The Complete Guide to Adult Acne:9 Common Causes & Treatments

Adult acne is essentially the same as teen acne – caused by excess skin oil, blockage of pores, bacteria and skin inflammation. The reasons why different people get acne in adulthood can differ from teen acne but it manifests very similarly. Washing with a gentle face-specific cleanser in the morning and night and using over-the-counter products containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can help some acne but is not always effective.

We spoke to Hong Kong-based specialist dermatologist, Dr. Nicola Chan 陳珮瑤醫生 for some answers on what causes adult acne and how to treat it. When thinking about how to treat your acne, it’s helpful to look at what you think the cause may be – addressing the actual cause rather than addressing your acne superficially will increase your chances of effective acne treatment.

Hormonal changes

Acne can be triggered by hormonal swings, notably during pregnancy, menstruation, peri-menopause (the early stages of menopause) and menopause, or as a result of polycystic ovarian syndrome. As opposed to adolescent acne which appears on your forehead, nose and chin, hormonal adult acne is usually on your cheeks or jawline.

Acne treatment: If your acne is related to hormones, usually topical over-the-counter options only show partial improvement. Oral medications such as appropriate oral contraception or anti-androgen drugs may help regulate your hormones. These come with potential side effects so it’s important to speak to your doctor about your treatment options.


Acne treatment: If you think stress is contributing to your acne, you need to find ways to reduce your stress hormone levels (cortisol). This is easier said than done but a few minutes of mindfulness or exercise (followed by proper face washing) may be just the stress outlet you need.

Birth control

Hormonal oral contraception pills can make acne either better or worse. Birth control pills containing both estrogen and progesterone will regulate the amount of androgen, the hormone that causes excess oil production and acne. Oral contraception containing just progesterone is likely to make your acne worse.

Acne treatment: Change your oral contraception pill or try a non-hormonal birth control method such as the copper IUD.


People who smoke, especially women, are more prone to developing acne in adulthood.

Acne Treatment: To state the obvious, stop smoking.

Genetic risk

Blame your parents. Some people simply have a genetic predisposition toward adult acne.

Acne treatment: Washing your face twice daily with a gentle cleanser, using non-comedogenic products, minimizing chronic stress and avoiding progesterone-only birth control will lower your chances of developing acne in adulthood.

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Makeup and sunscreen

Acne is basically clogged and infected pores so anything that goes on your face could cause acne.

Acne treatment: Wash your face twice daily with a gentle face wash, wash your makeup brushes regularly and seek out oil-free and non-comedogenic makeup and sunscreen options to reduce your chances of acne.


Those high-pollution days are not just clogging up our lungs but also our pores.

Acne treatment: Between Hong Kong’s pollution and sweat-inducing humidity, it’s important to wash your face regularly, especially at night.


There hasn’t been any scientific truth establishing the link between junk food and adult acne in general. However, some people find that their acne is linked to certain trigger foods. Common trigger foods include sugar, dairy products, refined carbohydrates and red meat.

Acne treatment: If you have occasional acne outbreaks, take a look at your diet to see if there’s a link between a certain food/food additive and your breakout.

Medication side effect

Acne can be a side effect of some medications. If your acne is correlated with a new medication, continue taking that medication and check with your doctor that acne is a possible side effect.

Acne treatment: After speaking with your doctor, there may be another medication option or you can visit a dermatologist to discuss acne control options.

If you’re not able to control it at home, speak to your GP or visit a dermatologist for a more in-depth look at your skin. A list of dermatologists registered in Hong Kong is available on the Medical Council website.

Looking for health insurance? Contact our partner AD MediLink now at [email protected] or +852 2606 2668 for expert and unbiased advice. Their advisors are uniquely trained on the Hong Kong healthcare system to answer all your questions; on both the public and private sectors.

Dr. Nicola Chan 陳珮瑤醫生 is a Specialist in Dermatology in private practice. She graduated from the University of Cambridge, UK, and received post-graduate medical training in Cambridge, London and Hong Kong. This was followed by further laser and aesthetic dermatology training in Boston and Baltimore, USA. Dr Chan is a member of the Hong Kong Society of Dermatology and Venereology, American Society of Laser Medicine and Surgery, Asian Dermatological Association, and Hong Kong College of Dermatologists.
This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.