We all know that you should avoid touching your face, drink more water, drink less alcohol, and wash your face after working out, but there are a lot of things you might be doing that may be causing your adult acne. There are basically three causes: poor hygiene, poor health, or hormonal imbalances, and the first step to getting rid of your adult acne and getting clear skin is to determine the cause of your acne.
Here are 20 common, yet surprising reasons adults still have acne (and how to fix it):
1. Your phone
Acne: Cheeks (particularly upper cheeks)
Mobile phones bacteria cesspools. In fact, scientists at the University of Arizona found that your phone is ten times dirtier than most toilet seats. And so when you talk on the phone, holding it against your ear–and side of your face–it’s easy to see why you might be creating bacteria breeding ground and getting spots on your cheeks and upper cheeks.
Solution: Sanitize your phone daily (e.g., using an alcohol wipe) and hold your phone away from your face so that it doesn’t touch your skin. If you need to be hands-free, use earbuds.
2. ….And even your headphones
Acne: Upper cheeks and upper jaw
Like our phones, headphones such as Beats by Dre are also covered in bacteria. But unlike our phones, many people spend hours wearing headphones. If you’re getting acne near your ears, and you use large headphones (as opposed to small earbuds), your headphones may be the culprit. According to New York City cosmetic dermatologist, Dr. Shereene Idriss, it’s common to see teens with acne due to headphones. And of course, headphones can also be a cause of adult acne.
Solution: Make it a habit to sanitize your headphones, and when you don’t need noise-canceling or super high-quality sound, opt for smaller headphones, such as earbuds.
3. Face masks cause adult acne
Acne: Localized acne in the lower half of the face
Just like your phone and headphones, masks can be riddled with acne-causing bacteria. And masks are far worse for acne as they’re often used for extended periods of time. Not only do masks trap bacteria and hold it close to your skin, but masks also irritate skin, making it more susceptible to mask acne (a.k.a. “mascne”). Additionally, masks also trap oil, creating a recipe for skin disaster. Mascne is incredibly common, especially amongst students, those who exercise in a mask, and those who work in fast-paced environments such as a restaurant with a mask.
Solution: Avoid a mask when it isn’t necessary and when you have to wear a mask, take a hint from the OR and change your mask every two hours. Learn more about the research behind bacterial contamination in masks.
4. Your pillowcase is covered in bacteria
Acne: Mostly sides of the face (i.e., cheeks)
It’s not just your pillowcase, but your bedsheet that can quickly build up bacteria, as well as other nasties such as dust mites and fungus. One study found that the average American changes their bedsheets every 24 days. And worse, another survey discovered that over 50% of single men ages 18 to 25 said they change their sheets four times per year. Yuck.
Solution: Change your bedding at least weekly, and swap out your pillowcase every couple of days, so that you’re sleeping on a new side each night. Additionally, there are also antimicrobial bedding options that help reduce the amount of bacterial buildup on your bedding.
5. You exercise with a dirty face
Acne: Face, chest, and/or back
Going straight from work to a workout often means you aren’t washing your face before exercising. And after a day’s worth of oil, makeup, and exposure to bacteria, adding in sweat will only exacerbate the issue. Though we don’t necessarily think to wash our face before exercising, it does help to go into a workout with a clean face.
Solution: At least use micellar water before working out. We get it, you have acne and you want to wear makeup at the gym or during your yoga class. But you should at least clean your face before reapplying to start with a fresh face (and ideally, try to tone it down with the makeup – maybe skip the foundation and use a light powder to help smooth your complexing without adding a ton of product to your face pre-sweat).
6. Washing your face with dirty hands
As trivial as it sounds, you shouldn’t wash your face with dirty hands. You may think your face wash should also simultaneously be washing your hands, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily is. Think about those signs that share how to properly wash your hands. It involves washing your hands under warm (if not borderline hot) water for at least 30-seconds.
Solution: Wash your hands before washing your face.
7. Your cleanser doesn’t actually clean
Sunscreen and makeup are made to last longer and longer, so as those become more heavy-duty, so must our cleanser, well, or at least our cleansing efforts. Meanwhile, in an effort to make products more natural and more gentle, many products have become too gentle to effectively wash away these stubborn products. A quick way to test whether your cleansing routine is in fact cleaning your face is to wipe your face with an astringent or toner after washing. If there’s any residue (i.e., makeup) on the wipe, then your cleanser isn’t doing its job.
Solution: Use micellar water before washing your face to get the bulk of makeup, dirt, and oil off of your skin.
8. You dry with dirty towels
Acne: Face and/or body
Drying your face with dirty face cloths, drying your face post-shower with a dirty towel, and even applying products with freshly washed hands that were dried with a dirty hand towel can cause acne in sensitive skin as dirty towels are a bacteria breeding ground.
Solution: Use a new facecloth after washing your face, or. if you want. to save on washing, use an anti-bacterial facecloth (i.e., this one from Miracle, $14). Alternatively, ditch the facecloth altogether and dry your face with paper towels. No, seriously. That’s a dermatologist trick to clearing acne.
9. You don’t clean your makeup brushes between uses
Acne: Anywhere you use brushes
Makeup brushes can quickly become oil-soaked bacteria bombs, so it’s not surprising that acne might be caused by unhygienic brushes and tools. And it’s an easy (and with that very common) thing to overlook. Since you might typically only use your makeup tools after washing your face, however, there are likely times when you’re in a rush and re-apply makeup to a dirty face.
Solution: First off, make it a habit to never use a brush on a dirty face. Then, make it another step in your routine to clean your brushes.
10. You use pore-clogging products
Acne: Sporadic, but large puss-filled pimple
It seems like estheticians and dermatologists alike are often saying no to scrubs–and for good reason. Face scrubs clog pores and because they’re abrasive, they cause little tears, which can make your skin more vulnerable to bacteria, and in return, acne. There’s really little to no benefit of an abrasive scrub and for most, it does more harm than good.
Solution: Skip the scrubs, choose non-comedogenic products, and if you want to slough away dead skin cells, use an alternative resurfacing method such as an acid peel (e.g., glycolic acid).
11. You use both salicylic acid and glycolic acid
Acne: Irritated skin and dry, red acne bumps
In an attempt to get clear skin, people often resort to using products that contain salicylic acid and glycolic acid. Both are widely touted as complexion clearing products, however, the two actually don’t play well together, and using both of them may actually cause breakouts. The reason being, salicylic acid works by slowing cell turnover (basically keeping pimples at bay by keeping them under the rug), meanwhile glycolic acid works by basically eliminating your outermost layer of skin. It’s a little like trying to fill a water bottle that has a hole in the bottom of it, it’s not going to work.
Solution: Check the products you use and if you are using both, then ditch one of them.
12. Snuggling your beloved pet
Acne: Small spots, usually on the sides of the face
As disappointing as it sounds, it is true: cuddling up to your pet could be part of your acne problem. Pet hair has its own natural oils and for many, bacteria. After all, you might be forgetting how your dog had fancied a dead pigeon or the public trash cans at the park earlier that day. Gross, but true.
Solution: Don’t stop loving on your pet, but do start being more aware and washing your face after direct contact. If you have really troubled skin, then perhaps try refraining from touching your face to your pet.
13. You eat too much sugar
Acne: Face and/or body
This is hardly surprising, but what can be eye-opening is how much sugar even seemingly very healthy foods and meals contain. For example, smoothies and acai bowls are loaded with sugar. And if you’re not making it yourself, you might be surprised to find out just how much sugar is in your favorite cafe’s smoothie or breakfast bowl. And then there are the sugary drinks, such as a Matcha Latte from Starbucks (32 grams of sugar in a 16oz. grande!–nearly as much as a can of coca-cola), and restaurants notoriously add sugar to dishes that you might never expect would contain sugar.
Solution: Be more conscious of what you’re consuming and make more meals at home. For example, many have found that they get acne when consistently eating a morning shake–if it contains bananas. That’s because bananas are packed with sugar. Learn more about the connection between bananas and adult acne.
14. You’re overloaded on carbs
Acne: Anywhere, but typically the lower half of the face
Since carbs basically turn into sugar and sugar causes acne, so do carbs. But what’s surprising about carbs is just how many foods contain them, from oat milk to bananas, dates, raisins, mangos, and more. Carbs from wheat (a.k.a. gluten) can actually cause hormonal acne as they’re naturally high in XXX, which can throw your hormones out of balance if you consume a lot. On the other hand, you may find that a diet rich in wheat can help acne if your hormones are out of balance (e.g., due to hormonal birth control) and thus may actually help balance hormones. This is why those who go keto or gluten-free often reap the benefits of a clearer complexion.
Solution: If you think the culprit of your acne might be your high-carb diet, try eliminating carbs for at least three to six months. It may sound extreme to any carb-lover, but you might be surprised at how easy it is to eat a keto diet these days.
15. Your gut is struggling to process nutrients
Acne: Typically cystic, most often present on the cheeks
A body lacking nutrients with an overworked liver isn’t going to fare well. If acne is internally derived, then it’s your body’s way of releasing toxins. In fact, skin is your body’s last resort when eliminating toxins from the body and if you’re doing everything else right and still getting acne, it may be hormonal, but it also may be a sign of poor gut health. After all, your digestive system is responsible for absorbing nutrients. And if it’s not working properly, then you’re not getting the nutrients you need–even if you have a great diet.
Solution: Support your liver function through a liver detox, and if that doesn’t seem to help, then have your nutrient levels tests, or, if you already have taken a DNA test, such as Ancestry DNA or 23 and Me, have your genetics analyzed to find out if you have genes present that might cause your body to be unable to process certain vitamins and minerals. You can get your DNA analyzed for free with two of the best-customized multivitamin companies (no purchase necessary).
16. You’re getting too much biotin
Acne: Large pustules, similar to an ingrown hair
Biotin may be known to give you lusciously long hair, but it can also cause acne breakouts in high doses. Since this topic hasn’t been widely studied, doctors will ascertain that there’s no connection to biotin and acne, however, anecdotally, there are thousands of people who have the shared experience of experiencing acne after taking high doses of biotin, so while science may not have proven it yet, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Even if you’re not taking a hair, skin, and nails supplement, you may find that biotin has been snuck into your daily multivitamin. In fact, most multivitamins contain 30 to 300 mcg, which is 100 to 1,000% DV. That’s a lot. Interested in learning more? Get the full breakdown of how biotin causes acne.
Solution: If you do find that your multivitamin includes biotin, try switching to a biotin-free multivitamin, such as Whole Earth & Sea from Natural Factors, Women’s Multivitamin ($30 for a one month supply on Amazon).
For more details on how biotin might be the culprit of your adult acne, get the complete breakdown on the truth about biotin breakouts.
17. Your cortisol levels are high (ahem, you’re stressed)
Acne: Upper half of your face
Cortisol is a stress hormone and well, one of the myriads of things that stress causes is acne. In fact, you may have heard may claims against stress-induced acne, however, there are many symptoms of raised cortisol levels, and many of which have the side effect of stress. For example, if you’re cortisol levels are high when trying to go to bed, you’ll likely find it difficult to go to sleep. Poor sleep affects the gut biome and your body’s ability to function properly, so if your liver and digestive system aren’t able to process nutrients and eliminate toxins, then your body will seek to expel toxins another way: via your skin.
Solution: If you suspect that high cortisol levels might be the culprit of your adult acne, you can take a cortisol test to get your levels. There are many to choose from and you can have this performed at your doctors, or at home using the LetsGetChecked Home Coristol Test for $99 (blood) or the EverlyWell Sleep and Stress Panel for $199 (urine). With that, find an outlet, meditate, consume cortisol-reducing foods, try adaptogens (e.g., ashwagandha), or even acupuncture.
18. Your face lotion contains oxybenzone
Acne: Large, occasional pimples (face and/or body)
Oxybenzone, a commonly used active ingredient in sunscreen products, has been known to influence your body’s hormones. In other words, it may be screwing up your hormonal balance and causing hormonal acne, which typically appears in larger pimples, or pustules around the lower half of the face–particularly around the jawline and chin. However, because it’s causing an internal issue, pimples can crop up anywhere on the body, not just where you apply the product.
To learn more, check our article on how oxybenzone causes hormonal acne.
Solution: Dump SPF products that use oxybenzone.
19. Your liver needs help processing excess estrogen
Acne: Lower half of your face (particularly, the chin and jawline)
The liver is responsible for processing estrogen, but it’s not uncommon for our body to have a surplus of estrogen thanks to the foods we consume that were produced with growth hormones (e.g., meats, vegetables, etc…) and hormonal birth control (e.g., the pill, implant, IUD, etc…). Since most of us are getting too much estrogen externally–and never mind synthetic estrogen that our body wasn’t made to handle–many women end up with a surplus of estrogen that our liver can’t remove on its own.
Solution: Do a liver detox, try using one of the best supplements for hormonal acne, eat- hormone-free foods, and pass on processed foods.
20. Your hormonal birth control is causing hormonal acne
Acne: Cystic acne in the lower half of the face (i.e., cheeks, chin, and/or jawline)
Sure, while it’s a common train of thought that hormonal birth controls help control and eliminate acne, not everyone is in this boat. In fact, many birth control users report an increase in acne while taking hormonal birth control–particularly progestin-only forms. Hormones play a large role in acne, so pumping your body with synthetic hormones may cause your hormones to become imbalanced and out of whack.
Learn more about low testosterone in women and how adult acne is one of its many symptoms. (LINK)
Solution: Try a different hormonal birth control, or try a non-hormonal birth control (i.e., basal temperatures with Natural Cycles, male condoms, female, condoms, etc…).
Bottom Line – Why You Have Adult Acne
The first step in curing adult acne is determining the cause of it. Sure, the process can feel like trying to solve a puzzle–because well, that’s exactly what you’re trying to do. Odds are, if you’ve tried all the basic hygienic causes of acne, you have hormonal acne–which is the most common cause of adult acne. Remember that acne is a symptom of another problem.