Is Adult Acne Different from Teen Acne?

Acne used to be known as a teenage skin condition. But these days, it’s becoming increasingly prevalent among adults, even decades past adolescence. We wanted to know: are teenage pimples the same as post-puberty ones? And more importantly, should we treat teen breakouts and adult breakouts the same way? For answers, we turned to the expert: Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper).

A young woman who may have teen acne or adult acne

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What causes acne in teens?

Acne is extremely common in American teens, with some estimates putting the incidence at nearly 95%. Remember, acne begins when pores become clogged with excess oil and dead skin. In some cases, acne causing bacteria called P. acnes feeds on this mixture, resulting in inflammatory acne.

Research indicates that acne is an incredibly complex condition, with a host of factors playing a role. In teens, the most conclusive evidence shows that acne is influenced by:

  • Hormonal surges. During the teen years, adolescents experience a significant increase in androgens — sex hormones including testosterone that dramatically increase sebum production. This makes clogged pores more likely.
  • Genetics. Studies show that if you have a close relative who experienced acne as a teen, you’re more likely to have it yourself.
  • High-glycemic index foods. Diets rich in processed sugars and carbs (more common in teen populations) can lead to chronically high insulin levels — which in turn increase androgens and in turn, sebum.

What are the most common causes of adult acne?

The incidence of adult acne is increasing — likely due to the stress and environment of modern living. More women than men experience post-adolescent breakouts, and most of them had some degree of acne as teens.

Adult acne isn’t technically distinct from teen acne, but the causes are slightly different:
  • Hormonal fluctuations. Though not as pronounced as during puberty, changes in endocrine levels can make relative testosterone higher, leading to breakouts.
  • Health conditions. Disorders that cause hormonal imbalance, like polycystic ovary syndrome, or type 2 diabetes, can cause abnormal sebum levels.
  • Medication. Certain drugs, including steroids and lithium, can lead to breakouts.
  • Lifestyle. A high glycemic diet, smoking, stress and inadequate sleep can all increase your susceptibility to adult acne.

Does adult acne look different than teen acne?

As we mentioned, acne begins with clogged pores: blackheads and whiteheads. When bacteria invades, the body mounts an immune response that leads to papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. Both teens and adults are susceptible to all of these forms of acne, but we can make some generalizations:

  • Teens tend to get more non-inflammatory acne (blackheads and whiteheads).
  • Adults typically experience more cystic acne, deep under the skin.
  • Adult acne in women is often recurring, corresponding to the menstrual cycle.
  • Teen acne generally heals faster than adult acne, since their skin cycle is faster. 
Salicylic Acid Cleanser, BP Lotion, Retinol Serum, Facial Moisturizer Acne System SLMD Skincare

    Can you treat teen acne and adult acne the same way?

    Because the underlying process is the same for both teens and adults — pores become clogged and possibly infected — the treatment and prevention of acne is the same for both groups. According to Dr. Lee, the most effective acne treatment involves a simple, three-step routine like SLMD Skincare Acne System that uses proven acne-fighting ingredients:

    • Salicylic acid: this oil-soluble exfoliant penetrates deep into pores to help clear out sebum and debris. Find it in Salicylic Acid Cleanser, gentle enough to be used twice daily or more, if skin is extremely oily.
    • Benzoyl Peroxide: an antibacterial ingredient that kills P. acnes and calms skin. Use BP Lotion in the morning after cleansing.
    • Retinol: this vitamin A derivative increases cell turnover, which helps prevent dead skin cells from clogging pores. Retinol Serum contains a time-released formula to work gently overnight.
    • Moisturizer: keeping skin balanced with nourishing and protective ingredients (like vitamin C infused Facial Moisturizer) is especially important when following an anti-acne regimen, which can be drying.

    For those with sensitive skin, Dr. Lee suggests SLMD Skincare Sensitive Skin Acne System, which is formulated with antimicrobial sulfur, known to be tough on acne-causing bacteria, but gentler on skin than benzoyl peroxide.

    Dr. Lee’s last word

    The vast majority of teenagers experience some form of acne — but it’s becoming increasingly common among adults as well. Understandably, patients of all ages ask me how they can get rid of their condition. While we can’t cure it, we can manage it — and that starts with the right combination of dermatological ingredients to address both non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne. This is the reason I created my Acne System: to make it easy for people to treat and prevent acne, even if they don’t have access to a dermatologist.

    —Dr. Sandra Lee


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