Why You're Still Breaking Out & What To Do About It

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Breakouts are one of the top skin-care concerns of my clients, and age isn't always a big factor. While acne is usually thought of as a teenage concern, breakouts can plague adults well into their 30s, 40s, and beyond. It's the cause of breakouts that generally changes — that and the fact that they typically don’t occur as frequently as they did in adolescence.

Fortunately, no matter what stage of life you're in, there are ways to help prevent and treat breakouts. Here are some tips to help you combat acne throughout the decades.

20s
In the early to mid 20s (ages 22 to 25, in particular), hormones from the teenage years should start to level out, and breakouts should diminish. However, fluctuations in hormone levels right before and during your period can stimulate sebaceous glands to produce excess oil, resulting in monthly breakouts.

During this time, many young women may start to use birth control pills, which can have an impact on breakouts since these pills affect the natural hormonal balance. Their effect on skin can be either positive or negative, and you should work with your doctor to figure out which one will benefit your skin.

Tips to prevent breakouts during this period:
Use a gentle antibacterial cleanser to prevent monthly hormonal breakouts. Since the chemistry of skin may change during the menstrual cycle, switching up your cleanser — not your entire routine — can help avert a breakout. Look for a formula with salicylic acid, and start using it approximately three days before your period starts.

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Go easy on the anti-aging products. There is so much awareness about preventing skin aging that many young women are conscious about putting in the effort earlier rather than later. While I certainly applaud and encourage this effort, it’s important not to overdo the anti-aging regimen. This is because many products for aging skin have potent active ingredients that can increase the metabolism of the cells (such as certain vitamin combinations and peptides), and these may be too active for a younger complexion, where the metabolism and cell growth are already functioning efficiently on their own. The stimulation of anti-aging products could potentially increase breakouts — the opposite of what you want.

If you are prone to cystic breakouts, use a treatment formulated for cysts to prevent these monthly flare-ups. Get ahead of cyst formation by experimenting with your dairy intake. Many of my clients have noticed a direct correlation between their dairy intake and breakouts.
30s
Stress is a big culprit for breakouts during this period. Many women who never broke out in their teens may experience breakouts because of elevated stress levels. Along with clogged pores and breakouts, women in their 30s begin to detect signs of aging.

Tips to prevent breakouts
during this period:
Manage stress to reduce breakouts. We know that the 30s are a stressful period in a woman’s life, when she may be juggling family, an active household, and a busy career. Stress not only affects acne flare-ups; it also worsens the overall skin condition, which is why it's essential to keep it at bay.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Stress causes breakouts because it induces the adrenal glands into overproducing the steroid cortisol. That makes the sebaceous glands produce more oil, thus making skin more oily and prone to bumps. These breakouts often look like inflamed, puss-filled papules rather than simple whiteheads or blackheads.

Make sure you are getting enough sleep and exercise to keep stress levels low. You may also consider practicing meditation to help alleviate stress.

Practice a balanced skin-care routine that focuses on anti-aging, yet won’t add excess oil, especially if you’re still experiencing a good amount of oil production and breakouts. Look for moisturizers and specialty serums that are lightweight and possibly even oil-free.

If you experience hormonal cystic acne, try drinking hot lemon water first thing in the morning (before you eat or drink anything else) to help flush out and purify the body internally, potentially reducing breakouts.

40s

By this time, regular, consistent acne shouldn’t be much of an issue; however, you may still experience monthly breakouts due to hormonal fluctuations from perimenopause. Estrogen helps regulate the sebaceous glands (which are responsible for producing skin oils), and during perimenopause estrogen levels slowly start to decline, which can still lead to the occasional breakout for some women.

Tips to prevent breakouts during this period:
Use acne spot treatments as needed for blemishes. A good cyst treatment can help prevent and treat monthly cystic flare-ups. If you typically experience a cystic breakout each month, apply the spot treatment to the cyst-prone area three days before your period begins, and continue using it throughout the week. A spot treatment is effective because it treats just the area with the flare-up instead of treating the entire face where no breakouts are present, which would only increase dryness all over.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
You can also get a cortisone shot from a dermatologist or apply ice or a hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation. Just don't pick at your breakouts — it will delay the healing process happening within the skin and could lead to lingering scars. This is especially true of aging skin, which takes longer to heal.

Women in this age group may also want to consider trying a retinol treatment. Retinol is beneficial for preventing the appearance of aging (smoothing and reducing the look of wrinkles, brown spots, and large pores) and is best for those whose acne years are behind them.
As for red, inflamed, pustular-type acne, these blemishes require both exfoliation and reducing bacteria in the pore lining without causing inflammation, and so retinol is not the best choice. Again, a well-formulated, alcohol-free salicylic serum will be more effective. A non-prescription retinol is not an effective strategy if the goal is to prevent inflamed blemishes.

Regardless of what age group you fall into, it’s important not to switch up your entire routine to one focused exclusively on combating acne issues if you experience only the occasional breakout. You can also tweak your skin-care routine to be a bit more acne-focused if your breakouts appear the same time every month — just don't make the whole month about fighting acne if there are periods when you have none.

Next: 5 Ways To Hydrate Oily, Acne-Prone Skin Without Causing More Breakouts

More from Skin Care

If you’ve fallen victim to the frustration that is acne — and, seeing as how it’s the most common skin condition in the US, chances are you have — we’ve ...
If you peeked into my high school medicine cabinet, somewhere nestled between my Noxzema and Elizabeth Arden Sunflower perfume, you’d find a cucumber peel-...
One of the most common skin-care woes we hear from both readers and friends is an uneven complexion — more specifically, those dark spots left over from ...
(Paid Content) Finding a skin-care regimen that keeps skin clear without drying it out isn't easy. Don’t you worry — we’ve got you on this one. Together ...
As beauty editors, one of the top questions we're asked on the regular is actually pretty basic: "What should my skin-care routine look like?" And it makes...
Forget freaks and vampires: When it comes to beauty rituals, it’s our inner princesses who come out at night. It’s then that we languidly soak in tubs of ...
You always want what you can’t have — especially when it comes to beauty products. That’s why we’re getting the inside scoop from your favorite retailers ...
(Paid Content) If achieving clear, glowing, incredible skin were as easy as slathering on a single cream, we’d be the first in line to scoop it up. But ...
We know that our cell phones aren’t always good for us. Tech neck, sleep disturbances, eye strain — all actual health concerns. And of course, not cleaning...
What do you call a price increase that goes from around $240 to nearly $10,000? Words like strange, confusing, and even exploitative may come to mind. ...
Dry, scaly skin can be kind of a nightmare no matter what the season. So, in the spirit of smoother, ultra-hydrated skin, we put together a list of our ...
When it comes to pretty much, well, everything, it’s no secret that millennials expect swift service, same-day delivery, and overall efficiency. Our need ...
Since we’re all well aware of the dangers of tanning beds — and too much time in natural sunlight sans SPF — self-tanners are the perfect solution when the...
This isn't news to anyone, but I feel it bears repeating: Acne scars suck. Anyone who has suffered from post-pimple hyperpigmentation knows this truth to ...