Experts Explain Adult Acne — & When To See Your Doctor

Acne spots are practically a rite of passage for teenagers, but they don't always go away. Now 29, beauty blogger Julie Luu started getting acne around the age of 14. She didn’t think much of it, at first. “You go through a stage where it's quite normal to get spots,” she says. “It was only really at university, when it started getting worse, that I thought: This is not going quite right. I'm past my teenage years; I shouldn’t keep getting spots.”

Luu spent almost a decade — and a lot of money — trying to find the right products to improve her skin condition, until, at 24, she eventually decided to see a doctor to find better treatment. Since then, she has been prescribed different treatments derived from both traditional and alternative medicine, in an attempt to find what works best for her.

Unfortunately, at present, there is no "cure" for acne. However, it's helpful to know more about the problem, when the right time might be to go to the doctor, and what the options are to prevent new spots and scarring.

Spots are just a form of acne. Acne comes in several forms.

Dr. Stephen Kownacki, Primary Care Dermatology Society, U.K.
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First of all, there is no difference between blemishes (or spots) and acne. "Spots are just a form of acne. Acne comes in several forms,” says dermatologist Dr. Stephen Kownacki, chair of the Primary Care Dermatology Society (PCDS) in the U.K. Greasy skin, blackheads, whiteheads, red bumps, pustules, nodules, cysts, and scarring — they are all manifestations of acne, ranging from the mildest to the most severe, he explains. Typically, the face, back, and chest are the most affected areas, as they have the highest density of oil-producing glands.

Dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto, from the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), lists the factors that can contribute to the inflammatory skin condition, including hormones and family history. “There is some evidence coming out that diets very high in refined sugars and carbohydrates contribute to acne. There are also some cosmetic products that can block the pores, and they can contribute to acne, but generally speaking, it is due to a combination of hormonal factors and enlarged oil glands.”
According to the professionals, it's becoming more common in adults, too: “It is possible to continue to get acne in your adult years, that’s not unheard of,” confirms Dr. Mahto. “And one of the things that we’re seeing an awful lot of these days is female adult acne. Women who had reasonably good skin in their teenage years who suddenly, for the first time, are developing acne after the age of 25.”

Living with the skin condition can be distressing. Luu says that working in retail during the more acute phases made her feel particularly self-conscious; she would try and cover up her face more, and even worried that people would question her hygiene because of the acne. She managed to turn her fears and experiences into a resource for others, launching a blog on which she shares her everyday battle and supports the work of the British Skin Foundation, the U.K. charity dedicated to skin research.

You shouldn’t let acne hold you back from doing what you want to do.

Julie Luu, beauty blogger
“You shouldn’t let acne hold you back from doing what you want to do — that is my motto,” Luu says. Sharing her story online has been scary, though. “I’m always a bit worried about sharing online. There are so many people reading your story, seeing your pictures and you know people aren’t always nice, in the comments — but if I can help even just one person, saying there is a light at the end of the tunnel, then it doesn’t matter how many comments I get.”
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What should you do if you're experiencing acne? “If you have had spots for a few weeks, then your first port of call should be a pharmacist,” says dermatologist Dr. Nav Paul, the director of a London skin clinic. Pharmacists can advise you about over-the-counter products. Also, it might be helpful to stay well-hydrated and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, as a low-GI diet may help some acne patients, Dr. Paul suggests. Then, she adds: “If you have tried this for a few weeks along with specially formulated face washes, cleansers, or toners, [and it still doesn't work,] then it is time to see your doctor."
Dr. Kownacki agrees, warning that you might find most of the washes and special soaps on sale make little difference, because acne is largely derived from genetics and the amount of oil produced. This is especially likely among teenagers, who tend to frequently use products that end up drying out their skin. “Most of the treatments you would require for acne, you need to have on prescription from a doctor,” he adds. “Some GPs are more interested in skin diseases than others, and it is important to find one that will take acne seriously.”

Some people can have very mild acne, but it makes them feel very low.

Dr. Anjali Mahto, British Association of Dermatologists
Dr. Mahto advises that the right time to see your doctor is "if your acne is affecting your self-esteem and self-confidence." And that doesn’t really depend on the severity of the symptoms: “Some people can have very mild acne, but it makes them feel very low and it has a negative effect on their body image,” she says. “I see patients, for example, who have very bad acne, so they’ll grow (or cut in) bangs to cover the spots on their forehead. Or they have spots on their back and they won’t go swimming, or they don’t like going to the swimming pool because they don’t want to reveal their back."
If you're feeling concerned about your acne, remember that it is incredibly common; Dr. Mahto says that about 80% of people will experience some form of acne between the ages of 11 and 30. And of the people who have severe acne, around 30% will also develop scarring. For this reason, getting early treatment can be helpful. "If you are getting deep acne spots that are very painful, that are taking a long time to go down, then see a dermatologist," says Dr. Mahto. And, as Dr. Paul points out, if one treatment is not working, do not fear — there are lots of alternatives out there.
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