3 Superstar Acids That Can Actually Help Treat Adult Acne

Close up of a cute young caucasian girl putting cream on his face

The unfortunate truth is that if there’s one skin issue that will plague you from adolescence into adulthood, it’s acne. Just when you thought that a smattering of zits would become as dated as your high school yearbook, it erupts again and again, in your twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond. Yes, the struggle is real — so real, in fact, that many dermatologists report that more than half of their adult patients have acne. 

“About 30 percent of adult [women] will have acne or carry acne into adulthood,” adds Jenny Liu, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “There is definitely an increase [in adult acne], especially among women and female hormonal acne, which is cyclic, deeper, and appears on lower cheeks and jawline,” she explains.

While hormones are still at play for some adult acne patients, this skin concern may also be tied to environment, genetics, and your lifestyle. “Adult acne can be caused by environmental stressors, like work, diet, even not drinking enough water, which helps keep skin hydrated,” says Kim Nichols, MD, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon in Greenwich, Connecticut. “When your skin gets dried out, oil glands compensate for it and go into overdrive.” Touching your face — be it your hands or your phone screen — can also be to blame, as this will aggravate the bacteria that thrives in your oil glands. (Basically, even if you have relatively clear skin, you’re always at risk for the occasional pimple.)

The causes of your breakouts aren’t the only things that make treating adult acne a challenge: the treatment options themselves have changed. Benzoyl peroxide (BP) was probably your go-to back in the day, but now, as your skin starts maturing, it might be too harsh. Though BP is still the gold-standard for clearing moderate to severe acne, it can be overdrying, and using a high concentration (or too much!) can cause irritation, notes Dr. Liu. 

Instead, you have another option: acids. This formidable skincare category can not only treat, but also help prevent future flare-ups. “Acids can dramatically improve acne with regular use,” explains Dr. Nichols. “They also help to even out skin tone and texture, which may be more beneficial for aging skin, especially among sensitive types.” While all acids will offer an exfoliating and skin-clarifying effect, the most effective for acne are the “big three:” lactic, salicylic, and glycolic. Remember, as with any exfoliating product, your skin will be sun-sensitive after using formulas with these acids, so make sure you avoid direct sun and use SPF after application. Read on to get the right fit for your skin and routine — and finally break the acne cycle for good.

Editor's Note

As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment.

Dr. Kim Nichols is a paid Allergan® consultant.