Adult Acne Causes – What Really Causes Adult Acne?

Is adult acne really any different from teenage acne?

Is adult acne really any different from teenage acne?

Did anyone ever tell you that acne is a teenage skin problem?

Did anyone tell you that you would grow out of your acne, but you didn’t?

You’re not alone!

In fact, 60 million adult Americans have acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. That’s about 1 in 4 adults! It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. Adults are throwing their money at treatments that don’t work, because most doctors and dermatologists don’t actually understand the true causes of adult acne.

I know something that the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t – adult acne has the same causes as teenage acne, and it’s curable! Permanently! (Though not by the methods that your dermatologist recommends.)

So the good news is, you won’t have to deal with acne for the rest of your adult life if you don’t want to!

Let’s get down to the causes of adult acne.

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How is adult acne different from teenage acne?

In short: it’s not much different at all. Adult acne and teenage acne are both caused by fluctuating and out-of-balance hormones. Now if we trace that back upstream, using something called “root cause analysis,”[1] we find that the causes of imbalanced hormones are actually slightly different for adults and for teenagers.

The main reason why acne is commonly believed to be a teenager skin problem is because teens’ hormones are fluctuating wildly, making it more likely that they’ll get acne. In teenagers, growth hormone, IGF-1 and testosterone are all kicked into high gear (even in girls), causing height spurts, muscle growth, and sexual development.

Turns out that these hormones can all directly cause acne when they’re too high in the body. Add to that the high-stress environment of most schools, and you can see why teenagers are a little more prone to getting acne.

The main difference between adult acne and teenage acne

Adult acne is becoming increasingly common, and it’s easy to see why when you bring diet and stress into the picture.

For adults who are genetically predisposed to getting acne (that includes me and you!), eating foods that cause increases in IGF-1 and testosterone, such as milk and dairy, cause our hormones to fluctuate, causing acne in a similar way to teenagers.

It’s true, we’re not going through puberty and massive bodily change as adults, but diet alone is enough to throw off your hormones enough to cause breakouts. Add the stress of most folks’ workplaces, commuting, traffic, money worries, and more, and you get a surefire recipe for acne!

Adult acne multiplier: negative beliefs and thoughts

You won’t hear this next bit from your dermatologist. You won’t hear it from your doctor. And you won’t see it on the news. But my own experience (and that of many others) demonstrates that negative thoughts and beliefs can have a powerful multiplying effect on adult acne.

Do these thoughts resonate at all with you?

  • “I hate having acne.”
  • “It’s not fair! I’m an adult, so I should have grown out of my acne years ago!”
  • “Acne is really embarrassing as an adult.”
  • “I hope I’m not stuck with acne for the rest of my life.”
  • “I’m worried that I’ll never be able to get rid of my acne.”
  • “I feel helpless about my acne.”
  • “I’ve tried all the treatments out there, but nothing worked! What should I do? Help!”

These kinds of thoughts are perfectly normal! That said, if you find yourself thinking these thoughts often, it’s a good sign that your mind could be sabotaging your skin, hampering your efforts to clear up your skin.

How can these thoughts possibly cause acne? Well, the clinical experience of Dr. John Sarno, pioneer of mind-body treatment for back pain, has shown that skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne can be affected by the mind.

That’s right, the mind!

Dr. Sarno is mostly known for treating back pain, and his explanation for how the mind can create back pain is that your brain reduces oxygen and blood flow to certain parts of your body (e.g. your back) to try to protect you from repressed emotions bubbling up to the surface.

How does this relate to adult acne?

Well, Dr. Sarno has found that mind-created back pain has “equivalents,” meaning other diseases which tend to show up at the same time. Acne is high on that list!

So how can your mind make acne worse? Well, Sarno doesn’t go into great detail in his books about skin disorders, but my interpretation is that your brain can actually fluctuate your hormones in response to negative thoughts. It’s a protection mechanism, it seems, to guard your ego (your “self”) from these intensely negative emotions — fear, anger and insecurity — bubbling up to the surface.

Of course, this is all speculation! But I’ve found that turning around the thoughts I think has actually led to a major improvement in my skin, and I think it can do the same for you.

Here are some improved thoughts:

  • “I have had acne in the past.”
  • “I’m an adult, and adults can get acne just like teenagers can.”
  • “I’m looking forward to having clear skin.”
  • “I’m meant to have clear skin.”
  • “I know I’ll find a way to get rid of my acne.”
  • “I have total control over my skin health through the foods I eat and the thoughts I think.”

As I mentioned, clinical evidence of Dr. John Sarno and another doctor, Howard Schubiner, with thousands of patients suggests that improved thoughts such as these can actually have a biochemical effect in the body.

My own line of reasoning suggests that your mind can exert control over your hormones, and that changing your thoughts about acne and skin health from negative ones to positive ones can actually change your body’s hormones by regulating gene expression (via epigenetics), and thereby affect your actual skin health.

If nothing else, these improved thoughts will lower your stress levels about acne, which science has well documented to reduce cortisol and inflammation. [2] [3]

In summary

  • Adult acne is similar to teenage acne, in that it’s caused by fluctuating hormones.
  • Adult acne is different in that adults’ hormones are out of balance primarily because of poor diet + stress (puberty’s not a factor anymore).
  • Most dermatologists don’t know what causes adult acne. (Good thing you found this blog! :).
  • Adult acne can be cured by diet modifications, stress reduction, and improved thoughts. (See our book for in-depth advice — Sonia and I walk you through the whole process from acne to clear skin. It’s the last acne treatment you’ll ever need.)

About Devin Mooers

Devin MooersHey! Over the past 10 years, I've developed a powerful system for clearing acne with a little-known diet- and lifestyle-based method, and I want to spread the love. That's why I started Clear Skin Forever back in 2011. I studied engineering and product design at Stanford University, and graduated in the top 5% of my class, but afterward, I decided to focus on writing about health, since I found it so fulfilling to help people clear their acne for good. Thanks for reading, and sign up for email updates to stay in the loop with clear skin tips! Also, be sure to check out our book if you haven't yet, all about how to fix acne permanently with diet and lifestyle changes. We've helped thousands of people get clear skin this way!

Sources (click to expand)

  1. Root cause analysis is an extremely powerful tool for finding the root cause of some problem or disease. I wish the medical world practiced this more often! Read more on Wikipedia about root cause analysis. ^
  2. Lorenz TH, Graham DT, Wolf S. The relation of life stress and emotions to human sebum secretion and to the mechanism of acne vulgaris. J Lab Clin Med. 1953 Jan;41(1):11-28. ^
  3. Chiu A, Chon SY, Kimball AB. The response of skin disease to stress: changes in the severity of acne vulgaris as affected by examination stress. Arch Dermatol. 2003 Jul;139(7):897-900. ^
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  1. kaleigh phillips says

    Starting to use the “teccino” chicory root based coffee replacer and let go of the coffee drinking. What are your thoughts on this ? Different sources I found state it as good for the gut because the chichory fiber is a prebiotic. Any thoughts?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Kaleigh! Prebiotic fiber can provide great food for beneficial gut bacteria for sure. It’s essentially a root brew decoction, which have been used medicinally for ages. I’ve started making herbal tea in the mornings from bulk herbs (goldenrod, calendula, chamomile, pine needles, fir tips, etc.), many of which we’ve collected ourselves (but many of which we get from the co-op). I definitely feel way better when I wake up, and am not so stressed out later, since dropping coffee!

  2. Sam says

    Hi Devin,

    How low PUFA diets do you recommend? Do you think you can get all the PUFAs you need from eating beans, whole grains and whole milk? I have always felt terrible every time I have eaten seeds, fish oil and other EFA supplements.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sam! Yeah, definitely. Very low PUFA is good. It’s all about quality and freshness with PUFA – most fish oils, seeds, supplements, etc. are totally rancid by the time you ingest them. Yes, the Inuit traditionally eat tons of seal blubber (high in PUFA), but it’s extremely fresh and non-oxidized when ingested, and they also eat thyroid glands of seals, which provides loads of iodine and thyroid hormone to block lipid peroxidation of that PUFA.

      How do you feel with raw oysters, have you tried that? They’re a prime acne-busting food, with lots of zinc and also super-fresh DHA.

  3. Brooke Turley says

    Ok, you’re officially talking crappy science, in light of this article about marigolds and chickens. Apparently it very much does indeed improve eggs to have marigolds in the chickens’ diets.

    I certainly hope that no one has gone and altered either their own diet or that of their poultry, just because of your half-baked scare tactics. Good grief. “ Fake orange” in nature, indeed.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Brooke! Wow, color me (majorly) wrong. Thanks for pointing this out! That was really sloppy – I don’t know what I thought that marigold color would not be related to an antioxidant carotene. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. I’m sorry about this carelessness – I have removed this from the post after following up on the articles you linked! I will try to be more careful next time.

  4. Brooke Turley says

    Hi, I hate to burst your anti-marigold bubble, but the thing is, marigolds are orange themselves due to caratenoids! They’re full of nutrients, actually, and there’s no such thing as “fake orange” in nature.

    (Unless I count the time that my dad consumed massive quantities of beta-carotene in his heroic search for a natural “fake tan”. That time, “fake orange” definitely fit the bill.)

    Here’s an article that details the nutritional profile of marigolds:

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Brooke! (Just duplicating the response here to your other comment) Wow, color me (majorly) wrong. Thanks for pointing this out! That was really sloppy – I don’t know what I thought that marigold color would not be related to an antioxidant carotene. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. I’m sorry about this carelessness – I have removed this from the post after following up on the articles you linked! I will try to be more careful next time.

  5. tom hennessy says

    Researchers in a recent study took 60 women with hyperandrogenemia which has cystic acne as a major symptom, and reduced the iron in 30 by phlebotomy, and gave the ‘standard of care’ to the other 30, found, phlebotomy to reduce iron levels was as effective as the drugs used in the ‘standard of care’.

    Effect of phlebotomy versus oral contraceptives containing cyproterone acetate on the clinical and biochemical parameters in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: a randomized controlled trial. J Ovarian Res 12, 78 (2019).

    There seems to be more to the iron than we fully realize ..

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Tom – whoa, that’s fascinating! Great find! Amazing that phlebotomy brought on normal menstruation in 44% of subjects – I bet if they also added 3,000 IU of retinol, it would have improved results even more (vit. A boosts ceruloplasmin production to bind excess free iron).

    • Sean says

      Hey Rey, do you consume Magnesium through supplements or are you making an effort to eat Magnesium rich foods?

      (just curious)

  6. Luo says

    Stress can induce a series of negative effects on the human body. Many people are easily depressed under pressure, which has a bad influence on the treatment of acne.
    Some people overeating under pressure, too much sugar can easily induce acne.
    And stress can make people unable to sleep, and lack of sleep has too much effect on the skin.

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Master your acne in 4 weeks or less
  • Fix the root causes of your acne: fluoride, diet, sleep, stress & more
  • Exclusive forum access with 4,000+ members
  • Food Explorer App with skin safety ratings of 450+ foods
  • 96% of customers satisfied