Acne is no fun – at any age. But until recently, there was a blanket approach to the best acne treatments, whether you had teenage pimples or adult acne.
Thankfully, there are now more innovative ways than just a dollop of benzoyl peroxide to make your breakouts disappear.
It all comes down to what derms are calling ‘age-specific acne’. The over-arching takeaway being that 40 per cent of cases of adult acne occur in women, which is a very different beast to teenage breakouts.
What is acne?
In a nutshell, acne is caused by excess sebum. This clogs pores with a paste-like mixture of oil, dead cells and leftover make-up. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Bacteria (especially one called Propionibacterium acnes) can then get trapped inside the pores and multiply. This causes swelling and redness, which is the start of a spot.
Why do you get acne?
Factors like pollution, oily cosmetic products like foundation, certain medications and smoking are all factors you want to swerve to avoid break outs.
But a lot of it comes down to good old hormones.
‘Growth hormones in your teens send oil production into overdrive, causing mostly blackheads and whiteheads,’ explains Sally Penford, Head of Education at Dermalogica.
Also worth noting: in women, the predominant hormone is oestrogen, so no wonder your skin throws a temper tantrum when there’s a spike in testosterone the week before your period.
‘PMS and the drop in oestrogen drives acne and increased oil production,’ says Dr Anjali Mahto from London’s Cadogen Clinic.
Frustratingly, you can still get acne in your twenties, and some adults will experience it well into their thirties, forties and even fifties. It’s even possible to get acne for the first time as an adult. In fact, it’s now thought that 50% of us will experience fringe breakouts during adulthood.
‘In adults, acne tends to be the result of stress, coupled with hormonal changes, and is more inflammatory with cysts appearing around the chin and jawline,’ says Penfold. ‘You have to treat it differently and take into account that adults also face the challenge of pigmentation, slow healing, sensitivity and skin dryness.’
Best acne spot treatments
Just like your taste in fashion, acne formulas have moved on in the last decade. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ product, and it may take a bit of experimentation to find what works for your skin. But persevere and with these tips, you should be able to ease your acne woes:
1. Only cleanse twice a day
‘Don’t over cleanse your skin – morning and evening will suffice,’ says Mahto. Oil cleansers, however, are a beauty fad best avoided if you want to avoid spots. ‘They leave behind residue, which can block pores. Instead, opt for a gentle foaming cleanser with salicylic or glycolic acids to purge pores of impurities.’
Follow up with a topical probiotic to balance the natural bacteria on the surface of your skin. Zelens Z Balance Prebiotic & Probiotic Facial Mist (£48, Cult Beauty), contains no fewer than five different strains.
2. Use a non-comedogenic moisturiser
‘It’s possible for skin to be both oily <and> dehydrated so don’t avoid moisturiser out of fear of making skin greasier. Choose one that is oil-free, ‘non-comedogenic’ [prevents blackheads] and mattifying,’ says Dr Stefanie Williams, medical director at the Eudelo skin clinic. Here you can find a comprehensive guide to the best moisturisers for oily skin.
3. Exfoliate twice a week
‘It’s harder for oily skin to shed dead cells so it’s important to exfoliate. A cleanser with salicylic acid is the gentlest option as it dissolves the oil and dead cells in your pores,’ says Mahto.
4. Apply a retinol cream overnight
Before being touted as a wrinkle-smoothing ingredient, retinol was used to clear up acne. Applied overnight it helps to unclog pores, reduce the formation of blackheads and whiteheads, and calm inflammation.
To cushion any potential redness, a slow-delivery system drip feeds skin the 1 per cent retinol solution. Plus there’s a multitude of soothing extracts to keep skin in check and you can always combine it with moisturiser if you suffer any drying side effects.
5. Look for CBD serums
Cannabidiol (CBD) is exploding onto the scene as a way of tackling acne minus any irksome side effects.
‘The cannabidiol in hemp seeds is anti-inflammatory and aids in the treatment and prevention of spots,’ says Dr Alexis Granite, Kiehl’s Consulting Dermatologist. ‘Hemp seeds also contain essential fatty acids, which help regulate skin’s sebum production.’
Best acne treatments for adults
Soothing hemp seed meets antiseptic green oregano in a hydrating oil that also avoids the pitfalls [read: redness, dryness and irritation] of typically harsh acne treatments.
Best acne treatments for teens
Your teenager is bound to know that Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner are fans of this Pepto-Bismal pink concoction. A perennial best seller for Mario Badescu, the Drying Lotion uses salicylic acid to exfoliate, encourage cell turnover and treat congestion. The addition of calamine lotion soothes, draws out whiteheads and reduces redness even on under-the-skin blinders.
Best acne scar treatments
If you had acne as a teen, it may well have left you with some scarring. This is especially true of black skin – melanin goes into overdrive when skin suffers trauma, like a spot. This tends to make acne scarring and post-inflammatory pigmentation more prominent. Created by renowned facialist Bianca Estelle, this serum is chock full of kojic, mandelic and lactic acids, which bump up against each other in their eagerness to reduce discolouration and speed up skin turnover. Expect results in six weeks.
Analysing our spots has also moved on from simply asking Google. The first spot diagnosis tool engineered by artificial intelligence and developed with dermatologists has launched.
Using your mobile, La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Spotscan (free, boots.com) will take three images of your skin. It grades the severity of your acne, counts the number of blackheads, inflammatory spots and marks left by spots before providing expert advice and product recommendations.
All of which is pretty useful when you consider only 2% of the UK has access to a dermatologist IRL.
More of the best acne treatments for the clearest skin of your life
Got a spot lurking under the skin that you can feel but not see yet? Try this. Formulated with the highest amount of sulphur allowed in skincare (10%), it puts up a formidable fight against acne. It dries out spots, while alpha hydroxy acids that reduce the appearance of enlarged pores and zinc oxide to absorb excess sebum.
Salicylic acid + niacinamide + white shiitake mushroom + the Resurrection Plant = unclogged pores, zero dryness, fewer spots and post-breakout marks. Sign us up.
Woke up with a deep, cystic shiner lurking under your skin? Each semi-transparent patch features 24 teeny darts that dispense ingredients beneath the skin’s surface. Think: moisture-magnet hyaluronic acid, exfoliating salicylic acid and antimicrobial oligopeptide-76 while also being a barrier against bacteria.
Salicylic acid meets skin-soothing red algae in this near-magic potion that takes down the redness, heat and swelling of spot - fast.
An on-the-spot treatment with tea tree oil and zinc oxide combat impurities while vitamin B3 heals. Another benefit: the tint makes it ideal for days when you need a concealer with benefits.
This oil-free serum is the definition of a grown up acne treatment. A combination of salicylic, glycolic and citric acids target the signs of ageing as well as pesky blemishes by increasing cell turnover and decongesting clogged pores.
Fully-fledged 30-somethings have slower cell turnover, increasing the risk of blocked pores. Here lava beads exfoliate and organic alpine willow herb reduces the activity of a key enzyme involved in sebum production.
Salicylic acid purges pores while the bifidus probiotic improves skin’s barrier function, preventing pollution from seeping in and reducing sensitivity. Better still, this serum plays well under make-up.
Truly a treatment for past, present and future breakouts. The salicylic acid in the formula tackles the spots you have now by detoxing congested pores. It also inhibits oil production to quell future eruptions. As for the legacy of dark marks from past breakouts? Meet skin-brightening vitamin C.
Azelaic acid takes centre stage here for preventing breakouts and fading post-spot discolouration alongside liquorice extract. Better still, there's no sobering dry skin to contend with afterwards.
Light therapy has been used for years by dermatologists as an effective treatment for acne, but now it's been honed into a handy pen for home use. The tech is based on blue light, which works to kill acne-causing bacteria, and red light, which eases inflammation. Use on the spot for 2 minutes - no mess, no flaking.
Prepare to see this fluffy turquoise mask all over Instagram. Instantly cool to the touch, AHAs improve skin texture while alpine willowherb and snow lotus detoxify.
As well as working to clean and clear your skin over time, this lightweight moisturiser also creates an invisible protective barrier to stop acne-causing pollution and irritants from getting into pores.