A few months ago, after a skin treatment went awry, I found myself facing a problem I haven’t encountered in many, many years: acne. And not just the random spot on your chin or forehead. We’re talking full blown, adult acne all around my temples, hairline and upper cheeks — the kind that even my old standby, Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, could not take care of.
While I desperately tried my steadfast high school tricks to combat my old friends (hello, extra strength benzoyl peroxide), I noticed that while the spot treatments were sort of helping, the skin around my acne was extra dry and flaky. But most distressing? The fine lines (that were definitely not there during my first acne rodeo) were greeting me day and night with “hello, how are you, aren’t you glad you have to deal with multiple skin concerns now?”
Unfortunately, certain ingredients used to combat acne can also exacerbate wrinkles, which is fine and dandy when you don’t have any. But what happens when you’re well out of puberty but still plagued by a problem you thought you got rid of, alongside your questionable teen fashion choices? We talked to a couple of experts about what to do when those sad, red, painful bumps make their way back to into your life well into adulthood.
Stress can make it worse
“Adult acne is genetic and primarily stress induced,” says Lindsay Barras, Dermalogica Canada Education Manager. “Acne also tends to be more persistent in adults because cell turnover rates slow down, clogging and congesting pores.” In other words, it’s harder to get rid of.
“What is really characteristic is that there is even more psychological impact in adult women due to the persistence of acne despite a presentation that is generally less severe than in adolescence,” says Muriel Pujos, Technical and Scientific Director of Skin Care at Coty. With the notion that acne is something everyone grows out of, having the condition as an adult can be more frustrating. Pujos also suggest that this frustration can further aggravate acne, as stress can cause sebum producing cells to produce more oil, which in turn, can clog follicles. Being stressed about having zits can cause more zits. Great.
Barras suggests using kaolin and bentonite clay masks in order to absorb the excess oil, as well as salicylic acid to decongest the pores. But what about dealing with the acne without making the skin around the offending zits super upset?
Overdrying is not your friend
“We want to shift the mind frame from ‘drying out’ acne – the most common mistake an acneic client can make is over washing their face and ‘drying out’. The body’s natural response to this is overproducing oil to compensate for the lack of water. It is important that the skin remains hydrated, or else the skin can feel tight, and can lead to overusing inappropriate moisturizers,” Barras adds. Those clay masks we mentioned earlier? Don’t slather them on your whole face, and especially not under the eyes.
“For acne in adults you have to choose your treatment carefully. The product should be effective without causing dehydration. Dehydration of the skin is not desirable for anyone, but in adults, a treatment that dehydrates can accelerate the aging of the skin,” says Lierac‘s national training manager, Janie Lelièvre.
Luckily, there are non-dehydrating alternatives. Blue light (used in personal blue light acne devices or during acne treatments with a derm or esthetician) is meant to kill Propionibacterium acnes, a type of bacteria that causes acne, without drying you out. Bonus: there are minimum (if any) side effects to surrounding skin.
You might need to exfoliate chemically
Barras states: “A benefit of treating adult skin is that the skin tends to be more tolerant so we are able to use higher concentrations of active ingredients such as salicylic acid and retinol, which also happens to be a huge age fighting ingredients.” Okay, we’re listening.
“Exfoliating is key – you want to slough off that dull layer of skin that is clogging those pores and allowing bacteria to grow. Exfoliating with a gentle AHA such as lactic acid will also hydrate the skin, and salicylic acid can be used to also exfoliate and clean within the pore. Anti bacterial ingredients such as tea tree oil (a natural antiseptic) should also be used.” Glycolic acid, an AHA, can also help treat fine lines, acne, blackheads and dullness via chemical exfoliation, removing the outermost layer of dead skin cells.
Consider a regimen overhaul
If you’re interested in a complete skincare refresh, you could also trust the pros. Dr. Katie Rodan and Dr. Kathy Fields have reformulated a regimen that aims to banish your acne woes with Rodan + Fields’ Unblemish line, made specifically for adult acne. One caveat? At $216, it does not come cheap. But it works. And there’s no guesswork in terms of what products you can combine for optimal results.
“The cycle of a pimple begins weeks before it reaches the skin’s surface. Most acne solutions focus on spot-treating pimples after they appear on the skin. However, while you’re spot-treating the current blemish, another breakout can start forming,” says Dr. Tim Falla, Chief Scientific Officer at Rodan + Fields. “By applying the right ingredients, in the right formulations, in the right order, Unblemish leverages four powerful steps to deliver salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to gently and effectively combat the adult acne cycle while simultaneously tackling visible signs of aging with skin-nourishing ingredients.”
Go to the damn doctor
If your skin is suddenly behaving in a way that it never has before, and none of the over-the-counter treatments are doing anything much for you, that acne flare-up might need the big guns. You can only browse the acne aisles of Shoppers Drug Mart and consult skincare Subreddits — or articles like these — for so long. My doctor ended up prescribing me with Clindamycin in the form of topical gel, as she suggested that my particular acne was caused by bacterial infection. As per my doc’s instructions, I applied it nightly and waited for it to dry (approximately ten minutes) before applying moisturizer. I won’t lie, it was drying. But was it the most effective in terms of treating the redness, number of pimples and inflammation? Yes.
Clindamycin is only one of the many prescription-only solutions that your doctor or dermatologist can recommend. Options — and experts — are your friends when it comes to treatments.
Always wear sunscreen
Finally, Pujos reminds us that you should always wear sunscreen. She suggests that even though there’s a misconception that the sun can dry out a lesion momentarily, what it really does is induce aggravation and post inflammatory pigmentation. And really, who wants that?
Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, founder of Toronto’s Bay Dermatology Centre and Assistant Professor at the dermatology division Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto recommends using newer formulations of mineral sunscreen for both acne-prone and sensitive skin, like La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios Mineral Tinted Ulta Fluid Lotion.
The before and after
Because I know the internet loves a good before and after, behold, me at eight months ago vs today. (Hashtag Kendall Jenner bravery.) As you can see, the residual marks from pigmentation are still there, but the redness and bumps are markedly improved.
Below, find my personal over-the-counter product recommendations to help banish those pesky lil’ spots and hopefully keep your skin well behaved.
How I fixed my adult acne
Rodan + Fields UnblemishThe mother of all adult acne regimens, this one includes a gentle salicylic acid cleanser, an AHA toner, dual intensive benzoyl peroxide acne treatment and a mineral sunscreen. The best part? It's formulated especially for adult acne (think: no overdrying) and promises to promote "healthier, younger-looking skin."
Rodan + Fields, $216 at Rodan + Fields. Rodan + Fields and Shutterstock
Almay Clear Complexion Blemish ArmourThis 2% salicylic acid formula actual creates a clear invisible patch over your zit, protecting it from bacteria and the outside world.
Almay Clear Complexion Blemish Armour, $12 at Ulta. Almay and Shutterstock
Dermalogica daily microfoliantThis gentle exfoliating powder is safe enough to use every day. Its texture (which is akin to very smooth sand you mix with water to create a paste) is formulated for deep cleansing, but it won’t irritate your face like harsher exfoliants can. Made with salicylic acid, rice enzymes, and colloidal oatmeal, it brightens the skin and soothes redness.
Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant, $82 at Sephora. Dermalogica and Shutterstock
fresh umbrian clay maskThere's a reason why this mask gets consistently high reviews. It packs a punch. This clay will suck the excess oil straight out of your face (seriously, you can see it happen). Rinse off to reveal smaller looking pores and calmer, clearer looking skin. Doubles as a spot treatment too.
Fresh Umbrian Clay Mask, $28 at Sephora. Fresh and Shutterstock
burt's bees natural acne solutionsIf you want something lightweight and affordable that moisturizes and protects skin against blemishes (and doesn't aggravate existing spots), give this Burt's Bees natural lotion a shot. It's formulated with lemongrass, witch hazel, goldenseal and hops to help reduce redness. In other words, if a sagely, skin-savvy witch was making a concoction to help heal your spots, this would be it.
Burt's Bees Natural Acne Solutions Daily Moisturizing Lotion, $25 at Well.ca. Burt's Bees and Shutterstock
foreo espadaIt's not an overnight miracle by any means, but if you are patient and don't want any of the extra drying or flaking that tends to come alongside traditional acne spot treatments, then you might want to try the Foreo Espada. The Espada precisely targets any spots and aims to kill the bacteria causing the acne using fancy blue light technology. We've seen huge nodules go down significantly after a few treatments. Plus, you only have to buy it once and can use it forever.
Foreo Espada, $124 at Amazon. FOREO and Shutterstock
cos rx acne pimple master patchFor teens and adult acne sufferers alike, these patches are cheap, effective and you can literally see the white goop being sucked out of your acne the next morning (pop it on overnight, and ta-da). Works best on pimples that have already come to a head (or, for drawing out the rest of the crap from the zit if you, tsk tsk, popped it prematurely).
Cos RX Acne Pimple Master Patch, $8 at Urban Outfitters. Cos RX and Shutterstock
dior one essentialGot dullness from residual acne marks? This serum revitalizes and improves the skin's texture, for brighter, more-even looking skin. In a consumer study, 98% of women also saw plumped skin after seven days of use, and if that ain’t a bonus, we don’t know what is.
Dior One Essential Skin Boosting Super Serum, $130 at Sephora. DIOR and Shutterstock
LA ROCHE-POSAY anthelios mineral sunscreenSpeaking of post pigmentation from acne, you may want to prevent it from worsening by using sunscreen. Traditionally, mineral sunscreen has been thick and known to clog pores, but La Roche-Posay's ultra light fluid formulas are non-greasy, fragrance free and non-comedogenic.
La Roche Posay Anthelios Mineral Tinted Ultra Fluid Lotion, $34 at Shoppers Drug Mart.La Roche-Posay
dermalogica active moistNeed a simple moisturizer free from artificial fragrances, artificial colors, drying S.D. alcohol and mineral oil (all known to aggravate acne)? Then Dermalogica's simple, oil-free moisturizer is a no-brainer.
Dermalogica Active Moist, $92 at Sephora. Dermalogica and Shutterstock
rodial gylolic booster dropsEncouraging cell turnover is a must when it comes to treating acne, so why not do that with Rodial's Glycolic Booster Drops? This 10% glycolic complex resurfacing concentrate not only brings radiance, smooths and evens skintone (which is great for acne scarring), it blurs out the look of wrinkles too. Less is more with this serum, as it’s only meant to be used 2 to 3 times a week.
Rodial Glycolic Booster Drops, $89 at Saks. Rodial and Shutterstock