Causes of Acne in Older Women

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If you're frustrated by blemishes you thought you'd left behind in your teenage years, you're not alone. Many women have acne breakouts into their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Here's a look at how common adult acne is among older women, its causes and what you can do to treat the problem.

Dermatologist looking at woman's skin
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Various studies have investigated the prevalence of acne among older adults. The primary causes of acne are the same for the young and old:

  • Over-production of oil, or sebum, by the skin
  • Abnormally sticky or abundant skin cells produced within the follicle, forming a plug
  • Proliferation of a normal skin bacteria called P. acnes within the plugged follicle
  • Inflammation of the skin

Adult acne is more common in women than in men, and it often continues past menopause.

Acne Triggers in Older Women

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), there are several factors that may cause acne in women in their 20s, 30s and beyond. They include:

  • Hormone fluctuations: Hormonal fluctuations that occur during menstruation, pregnancy, ovarian cysts, stopping or starting birth control pills, and menopause are believed to be a major cause of adult acne. Hormone imbalances can affect oil production by the skin as well as how effectively skin cells are shed.
  • Family history: If you have brothers or sisters with acne, you may be more likely to develop it as an adult, according to the AAD.
  • Cosmetics: Anti-aging creams, sunscreens, hair pomades, and sprays containing heavy oils or perfumes may clog pores and cause acne, typically along your hairline, scalp, or face. This type of acne can occur later in life and has been dubbed acne cosmetica by dermatologists.
  • Smoking: Acne flares are more common in smokers.
  • Diet: While still limited, research has been emerging that the Western diet, high in sugars, dairy products, saturated fats, and trans fats may stimulate insulin/insulin-like growth factor and promote acne.
  • Stress: Being under stress can boost the production of male hormones called androgens. These hormones, which naturally occur in both men and women, stimulate oil production and can worsen acne.

Experts believe that an excessive amount of androgens, a condition called hyperandrogenism, may be a significant cause of late-onset acne in women who didn't have acne as adolescents.

Preventing Adult Acne

There are simple things you can do on your own to help prevent adult acne and keep it from getting worse. First, wash your skin once or twice a day with a non-drying, non-comedogenic cleanser that won't clog your pores.

Look for cosmetic products labeled oil-free, non-comedogenic and non-acnegenic (unlikely to cause acne breakouts). In addition, avoid heavy skin creams or hair products which may aggravate your skin condition.

When to See a Dermatologist

Whether your acne has persisted since your teenage years or has appeared as a new skin problem in later life, consider seeing a dermatologist if you're looking for treatment options.

A specialist can help you determine the factors which may be triggering your acne and can help you with prescription medications to help regulate hormones or treat your breakouts without drying or otherwise irritating your aging skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common is adult acne for women?

    In one study, the prevalence of acne was about 50% in women 20 to 29 years old, 35% in women 30 to 39 years old, 26% in women 40 to 49 years old, and 15% in women 50 or older.

  • How do you treat adult acne?

    Your dermatologist can work with you to find a treatment that's right for your skin type and the severity of acne. They may start with a topical option, such as tretinoin. For severe acne, your doctor may suggest isotretinoin, which can be effective but requires precautions since it can cause birth defects. Spironolactone may also be considered for hormonally driven acne.

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