Adult acne: what causes it and how it can be treated

Adult acne is now an issue for many, experts say. We find out potential causes and discuss preventative measures

Clinical studies indicate that almost 50 per cent of people in the 20 to 40 age group suffer from acne and persistently oily skin Getty Images
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If you're forever bemoaning the presence of pimples, spots, painful under-the-skin boils or, to give it its medical term, acne, then you're definitely not alone. According to the International Dermal Institute, adult acne is on the rise. Clinical studies indicate that almost 50 per cent of people in the 20 to 40 age group suffer from acne and persistently oily skin. And at Dubai Derma 2018, the UAE's annual dermatology conference, adult acne was a major subject.

Olimpia Carmen, anti-ageing and cosmetology expert, and head of the Laser & Skin Care Department at Wellbeing Medical Centre, says: "I have been working in Dubai for the past 20 years and I have treated different cases of skincare conditions, but recently I have found a 60 per cent increase in the number of adults seeking specialist acne treatment, with more women affected than men."

"It has been the bane of my life, and I still suffer," says Dubai resident ­Nicola Kathleen Theresa, of the ­under-the-skin cysts she has suffered from throughout her adult life. Others who have come forward for the purpose of this article (who prefer not to be named) suggest that adult acne has impacted their social lives and even their relationships, inhibiting their interactions to the point of avoiding job interviews and nights-out with their friends.

According to the International Dermal Institute, what makes acne worse for adults is our sensitised skin, which is much less resilient than it might have been in our teenage years. The kind of acne that adults face is inflammatory, with hormonal breakouts around the mouth, chin and jaw. We’re also less responsive to treatment than teenagers.

“A pimple occurs when sebum – the lubricant that naturally moisturises our skin and hair – is trapped under dead skin cells and debris in a hair follicle,” says Carmen. The sebaceous gland is responsible for the production of this natural lipid. If it’s overstimulated, it produces too much oil, which then begins to gather and clog in our skin’s ultra-fine hair follicles and pores, causing acne.

"Hormonal imbalance is usually one of the root causes [of sebum production]," says Amelia Rynkowska, founder of Cult of Treehouse, an organic skincare line inspired by Rynkowska's own battles with adult acne. "Endocrine disrupters in the form of chronic stress have seen rising cortisol levels [especially] in very busy people, which is associated with a rise in sebum production, manifesting as painful eruptions," she says.

Stress, then, may well be why many of us are now facing persistent pimples. Clinical psychologist Dr Saliha Afridi agrees. "Stress stimulates the adrenal glands. When the body is stressed, it pumps out hormones, specifically androgens, which stimulate the oil glands. Our body communicates that it is under distress through these symptoms." As with hair loss, indigestion and headaches, acne indicates that the wider, stress-causing problems in our lives need to be addressed.

Afridi goes on to suggest that people tend to make unhealthier food choices when they’re stressed, choosing processed comfort foods, or sugar-enriched drinks and coffee instead of water. There are other dietary factors that could be the cause of our later-in-life acne breakouts. “­Hormonal imbalances are also seen in oestrogen dominance through our consumption or absorption of bad oestrogens,” says ­Rynkowska. Farm-raised animal products such as dairy (cows are often fed hormones to stimulate lactation), chicken and eggs may be adding extra, unnecessary oestrogen to our bodies.

Nutrition and diabetic expert Rashi Chowdhary also warns that acne can be the first sign of gut inflammation, caused by the genetically modified or hormonally fortified foods we consume. "Staying away from gluten, dairy, sugar, soy and lentils is the solution to improving your gut health."
Rynkowska recommends "adaptogenic herbs" such as turmeric, aloe vera, Indian ginseng and holy basil, and medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and cordyceps, to help the body cope with day-to-day stresses.

Another tip if you're prone to adult acne is to steer clear of heavy, pore-blocking moisturisers and make-up. "The wrong skincare can have a big influence on the sebaceous glands," explains Carmen. "Many begin investing in anti-ageing skincare, but sometimes these creams, if not chosen properly, can overload the skin and cause acne. Heavy make-up is another cause."

Rynkowska says of her skincare line: “All of our products are free from what we classify as dark matter, including synthetic fillers and fragrances, parabens, silicones, petrochemicals, refined oils, mineral oils, GMOs and any unnecessary additives. We never use mutated or over-processed derivatives or any other ingredients that could compromise the potency and effectiveness of the live product,” she says.

Solutions to adult acne may well come in the form of a more holistic approach to our health. Before heading to the doctor for heavy-duty medication that could do more harm than good (bleach-enriched creams, liver-harming tablets, etc), tackling stress could be a step in the right direction. Each of the experts consulted recommended this as a first port of call.

Next, consider your diet. Cutting out gut-damaging processed foods, refined sugars and dairy could help, as could finding exactly the right beauty products for your skin type. And never forget water. Drink your recommended eight glasses a day. Your blemish-­free skin may well thank you for it.

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