Treating Adult Acne

Whether you have had acne since you were a kid, or you've developed pimples later in life, adult acne is a frustrating problem. But the acne treatment you used as a teen may not work for your adult breakouts.

Fortunately, with proper care and a little time, adult acne can be successfully treated. 

Senior woman doing her morning routine in bathroom
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Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments

When pimples appear, most people set out for the skincare aisle first. And if your acne is mild, these may do just the trick, provided you choose the right products for your skin.

When you're shopping for a product, make sure it contains a proven acne treatment ingredient like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or sulfur. (out of these three, benzoyl peroxide is the most effective.) It doesn't really matter if you use cleansers, toning solutions, lotions, and creams. Just choose one that you're comfortable with and follow the directions on the package.

Unless your skin is super oily, stay away from skincare products marketed toward teens. These products are designed for the typically oily teenage skin and may be too drying for adults whose skin produces less sebum. As adult acne has become more common, many manufacturers have developed acne skincare lines specifically with adult skin in mind.

OTC products aren't for moderate to severe acne, and they won't work for everyone. If you're not seeing good clearing within ten to 12 weeks, don't continue on with a string of over-the-counter products. Call your healthcare provider instead of a more powerful prescription medication.

Prescription Topical Acne Medications

There are so many prescription medications that treat acne, there's definitely one out there for you. So, if OTC products aren't cutting it, prescription medication is the next step.

Topical retinoids are often the perfect fit for your adult acne-prone skin. They help to increase cell turnover and are great for slowing the formation of microcomedones, the very beginning of pore blockage. (Think of microcomedones as pre-pimples.) They also help reduce fine lines and wrinkles and can make the skin look younger.

For mild to severe breakouts or inflammatory acne, your dermatologist might prescribe a topical antibiotic. These help to reduce the amount of acne-causing bacteria on the skin. Topical antibiotics are typically used short-term and along with another acne medication, like benzoyl peroxide. 

Many cases of adult acne also respond well to combination medications, and there are many available. Combination medications contain two different acne medications in one topical product and work by treating several acne causes at once.

Oral Acne Medications

Topical medications aren't your only acne treatment options. For stubborn or severe cases of acne that don't improve with topical treatments, your dermatologist might also prescribe oral medications. These are medications that you take by mouth, in pill form usually, rather than applying to your skin.

Of all the oral acne medications, isotretinoin (formerly sold as Accutane) is probably the most widely known. Isotretinoin may be an option for those whose acne isn't being effectively controlled with other treatments.

Isotretinoin is really is meant for those with severe or cystic acne, not for people who get the occasional breakout. Not everybody is a candidate for isotretinoin; your dermatologist can tell you if it's a good option for you.

But isotretinoin isn't the only oral medication used to treat acne breakouts. Oral antibiotics are also helpful in clearing some cases of adult acne, especially inflamed acne breakouts. Oral antibiotics are often prescribed along with a topical treatment, like Retin-A.

Often the oral antibiotic is used just until acne is under control, and then is stopped. At that point, the topical treatment alone keeps acne from returning. This is a good point to remember for those who are worried about taking oral antibiotics for a long period of time.

Women have a few more acne treatment options that can help with "hormonal breakouts." Oral contraceptives can be used, either along with topical acne treatments or on their own.

Birth control pills by themselves aren't going to clear up serious cases of acne but are especially helpful for women who break out around the time of their monthly cycle. Birth control pills help to balance hormonal fluctuations that impact acne development.

Spironolactone is an anti-androgen drug and another medication that is sometimes prescribed off-label to treat hormonal acne. Again, it is used for women only. Spironolactone blocks androgen receptors in the body. Androgen hormones have been closely linked to acne development.

For some women, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help clear up acne breakouts. HRT is most often used to treat post-menopausal women who are also suffering from other effects, like mood swings, thinning hair, etc. HRT isn't the first treatment choice for women who are dealing with acne only.

A Word From Verywell

No matter what, if you are struggling to get your adult acne under control, consider making an appointment with a dermatologist. With so many treatment options available, there's definitely one that will help clear your adult acne. So don't wait, make that appointment today.

1 Source
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  1. Leyden J, Stein-Gold L, Weiss J. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for AcneDermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2017;7(3):293–304. doi:10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2

Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.