One of the most hilarious parts of aging is that you find out that acne isn't just for teenagers — nope, adult acne is a totally real thing and it's probably something most of us still deal with, at least from time to time. But knowing the causes of adult acne and reasons why you might be breaking out is one of the first steps in solving the problem. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology notes that more and more adult women have been seeking acne treatment in recent time. "A growing number of women have acne in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. Dermatologists are not sure why this is happening. But dermatologists understand that adult acne can be particularly frustrating," an article on the American Academy of Dermatology stated.
Personally, I've been researching acne treatment lately as I've been breaking out worse than I ever have before; nothing in my teens has rivaled the acne I'm facing now. My lifestyle has changed a lot lately, which has added a lot of stress and uncertainty to my body, which I believe is to blame for my acne. There are lot of myths about acne out there, and there are a lot of real, unexpected causes that come directly from lifestyle habits. Here are seven reasons you might be breaking out.
1. Your Diet
How and what you eat does have a massive impact on developing acne. You might be confused right now, since for a long time people were talking about how food doesn't influence acne, but that notion was thanks to two popular, but highly flawed studies conducted in the 1960s and '70s, according to Jennifer Buris, author of a Journal of the Academy of Nutrition review on diet and acne, in an interview with Health.
"These studies were so popular that people concluded diet had nothing to do with acne and stopped researching the topic for the next 40 years. Today, researchers are finding that there is indeed a connection between food and acne," Burris said. So, if you've been breaking out lately, do some inventory of your diet to see if this could be the culprit.
2. How Much Sleep You're Getting
Being sleep deprived is known to cause a whole host of health problems, from memory impairment to a huge increased risk of mortality, according to WebMD. Well, it turns out sleep deprivation also makes the cut of reasons you might be suffering from acne. It actually makes sense when you think about it; research shows that not getting enough sleep leads to an increased stress level, and high-stress levels are linked to acne, according to Harvard Health.
There's also a scientific indication, according to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine, that because sleep deprivation leads to insulin resistance, causing your body to not process as much sugar, this is also a reason it can cause breakouts. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should be getting between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, so if you're sleep deprived and reading this article right now, stop what you're doing and take a nap.
Dr. Hannah Sivak, PhD in Biological Sciences and skincare expert tells Bustle, “Women experience sleep problems more frequently than men, [so] it is possible we are more susceptible to anxiety and the changes in sleep patterns related to the menstrual cycle. Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality causes disease, immune imbalance and increased secretion of stress hormones. Acne and sleep also affect each other: we sleep badly when we have acne problems and bad (or insufficient) sleep worsen acne.”
3. Your Stress Level
Now it's time to visit the stress category, which I'm guessing you knew would come up at some point on this list. Stress is a huge cause of acne, according to WebMD. The bad news is that even if you become less stressed out, that doesn't necessarily mean your acne will disappear.
"If I treat my stress, will my acne go away? No. You can’t treat acne with a Valium," professor of dermatology Dr. Lisa A. Garner told WebMD. She did, however, recommend seeking treatment from a psychologist or therapist as a potential long-term solution that could lead to better skin.
Stress can cause bad breakouts and even make current acne worse, according to TIME. Stress hormones directly affect the skin and can build up oil production, which usually leads to acne. But sometimes, acne isn’t just caused directly by stressed, but also by the things we do to our skin in response to stress. For example, usually a nervous tick that comes along with acne is scratching at the skin. Dr. Sivak says, “Acne causes anguish, no doubt about that, and we also worry about the likelihood of acne related problems like skin picking, secondary infection, scarring, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne recurrence.”
4. How Well You're Taking Care of Your Skin
While acne can be caused by a number of other lifestyle factors, how well you're caring for and attending to your skin also makes a huge impact on how well it's treating you back. According to acne.org, on the surface, acne is caused by a clogging of your pores that leads to irritation that shows up in the form of a zit, according to Acne.org. Logically, if you're not washing all of that dirt, oil, and makeup off every day, you're going to be giving acne a free invitation to come and party on your face.
To prevent acne, wash your face twice per day, once in the morning and once at night, and use a cleanser that is gentle and hydrating. You don't need to spend a lot of time getting that cleanser down into your skin, as you should only spend about ten seconds actually touching your face. You should then pat your face dry with a towel; rubbing can cause irritation and spread dirt around your face, starting the acne cycle all over again. I know it's tempting but do not ever rub your face after washing it. But Dr. Sivak warns about doing too much to your skin too, even when it’s in the form of face products that are supposed to help. “In my opinion, the more you mess with your skin, the worse the acne will be,” she tells Bustle. “Too much touching, peeling, make-up, etc. will definitely worsen your skin, and may result in damaging of the skin barrier, scarring and cystic acne.” This means you have to find a balance between taking care of your skin but not irritating it with too many products.
5. How Much Time You Spend in the Sun
If you've been spending your days laying out or soaking up the sun at the beach, all of that sun exposure could be to blame for your recent breakout. Light sun exposure, 10 to 20 minutes for fair skinned folks and 20 to 30 for those with darker skin, can actually benefit your skin, according to acne.org, but those benefits turn into negatives if you're spending more time outside than that. “Increased exposure to the sun increases acne, and acne is exacerbated in the summer (heat, sweat, etc.). The effect might not be large enough to worry you, but sun damage and photo-aging will not improve your skin appearance or health,” Dr. Sivak says. If you've also recently had a sunburn, you could be breaking out even after the burn has been gone for a couple of weeks, as your skin catches up in reacting that irritation. Try to limit your direct sun exposure, wear as much SPF as you can, and stay in the shade as much as possible to avoid potential acne.
6. Your Smoking Habits
In addition to all of the other negative health consequences of smoking, this habit could be to blame for your breakouts. When you smoke, you decrease the amount of oxygen going to your skin, causing your pores to increase in size in order to get the air that they need, so your pores can get more easily clogged. According to Cosmopolitan, chemicals in cigarettes also dehydrate your skin and this lack of moisture causes your skin to produce more oil, causing acne in this way as well. Dr. Sivak explains that smoking is bad for your skin in general beyond acne as well. “Slower healing, aging and wrinkles, hair loss, inflammation, etc. ... Just like with sun, there is more to the skin than acne,” she says.
7. Your Beauty Routine
Have you noticed that your skin tends to clear up when you use less product on it? Your acne could very well be caused by your makeup. There are many ingredients typically found in cosmetics that are known to be responsible for breakouts, including mineral oil, algae extract, and cocoa butter, so check your labels to see if any of your products contain ingredients like these. “Avoid heavy makeup, clogged pores will likely end up as an acne lesion,” Dr. Sivak warns. “Make sure you are not allergic to sunscreen or makeup, very often we confuse allergy and eczema with acne.” You should also be sure to wash your makeup brushes diligently, as all of that dirt and oil on your face can stay on the brushes and later cause you to get acne. Make sure to wash your brushes at least once a week to ensure that they're clean and not transferring last week's oil and dirt to your clean face.
Acne is one of the most annoying things in life, and there's no reason to make it worse than it has to be. Try changing up your habits and you might be surprised how your skin responds.
Additional reporting by Syeda Khaula Saad.
This article was originally published on October 2, 2015 and was updated on June 26, 2019.
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