Adult acne: what is it and can it be treated?

Acne is often one of those things you grow out of… unless you don’t. If you’re among the one in 20 women and one in 100 men who still have acne over the age of 25, you’ll know that all too well. Indeed, some people find they develop acne for the first time as adults. And to make matters worse, treatments that worked in your teenage years may have given up the ghost now.

What causes it?

Acne occurs when the sebaceous glands in your skin produce too much oil, known as sebum. The sebum plugs up the tiny hair follicles with dead skin and the plug either turns into a comedone, (a blackhead), milia (small white cysts) or gets further infected to become a red lump (a papule or pustule) or a lump underneath the skin (a nodule or cyst).

Why does it happen?

Teenage acne is mainly driven by hormones, and that’s the case for quite a lot of adult women too (that’s why some women find their skin changes when they’re on the contraceptive pill). Stress can also aggravate acne, because the skin produces hormones that stimulate oil production. Medication can be another culprit, and smoking can contribute too. Another factor is that adult acne seems to run in families.

Coping with adult acne at home


  • Check your skincare products, including your sunscreen. Ideally you want them oil free, and if they’re labelled ‘non-comedogenic’ that may help too.

  • Try over-the counter products containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

  • Look for a light weight moisturiser with hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin. An oil heavy moisturiser may make the acne worse.

  • Make an appointment with a doctor or dermatologist if your acne is distressing you. Adult acne can be hugely mentally debilitating and cause confidence issues; there is no shame in seeking help.


  • Clean your skin more than twice a day. Acne isn’t caused by ‘dirty’ skin, whatever you’ve been told in the past, and in fact you can make things worse if your skin ends up vulnerable (it could lead to further breakouts) and irritated.

  • Avoid spicy food or fad diets. It’s a myth that these will affect your skin.

  • Pick and squeeze your spots, and especially not bigger cysts. You could end up with complications and worse scarring.

  • Try a sunbed. There’s no evidence it will work, and plenty that it’ll damage your skin in other ways, especially if you’re using a topical medication already.

Treatments on offer from the doctor

“Depending on your presentation and your overall health – and of course a health risk assessment – dermatologists may be able to offer a wider range of treatment options,” says Dr Kurt Ayerst, consultant dermatologist at Benenden Hospital in Kent. “Some of these, like hormone treatments and isotretinoin, are better understood by consultant dermatologists – and in fact sometimes they’re only available from consultant dermatologists in the UK.”

If referred to see a dermatologist, Benenden Health members may be able to access consultations and any tests required to diagnose your condition. This may be at Benenden Hospital in Kent if you live within the catchment. Or, you could be offered diagnostic tests, with a financial limit of £1800 at a convenient hospital. Each case is assessed individually. Speak to Benenden Health member services on 0800 414 8100 for more information.