a multi-strain, shelf-stable probiotic with a guaranteed minimum colony forming units at the time of expiry (10 billion or so is a good baseline). Take this daily as directed by the product manufacturer.

        7. Switch to natural, non-toxic skincare

        Natural Skincare IngredientsNon-toxic toiletry and cosmetic products don’t contain parabens, alcohol, formaldehyde, fragrance/perfume, or petroleum products. These common ingredients can dry out or irritate skin and may contribute to increased inflammation and hormone disruption. Consider using a natural product that contains antioxidants and antibacterial ingredients such as tea tree and witch hazel, or even cannabinoids as they contain antibacterial substances and can help soothe irritated skin.

        It’s also a good idea to keep skin clean and clear of comedogenic (pore-blocking) make-up. And, if you can, try to lightly exfoliate your skin a few times a week as this helps remove dead skin cells that can otherwise block pores.

        If you, like me, have noticed changes in your skin as you get older, you may also want to reassess any long-held skincare habits. In our younger years, skin is typically pretty good at maintaining its moisture levels. As we age, skin can lose volume and plumpness and find it harder to stay hydrated, which can leave it vulnerable to infection and acne.

        If you never needed to moisturise in your twenties and early thirties but are noticing dry skin and acne now, check in with your skin and see if your skincare regimen needs updating. You’ll also want to choose simple natural products that nourish and support your skin. After all, your skin is already an expert at fighting off the bacteria that cause adult acne.

        Final thoughts on adult acne

        Adult AcneAll of us carry P.acnes bacteria on our skin, and poor hygiene isn’t the reason for most cases of acne. Instead, acne tends to occur only when there’s a problem with immune function, inflammation, or hormone balance. This means that keeping acne under control may well rely more on taking care of your general health than buying overpriced topical acne treatments.

        Acne isn’t just an issue for teenagers. It can strike at any time during life and has a whole range of potential causes. Treating adult acne might mean making lifestyle and dietary modifications, taking medications to address underlying health issues, or simply changing your skincare routine. There’s no tried and true adult acne remedy that works for everybody, but taking steps towards a healthier, happier lifestyle could help reduce the severity of acne outbreaks.

        In summary:

        1. Achieve and maintain healthy body weight and avoid being sedentary.
        2. Practice good stress management (meditation, yoga, reading, walks in nature).
        3. Practice good sleep hygiene and prioritise good sleep (no screens late at night, cool room, blackout blinds, etc.).
        4. Drink plenty of water or other non-sugary, non-alcoholic beverages.
        5. Skip the sugar and ditch the dairy.
        6. Nourish your microbiome with a daily probiotic and prebiotic foods.
        7. Use skin care products that support healthy skin and don’t cause irritation and dryness.

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        Leigh Matthews
        Leigh Matthews


        Leigh Matthews is a medical writer with 15 years of professional experience in the field of natural health. She is the author of Eat to Beat Acne: how a plant-based diet can help heal your skin. She holds a Higher Diploma in Nutritional Therapy and a first-class honours degree in English and Philosophy. She is a kindhearted nerd with a penchant for personalised medicine and nutrigenomics, a passion for social justice, and almost 16 years of veganism under her belt. Leigh lives on the coast in BC, Canada, where she walks her dog in the forest and on the beach, grows vegetables, and tries to follow a zero-waste lifestyle.

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