Millions of adults get outbreaks of acne each year. Some people even get acne for the first time as adults. Blame stress, hormone fluctuations, genes, the use of certain medications such as corticosteroids, and hair and skin care products.
The American Academy of Dermatology reports that acne affects adult women more often than adult men, including more than half of women ages 20 to 29 and a quarter of women ages 40 to 49.
Happily, new solutions are at hand. That’s great news for me, since I’ve tried everything from peels to microdermabrasion to blue light therapy, tretinoin (Retin-A), and isotretinoin (Accutane) — and hopefully for you, too, if you struggle with adult acne. Here are four strategies to try.
1. Look for an over-the-counter solution
In 2016 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first retinoid product for over-the-counter use, and it’s now available in stores. Called adapalene (Differin), it is a powerful acne fighter like tretinoin that alters the way skin grows and prevents the formation of plugs within oil glands, according to Kenneth A. Arndt, M.D., a Boston dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology emeritus at Harvard Medical School.
“These plugs are the precursors to open and closed comedones [blackheads and whiteheads] and inflammatory lesions,” he says. A plus: Retinoids are an effective topical solution for treating wrinkles and fine lines.
2. Think about light therapy
Neutrogena has come up with a Light Therapy Acne Mask ($35) that you put on for 10 minutes a day. It makes you look like a character in the Halloween movies, but the manufacturer conducted a clinical study that found the mask’s blue and red LED lights kill acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation.
Studies of other devices support those claims. The ads say you can multitask while wearing the mask, but it’s somewhat difficult to see (although I have both read and watched TV while wearing it).
The Tria Positively Clear 3-Step Acne Skincare device is more expensive ($149), but works in the same way. Arndt says these devices “are probably useful, but most of the information comes from industry sources, so it’s a bit had to evaluate them.”
3. Consider a peel
Mild, at-home peels are available that you can use every day to exfoliate your skin and keep pores from plugging up, which can reduce breakouts. As an added benefit, peels have anti-aging effects: They even out skin tone and texture and can help minimize pores and fine lines, Arndt says. I use Dr. Dennis Gross’s Alpha-Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel ($88 and up) to keep chin breakouts at bay, but there are several others on the market. Daily use may cause visible peeling, so you may only want to use the product two to three times a week.
“At-home peels and LED light treatments work well for minor cases of acne,” Arndt says, “and they can also be helpful as an adjunct to more powerful treatments you receive in your dermatologist’s office.”
4. Put on a face mask
Sheet masks and “paint on” masks are very popular right now. GlamGlow’s Supermud ($69) contains charcoal, one of the hottest anti-aging ingredients, while Dr. Dennis Gross’s Clarifying Colloidal Sulfur Mask ($42) contains clay; both can be used daily to clean out pores.
You can apply the clay mask for overnight use or just dab on a little in problem areas under makeup for day use. It doesn’t form a hard shell like most clay masks, but it may dry your skin out.
Other masks contain botanicals and hyaluronic acid, which can boost skin hydration to prevent over-drying from acne treatments.
The bottom line
Wash your face twice daily with a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil, as well as after working out. Use noncomedogenic sunscreen, makeup, and moisturizers. Don’t overapply acne products — and try not to pop or squeeze pimples because that can lead to scarring.
Arndt says that when it comes to acne, “more than one approach at a time is both useful and necessary” to get the best results possible.
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Nancy Monson is a Connecticut-based freelance writer. Her articles have been published in over 30 national magazines and newsletters, including AARP The Magazine, Family Circle, Shape, USA Today, Weight Watchers Magazine, and Woman’s Day. She is also the author of three books, including Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Crafts. Read more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.