Many of us were told that we would grow out of our acne once we weren’t teenagers anymore, but that has left those of us with adult acne, myself included, wondering, when does acne stop? The answer to that question differs for everyone. For some people, acne really does stop after their teenage years, while others might deal with acne into their 20s, and some people have acne throughout their whole life. But don’t lose hope, the number of people with acne steadily declines as age increases, so even if your acne has persisted a few years past your teens, that doesn’t mean you’ll be dealing with acne forever. In this post, we’ll go through how acne differs based on age, and how to find the most effective treatment to finally put a stop to acne.
How Teenage Acne Works
Acne changes as we age, but biggest difference in acne based on age is the difference between teen acne and adult acne. Acne tends to kick in during the teenage years due to hormonal fluctuations which tend to settle down in the late teens or early 20s.
When teenagers hit puberty, their bodies start producing more sex hormones, like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, than they did in childhood. Although testosterone is typically associated with boys and estrogen and progesterone are associated with girls, boys, girls and intersex folks all produce all three types of hormones, just in varying amounts. Since teenagers of all sexes get acne, it’s clear that no one particular hormone causes increased acne. Instead, hormones cause acne simply by fluctuating and changing.
Changes in sex hormone levels make our oil-producing glands go into overdrive, causing excess oil to accumulate on our skin. This causes two main problems. First, when we produce too much oil, it can easily get clogged in our pores along with dead skin cells, which causes blackheads and whiteheads. Second, acne-causing bacteria feed on the oil our skin produces, so excess oil can cause an increase in acne-causing bacteria, which leads to more pimples as well.
During the teenage years, these hormones fluctuate much more wildly than they do in adulthood, so teenage acne is typically due to an overproduction of oil. Adult acne, on the other hand, often occurs because hormones tend to settle down, causing oil production goes down, and the skin can be somewhat dried out. We typically think of acne as being an issue with too much oil, but the truth is, too little oil can be just as big a problem.
How Adult Acne Works
If teenage acne is primarily caused by too much oil, adult acne is caused by too little. Our skin needs a thin layer of oil called the epidermal barrier in order to protect itself from all kinds of irritation. Things like pollutants in the air, harsh skin care products, or our own fingers can all irritate the skin, but why does that cause issues for acne?
It’s important to avoid irritation as much as possible when you have acne because it triggers two processes that can make acne worse: inflammation and oil production. When something irritates the skin, it tries to protect itself through inflammation and oil production. Inflammation causes the pores to constrict. This helps prevent the irritant from spreading deeper into the skin, but it also traps oil, dead skin cells, and acne-causing bacteria in the pores. While all of this inflammation is happening, the skin also produces an extra burst of oil. This is meant to provide a last minute boost to the epidermal barrier to prevent the irritant from further irritating the skin, but because the skin is inflamed at the same time, much of the extra oil just gets trapped in the pores.
Once teenage hormones settle into a stable pattern, many people experience less acne. People with adult acne, however, often go one of two ways: either they continue to overproduce oil like they did in their teenage years, or their oil production drops off too much, leading to dry skin and more acne related to irritation and inflammation. If you didn’t have acne in your teens, but develop acne as an adult, it’s called adult-onset acne, and it’s likely caused by the latter. If you had acne as a teen and continue to experience it as an adult, it’s called persistent acne and it’s often caused by the former.
What Causes Acne in 20s?
After teenage acne, acne in 20s is the most common, so if you have acne in your 20s, you aren’t alone. In fact, the number of people who have acne in their 20s is barely less than the number of people who have acne in their teens.
Like teenage acne, the cause is usually hormones. Either they’re still fluctuating and haven’t settled into their adult normal yet, or the new normal they’ve settled into has left skin too dry and open to irritation. If you have adult-onset acne in your 20s, a good moisturizer can do wonders, though it won’t cure everything entirely. If you have persistent acne in your 20s, you may still be producing excess oil, but there’s also a good chance that you’re using the wrong products. Let’s say in your early 20s, your hormones finally find a balance and you stop producing so much oil, but you continue using the same products you were using in your teenage years. Those products helped you with your teenage skin which was producing much more oil than you are now, which means those products are likely far too harsh for your new, less oily skin.
What to Do About Acne in 20s
When it comes to acne in 20s, the most common fix is changing up your skin care products. Ironically, acne products can be one of the biggest causes of acne if they’re used incorrectly, and they often are because many acne products are too harsh for 90% of people. So how can you tell if you’re using the wrong products? Look for a few signs.
First, after you wash your face, pay attention to how your skin feels. Does it feel tight or itchy? If so, your skin is probably far less oily than it used to be, and you might need a milder face wash or a good moisturizer. Second, pay attention to when your skin gets oily. If you wash your face and apply an acne treatment cream without putting on moisturizer, does your skin appear oily within half an hour to an hour? If so, it’s very likely that your acne products are irritating your skin, causing a burst of excess oil production and inflammation. Finally, do any of your products sting or burn when you apply them? If so, they are too strong.
It’s a common skin care myth that if something hurts, that means it’s working. In reality, pain signals are your skin’s way of communicating that it’s being damaged, and damaging the skin is never good for acne because it causes irritation and inflammation. Damaging the skin makes acne take even longer to heal, which means it’s more likely to leave behind a scar. So what should you use instead?
Gentle products. We know it sounds counter-intuitive to be gentle with acne, because we want to use the strongest products available to get rid of as much acne as possible, but as we’ve seen, that doesn’t really work. Instead, try products that fight acne and take care of your skin at the same time.
Exposed Skin Care: Gentle Products That Work with Your Skin
At Exposed, we pride ourselves on creating products that work with your skin instead of against it. Unlike many acne products which are so harsh that they tend to cause just as many acne issues as they solve, our products contain low concentrations of key acne fighting ingredients so they can fight acne without irritating the skin. Each of our products contains the best acne-fighting ingredients, both scientific and natural, to create the gentlest, most effective combination possible.
For teen acne, we usually recommend our Basic Kit because it has the fewest steps. Many teenagers struggle to maintain their skincare routine, so the simpler, the better. For adult acne, we generally recommend our Expanded Kit. It only has one extra step, so if you’re an adult and you’re still not great with routines, never fear. We recommend it because the extra step is our signature Moisture Complex. It contains pumpkin seed extract and vitamin E to help the skin retain moisture, but it also reduces redness using green tea extract and caffeine. Combined with our Facial Cleanser, Clearing Tonic, Acne Treatment Serum for the morning, and Clear Pore Serum for the evening, it makes an ideal skin care routine for people in their 20s still dealing with acne.
How is Acne in 30s Different?
Unlike acne in 20s, acne in 30s is rarely leftover from teenage hormonal fluctuations. The most common causes of acne in your 30s are dry skin, using the wrong skin care products, and hormonal conditions.
Hormonal conditions typically go not diagnosed during the teenage years and into the 20s because it’s normal for hormones to fluctuate a lot and cause some problems like mood swings, weight gain, new hair growth, or acne. Sometimes these problems are so severe that they are recognized early, but it’s not unusual for people to go well into their 30s experiencing various hormonal symptoms without an explanation. It’s definitely not unusual for people in their 30s to have acne due to dry skin or using the wrong skin care products, but if your skin seems just as oily as when you were a teenager and you’re using gentle, moisturizing products, and your acne still won’t go away, it can’t hurt to bring up a potential hormone issue with your doctor. Endometriosis, thyroid conditions, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and countless other hormonal conditions can cause all kinds of symptoms, including acne.
If your hormones seem fine but you still can’t get rid of your stubborn acne, make sure you’re following your skin care routine diligently and consistently. If you switch to new products, make sure to use them exactly as directed for at least 6 weeks. If you only use them every now and again or if you use them for 2 weeks then switch again because they weren’t working, then odds are very slim that you’ll find the right skin care products for you. Gentle products take a little bit more time to work, so be patient.
Acne at 40
It’s true that acne at 40 is more unusual than acne in your 20s or 30s, but it’s actually not as strange as you might think. In fact, around 20% of people in their 40s have acne. It can be caused by any of the issues that cause acne in 30s, but there’s another factor that comes into play around age 40: slower skin cell production.
By our 40s, the pace of skin cell production has slowed down significantly which causes issues for acne. When skin cell production is up, skin cells sometimes die in the pore, but they’re quickly pushed out by new, heathy cells, so clogs are less likely to form. When skin cell production slows down, those old skin cells that die in the pore often end up trapped there, creating a blackhead or whitehead.
Oddly enough, one of the best treatments for acne at 40 is the same treatment often used for acne in the teen years: retinoids. Retinoids are a class of drug that function by regulating the life cycle of skin cells. They make sure skin cells are being produced quickly enough to keep the skin cells moving through the pores, but they also make sure skin cells die at the right time too. If they die too soon, skin cell production can’t keep up enough to prevent clogs, but if they live too long, they can cling to the side of the pore and cause clogs that way.
In teenagers, the consistent flow of skin cells through the pores keeps the oil moving through the pores too, preventing it from getting stuck and causing acne. In people in their 40s, oil is typically less of a problem, but retinoids give skin cells the boost they need to keep moving through the pore.
So When Does Acne Go Away?
This post talks about acne ranging anywhere from the teen years to your 40s, which might lead some to ask, when does acne go away? That answer is different for everyone, but generally speaking, rates of acne continue to decline with age.
For instance, only 11% of people in their 50s experience acne, which is almost half as many as do in their 40s. Statistically speaking, acne goes away for many people in their 30s and 40s, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Still, that doesn’t mean you’re “doomed” to a life of acne forever. It’s important to remember that acne is a completely natural skin condition that has been around for thousands of years. Although it can be isolating to have adult acne when it feels like all your friends have grown out of it, remember that you haven’t done anything wrong. Many skin care companies frame acne as something to be ashamed of by calling it “dirty” or insinuating that poor hygiene causes acne. Rest assured that acne has very little to do with hygiene and even the cleanest people get acne—if getting rid of acne was as simple as washing your face more, no one would have it!
Instead of asking “when does acne go away,” try to ask “what can I do about my acne?” This small change gives you more agency to help you feel less powerless. For some of us, myself included, acne seems content to stick around for a while, and even if I can’t change that entirely, that doesn’t mean I can’t change anything. We can try gentler products and stick to them consistently to really see if they help. We can talk to a doctor about hormonal conditions that could be causing adult acne. Treating adult acne is tricky, but not impossible.