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More and more adults are getting acne – and they have no idea what to do about it

Acne is associated with puberty and raging hormones but what happens when you get it as an adult? Olivia Petter investigates

Saturday 13 August 2022 06:30 BST
An increasing number of people in their late twenties are experiencing problems with their skin – and they have no idea what to do about it
An increasing number of people in their late twenties are experiencing problems with their skin – and they have no idea what to do about it (Getty)
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Hannah always had perfect skin. “It was one of the only parts of my appearance that I could feel completely comfortable with,” she says. As a teenager, she even remembers feeling left out when her friends all had spots. Things changed when she turned 26. “I suddenly got spots around my forehead and blackheads for the first time. It was like they kept multiplying when I wasn’t looking.” With skincare beyond her budget, Hannah turned to makeup. “I covered my face in cheap foundation and concealer, which just made things worse. I felt dirty and unkempt all the time; it took a real toll on my self-esteem.”

Everyone expects to have skin issues in their teen years. Through a cocktail of puberty, raging hormones and possibly being exposed to alcohol for the first time, it’s no wonder that it starts to show on our faces. But, generally speaking, we’re taught that these issues go away when we enter adulthood. Acne is synonymous with spotty 14-year-olds, not working adults. The NHS states that acne is most common in girls from the ages of 14 to 17, and in boys from 16 to 19, but that it often disappears when a person reaches their mid-twenties.

And yet, an increasing number of people in their late twenties are experiencing problems with their skin – and they have no idea what to do about it. One US study found that some degree of acne affects 54 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men over the age of 25. It takes a mental toll, too, with one survey by the British Association of Dermatologists finding that more than half (54 per cent) of adults who have had acne feel like it has had a negative impact on their self-confidence.

“It sounds really simple, but skin is your biggest organ and the most on show, so obviously if it has imperfections we are also going to feel less perfect,” says Hannah. “I also think we (wrongly) associate acne with dirtiness. I worried that people would think I never washed my face or that I ate junk food all the time. Neither of those things were true.”

In a desperate bid to remedy her skin, Hannah went to the doctor several times and was prescribed antibiotics. It didn’t help. “I also saw a homeopath who prescribed me cream and sugar pills which did even less,” she recalls. “I tried every spot cream and treatment recommended by beauty bloggers; they all seemed to make my skin more angry.”

Eventually, one GP prescribed Benzoyl Peroxide, an antiseptic used to treat acne. “That made a bit of a difference.” But it wasn’t until Hannah was given a facial as a birthday present in 2019 that the texture of her skin started to change for the better. “It wasn’t just that the facial was good, it was the advice the facialist gave me: stick to just a few products and keep my routine very simple.” They also told her not to use moisturiser. “She said it wouldn’t suit my skin type and I haven’t used one since. The woman giving the treatment said, ‘all those beauty bloggers come to us after they mess their skin up from too many products, don’t believe it for a second’.”

As Hannah’s story illustrates, people don’t know where to turn when confronted with skin issues. Because despite the fact that everyone’s skin is unique and has a different set of requirements, the beauty industry markets itself to a singular skin type. Every product promises to clear our skin. Every expensive serum pledges to brighten our complexion. And every beauty brand purports to have magical powers that will make us all look like 20-year-olds.

Of course, the reality is quite different. “Adult acne is really common and can happen at any point as our skin is constantly changing,” explains Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, founder of London’s Adonia Medical Clinic. “Changes in hormones, skin practices and many other reasons can cause breakouts, but when they start, they tend to continue; so it’s important to look into your skincare routine and adjust it to your new skin needs.”

The most common skin issues experienced by people in their late twenties, says Dr Ejikeme, are acne and dark circles around the eyes. But there are other, more subtle issues people might experience that are simply down to the ageing process. “In our twenties and thirties, the body’s ability to produce essential compounds begins its lifelong decline,” explains Dr Barbara Sturm, aesthetics doctor and renowned celebrity facialist. “This leads to a loss of skin elasticity, structure, barrier function, and moisture. Collagen production also decreases in your late twenties, causing the appearance of visible fine lines.”

Your late twenties is also the time when you might start to see the result of prolonged sun exposure. Hence why almost every dermatologist says the most important product anyone in their late twenties can put on their face is a good SPF. “Your skincare regimen should revolve around protection, prevention, and hydration and avoid aggressive ingredients or treatments,” says Dr Sturm. “A daily sunscreen, pollution protection, and an intensive hydrating serum should be included in your essentials.”

There are far too many misconceptions surrounding how to treat problematic skin today, with countless so-called skin experts (and the aforementioned beauty bloggers) recommending harsh – and expensive – treatments that will dry out the skin. What it really needs is to be hydrated and healed. “The goal of skincare should be to soothe and reduce inflammation, not cause it,” says Dr Sturm.

“Quick fix topical acids or aggressive lasers are not anti-aging approaches, nor are they fixes,” she continues. “They are destroying healthy skin cells. Skincare should never cause any discomfort. The idea that you should ‘feel the burn’ to get results is a dangerous myth in the beauty and skincare community. The burn is a sign of injury, not efficacy.”

Rather than seeking such treatments, Jessica, 29, sought a holistic approach when – out of nowhere – she started experiencing breakouts all over her face. “It was bizarre,” she recalls, “because I felt like I was living a healthy lifestyle; I was active, ate a mostly plant-based diet, did yoga in the office at lunch… all the things. On paper, I was healthy, but my face told a different story.”

Jessica tried facial acupuncture, reiki, naturopathy, daily celery juices, and spent a lot of money on food allergy and blood tests. “I also made the mistake of going to a facialist in desperate need of answers, and they managed to convince me to get treatments regularly and use expensive products. I was so desperate I would have done anything. But none of it worked.”

It was only after reading a book about the link between menstruation and beauty – The Woman Code by Alissa Vitti – that Jessica started to consider how her hormones might have been impacting her skin. “I started cycle syncing – becoming more in tune with my menstrual cycle and adapting my diet and exercise habits accordingly.” After a few weeks of making simple changes, like not exercising during her period and avoiding certain foods when she was menstruating, Jessica’s skin started to clear.

There’s a lot of false info out there – anyone can say they’re an expert on skin

How you will address your skin concerns will depend on your own skin type. Those with oily skin will have completely different requirements from those with dry skin, for example. Ethnicity is also important to consider. “Darker skin types historically have not had access to the same products as those with lighter skin types, and some of the products won’t work as effectively,” notes Dr Ejikeme. “Because of this, it’s important to have conversations around the products and who they work best for.”

Regardless of your skin type, though, it’s important not to get caught up in spending hundreds of pounds on complex products and treatments that may make no difference and even aggravate your skin further. “Generally speaking, a good skincare regimen need only include a cleanser, exfoliator, a serum that’s packed with potent, active ingredients and intensive hydration, a great moisturizer, and an SPF,” says Dr Sturm.

Looking back on her skin issues, Hannah wishes that there had been better education around skin health when she was at school. “I also think GPs need to be better educated,” she adds. “The fact that they’re giving out antibiotics as treatment is absolutely baffling to me. There’s a lot of false info out there, in a very similar way to nutrition. Anyone can say they’re an expert on skin, in the same way people can say they’re a nutritionist. And as for brands, well, they just want to sell us as many products as possible, even when we know using too many products can actually be damaging for our skin.”

Now that Jessica’s skin issues have been resolved, the difference in her sense of self has been immeasurable. “I think because we are bombarded by ads on products to improve our skin at all costs, the pressure to have the perfect complexion can feel immense,” she says. “So when skin issues happen, it becomes a sudden part of your identity that you weren’t prepared for. Your face is the first thing someone sees when they look at you; it’s the window to our mind and body. It should be prioritised.”

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