Adult Acne: Types, Causes, Prevention, Foods to Avoid

By Dr. Kalpana Sarangi in Dermatology

Apr 24 , 2023 | 4 min read


One common skin condition that starts in puberty is acne. But, it can occur at any stage in life and continue into adulthood. Adult acne is also called post-adolescent acne or adult-onset acne. Acne typically develops when oil and dead skin cells clog the pores on the skin and cause lesions commonly known as pimples or zits. Different types of adult acne can develop throughout the body, but the most common areas are the face, chest, shoulders and back. The most common acne causes include stress, hormonal changes and certain medicines. Several options are available to help people prevent and treat this skin condition.

Who does acne primarily affect?

Acne mainly affects teenagers undergoing hormonal changes, but many individuals continue to struggle with the condition into their 20s, 30s and beyond.

It usually develops during the teenage years because the hormones known as androgens increase the size of the skin's oil glands during this time. The enlarged oil glands start producing more oil, thus clogging the pores.

Where does acne most commonly occur?

Acne mainly occurs on the face, chest, forehead, upper back and shoulders. Oil glands are present throughout the body but are mostly in these areas.

What causes acne?

Common acne causes include

  • Increased hormone levels during puberty
  • Hormone changes during pregnancy and the menstrual cycle
  • Starting with or stopping birth control pills
  • Some medicines like lithium, barbiturates and corticosteroids
  • Poor and unbalanced diet
  • Certain cosmetics
  • Grease and oil from the scalp, and cooking or mineral oil
  • Pressure or friction from tight collars, backpacks or helmets
  • Humidity or pollution

Diagnosis of acne

  • Doctors usually use a skin exam to diagnose adult acne.
  • They may also ask the patients if they have a family history of acne or whether they are undergoing stress, as these are major risk factors.
  • Women and teenage girls need to give the details of their menstrual cycles as these are also related to breakouts.

What are different types of acne called?

Acne can vary in colour, size and level of pain. Different types of acne include:

  • Whiteheads: They are small breakouts that remain under the skin.
  • Blackheads: These are visible black breakouts that appear on the skin's surface.
  • Papules: These are tiny, pink bumps visible on the skin's surface.
  • Nodules: Visible on the skin surface; these are solid, painful and large pimples embedded deep within the skin.
  • Pustules: The base of the pustules is red, while the top is filled with pus. They are clearly visible on the skin's surface.
  • Cysts: Filled with pus, cysts are seen on the skin surface and are painful too. They can also cause scars.

What are the causes of acne?

  • One of the main acne causes is the clogging of the tiny skin pores called hair follicles.
  • The sebaceous glands lubricate hair and skin through sebum production. In acne, they produce excessive sebum that blends with dead skin cells to create a plug in the hair follicle. If this plugged follicle is very close to the skin surface, it bulges outwards to form a whitehead. Conversely, the plugged follicle creates a blackhead if it remains open to the skin.
  • Increased testosterone levels that cause the oil glands to produce more sebum than is required can cause acne during puberty.
  • Acne can even be hereditary. Kids of parents with acne are more likely to develop more severe acne at a very early age.
  • Women have a higher chance of developing adult acne than men. This is because of significant changes in hormone levels during periods and pregnancy. Polycystic ovary syndrome in women can also cause acne.
  • Other triggers or acne causes include cosmetic products, steroid medicines used to treat bipolar disorder and depression and certain drugs used to cure epilepsy.
  • Smoking can also contribute to acne flare-ups.
  • Emotional stress that creates biological changes in the body can trigger adult acne. These include feelings like being pressured, anxious or scared. This is when the adrenal glands produce more stress hormone cortisol, which increases sebum production and worsens acne.
  • Even physical strain on the body triggers hormone changes and inflammation and weakens immunity, all of which cause acne.
  • Undiagnosed medical issues like perioral dermatitis, rosacea, Cushing syndrome and keratosis pilaris can cause acne breakouts.

Adult acne prevention

  • To prevent acne flare-ups, individuals should avoid possible triggers.
  • Following a proper skin care regimen and avoiding non-comedogenic and unlabelled products is essential.
  • People should also try and manage stress levels by indulging in breathing exercises, mindfulness and yoga.
  • Having a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and getting sufficient sleep can positively impact the skin and relieve acne.
  • People must follow their skin specialist's advice and use medicines and products as advised by their dermatologists.
  • Patience is the key, as change will not happen overnight. Give the medications time to work, and do not give up on acne treatment too early.

Foods to avoid during adult acne

Individuals experiencing acne should avoid the following:

  • Foods high in sugar, like candies, cakes, cookies, sweet rolls, doughnuts and pastries.
  • Milk, as it increases insulin levels, inhibits cell death and promotes inflammation and acne breakout.
  • Dairy products as they have their own set of hormones, progesterones, estrogens and even testosterone that can exacerbate the endogenous hormones and increase acne flare-ups.
  • Any sugary drinks
  • Too much of fried and spicy foods



So, these are the things that an individual suffering from adult acne needs to know. A dermatologist may suggest different non-prescription medicines for acne. People might require stronger prescription medicines depending on the severity of the acne condition, age, acne type and the efficacy of the over-the-counter medicines. Different therapies and medicines that target underlying acne causes can be effective. People may require either one or several treatments based on their skin condition.