It can happen. Although we think of acne as kid stuff—an annoyance that vanishes along with adolescence—for some women, pimples persevere well into adulthood. And for yet other women, acne may not even rear its ugly head until age 30 or so.
Whether you’re prone to acne is largely determined by your genes. If your mother or father had trouble skin, chances are you will, too. Acne erupts when skin glands make too much sebum, an oily substance that blocks skin ducts. The plugged ducts, in turn, prevent dead cells from shedding and encourage sebum to build up. The result: A pimple.
Breakouts are common in adolescence, when raging hormones stimulate sebum production. But what causes a mature woman to break out? Several factors, it turns out:
Hormones. Not surprisingly, hormone fluctuations can continue to wreak havoc on our skin as we age. Many women with acne notice that outbreaks are worse in the week before their periods. And while birth control pills can clear acne for some women, they actually cause blemishes in others. (Note: Call your doctor if you experience a sudden, severe acne outbreak. It could signal an ovarian or adrenal tumor that’s affecting hormone production.)
Oil exposure. Avoid contact with oily cosmetics, shampoos and cooking oils.
Stress. Strong emotions such as fear and anxiety seem to trigger acne.
The first step to clearer skin is identifying and avoiding anything that causes a breakout. Being careful about hygiene helps, too: Wash your face twice a day with ordinary soap and water. And if you’re battling a mild case of acne, try an over-the-counter medication that contains benzoyl peroxide. Serious acne may require special attention. If you have severe blackhead acne, your doctor may prescribe tretinoin, commonly known as Retin-A, which comes in cream, gel and liquid forms. Retin-A heightens your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so if you use it, wear sunscreen and protective layers.
Antibiotics can curb cystic acne, a form of the disease in which lumps and pustules develop. If antibiotics don’t work, isotretinoin, or Accutane, an oral medication, may help. However, because it has been linked to birth defects, Accutane is not an option if you’re pregnant or planning to conceive.
Large pustules or abscesses can be surgically drained. The minor surgery, performed under local anesthesia, is often followed by a cosmetic procedure that smoothes over scarred skin.
Don’t let acne, an annoyance at any age, affect the way you feel about yourself. With perseverance and the right treatment, you should be able to reduce or banish blemishes for good.