Blemishes and breakouts plagued you throughout your teens and 20s, and just when you thought those pesky zits were gone for good, they’ve come back to haunt you yet again. You might take comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one getting college flashbacks. Research shows that 35% of women in their 30s, 26% in their 40s, and 15% over 50 battle breakouts.
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But simply reaching for the face wash that helped you fight zits 10 or 15 years ago may not be the best move. As we age, the skin becomes drier, so you may need to use milder products. You may also want to consider using something that’s tailored to the cause of your breakouts.
Here, five common triggers for adult acne, plus products and pointers that can help you get clear skin for good:
Experts say stress can lead to acne by signaling the release of cortisol, a hormone that tells your body to produce more pore-clogging oil.
Fight back: Fight back against oil the second you feel it on your face with Nelsons Pure & Clear Purifying Cleansing Wipes ($27; amazon.com). Made with a pimple-fighting witch hazel-based solution, it will freshen skin and help ward off pimples in a flash. You may also want to keep spot treatments handy. We like Origins Super Spot Remover Acne Treatment Gel ($17, ulta.com) because it’s free of benzoyl peroxide, a drying ingredient that’s not ideal for aging skin. Just dab it on your stress-induced blemish the second you feel it rearing its ugly head to kill the bacteria and reduce redness.
Another great way to fight stress? Get up and move! According to John Ratey, MD, just two minutes of exercise is enough to send feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin through the body and improve mood. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you elevate your heart rate. Jumping jacks and squats are two examples of heart-thumping moves that are easy to do just about anywhere. (For even more ways to fend off stress, don’t miss these amazing 2-minute stress solutions.)
Health issues with a hormonal component, such as high testosterone levels or polycystic ovarian syndrome, are oft-overlooked causes of acne. “PCOS affects 5 to 10% of women, and many of them suffer for years without realizing they have it,” says Mitch Chasin, MD, the medical director of Reflections Center for Skin & Body in Livingston, New Jersey. If your acne is accompanied by excessive hair growth or irregular periods, it’s worth making an appointment to see your doctor.
Fight back: If your doctor thinks you may have PCOS, he or she may order a blood test or perform an ultrasound. If you do, the condition—and other types of hormone imbalances—can often be treated with a medication such as an oral contraceptive or anti-androgen.
In the meantime, try clearing your skin with Bauana Naturals ACT! Acne & Blemish Treatment Gel ($49; amazon.com). Thanks to its salicylic acid content, this organic product reduces swelling and redness, unplugs pores, and can help fight hormonal blemishes. The best part: It comes with a money-back guarantee, so there’s no reason not to give it a try.
When hormone levels change, oil production typically increases. This can cause clogged pores where acne bacteria grows, leading to inflammation and pimples. Hormone changes tend to occur more frequently during perimenopause, but it can also happen just before your period and after giving birth. (Women over the age of 33 are more likely to get premenstrual pimples than younger women are, according to one study.)
Fight back: Use an oil-fighting cleanser that contains salicylic acid and is free of moisture-zapping benzoyl peroxide. We like Murad’s Advanced Acne & Wrinkle Reducer ($44; amazon.com) because it has salicylic acid to help clear pimples, along with anti-aging retinol that reduces the appearance of fine lines. If you’re looking for a product that’s a bit easier on the wallet, try Clearasil Ultra Rapid Action Seal-to-Clear Gel ($8; amazon.com). It heals breakouts with salicylic acid and forms an invisible protective film over pimples, making it a great product to apply under makeup.
You know stress, sun damage, and smoking aren’t great for your skin, but what you may not realize is that over time these things can actually break down collagen and skin structures, causing the pores to stretch open. This allows more oil to seep through and get clogged, which can cause pimples. (Psst! Don’t miss these 3 ways to get better skin—when the sun damage is already done.)
Fight back: Retinol-based products can help restore collagen, the protein that keeps skin looking young. Not only does this help reduce the appearance of fine lines, but it also tightens pores so that they create and emit less oil. Even skin docs swear by the stuff: “I have been using prescription topical retinoids at night for more than a decade. These vitamin A relatives stimulate collagen production, keeping the skin strong and supple and more resistant to wrinkling,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic & clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital. “I recommend starting out with an OTC version and adjusting to a prescription once your skin has acclimated.” One to try: Neocutis Nouvelle Plus Retinol Correction Intensive Anti-Aging Cream ($70, amazon.com). Since it’s only 0.6% retinol, it’s far less irritating and drying than stronger products.
Greasy food doesn’t cause a greasy face, but certain foods may exacerbate an already-brewing condition. For example, several studies have found a link between things like milk, cheese, and yogurt, and pimples. In one 2006 Harvard report, girls who drank two or more glasses of milk daily were found to have a 20% higher risk of acne than those who had less than a glass a week. Experts hypothesize that the hormones present in these foods may be to blame.
Fight back: When we consume foods that mess with our hormones, our oil glands go into overdrive, our pores enlarge, and blemishes emerge. Using a retinol can help tighten pores so dirt can’t get trapped and cause blemishes. Aside from Neocutis Nouvelle Plus Retinol Correction Intensive Anti-Aging Cream ($70, amazon.com), mentioned above, we’re also fans of Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream ($15, amazon.com), which is one of the strongest and most affordable retinols you can get without a prescription.
Buying organic dairy can also help. Many traditional dairy products come from hormone-fed animals, so they often have more hormones than their organic counterparts. You might also want to consider giving up dairy to see if that will help. If you decide to go that route, be sure to stock up on these 10 calcium-rich foods outside of the dairy aisle to keep your bones strong. Since many people get the bulk of their vitamin D from fortified dairy products, you might benefit from adding a supplement to your diet. One to try: Nature Made Vitamin C Tablets ($10, amazon.com).