Hormone Health

4 Causes of Adult Acne (Plus My Favorite Products for Clear Skin)

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Having acne as an adult can be a real bummer. And while you’re a beautiful human with or without acne, I empathize with the struggle that comes from having frustrating skin issues.

Luckily, there are a few root causes to this stubborn adult acne that can be addressed with lifestyle and diet changes. And some great products that can help make the process even speedier!

Keep reading to learn about why you might be experiencing adult acne and my tips to help you correct it!

Our appearance isn’t everything. Physical beauty isn’t the only thing you have to offer this world. And I subscribe to the philosophy that the healthiest body isn’t necessarily the one that society thinks is most beautiful.

But, feeling confident and at home in your body is a huge component of living a fearless life. You deserve to feel 100% comfortable being your true and authentic self.

And when embarrassing skin conditions like acne get in the way of that, I’m all for taking action in addition to loving yourself the way you are.

I’m no stranger to acne flare-ups, keratosis pilaris, and other skin woes. So I empathize with the frustration and emotional impacts acne can bring.

Having acne affected my desire to be seen both personally and professionally. And I found that when my skin cleared up, it allowed me to show up more authentically in all my relationships.

I know I was valuable as a human being with or without bumps on my skin. But I just felt more “me” when I had clearer skin.

And when it comes to helping you live more authentically and in love with your body and your life, I’m your girl!

In this blog post, I’m going to outline some of the common causes of adult acne. I’m also going to teach you ways you can banish your blemishes using mostly diet and lifestyle changes (and share a few of my favorite products, too).

Causes of Adult Acne

Causes of Adult Acne

While most of us associate acne with our teenage years, adult acne is actually more common than you may think. Especially in women.

I’ve seen a number of statistics on the prevalence of acne in women over the age of 20. And while the exact numbers don’t matter, the emotional burden that having adult acne can pose certainly does.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’m no stranger to the effects stubborn acne can have on our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Yes, we are so much more than a body. But feeling the need to hide your face behind heavy concealers and foundations to cover up your acne is not a recipe for a fearless life.

Ideally, we’d be able to love ourselves and feel completely confident in who we are, no matter what we look like. But I know from experience, this is so much easier said than done.

If acne is a source of anxiety and discontent for you, I can help. I don’t want your struggles with acne to keep you from living fearlessly in the pursuit of a healthy, meaningful life!

Keep reading to learn the causes of adult acne and some actionable ways you can use to start getting rid of those pesky pimples.

Causes of Adult Acne

Cause of Adult Acne #1: Stress

I find myself writing about stress often in my blog posts. And that’s because stress is at the root of so many of our health issues these days.

Our society tells us that busy is a badge of honor, and if we’re not hustling we’ll be left behind.

So it’s no wonder we’re more stressed out than we’ve ever been! And unfortunately, stress is one of the main causes of adult acne.

A study done on college students showed that the severity of their acne significantly increased with increased stress during exams. And while this study was done on teenagers, these results show that there is a relationship between acne and stress.

Stress Hormones and Acne

There are three main ways that stress can cause adult acne.

The first way is because acne is essentially an inappropriate response to inflammation. And where there is inflammation, you can bet that you’ll find some form of stress as a root cause.

Inflammation is partially regulated by our cortisol levels. So, with chronic disturbances in cortisol, as is common in today’s stressed-out society, you can also experience an increase in inflammation.

With increased inflammation, you have a higher chance of developing acne (not to mention a host of other health issues).

The second byproduct of stress is the increase of another hormone, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). And this increase in CRH is the second way that stress can contribute to adult acne.

CRH can actually bind to receptors in the skin’s sebaceous glands. This binding activates the glands and drives up oil production which often times means more acne.

The third way stress affects your acne risk is through an increase in your body’s production of DHEA-S, a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands and acts as an androgen in our body.

Androgens are “male trait” hormones that in excess can lead to a condition called Adrenal PCOS. When our DHEA-S levels are high, this can cause an increase in oily skin and acne. It also contributes to male-pattern hair growth, which in women leads to those annoying hairs on your chin and above your lip (ugh!) We’ll talk more about PCOS in a few minutes, but Adrenal PCOS is a little bit different than your standard PCOS.

Adrenal PCOS is something I’ve personally dealt with and I can tell you that the main way to get those symptoms under control is by keeping your stress as low as possible!

Yes, I know that having acne can cause even more stress. But there are a few diet and lifestyle changes we can make to help reduce our overall stress burden.

Once you’re able to take control of the stressors in your life, you’ve removed one of the potential causes of your adult acne and can be that much closer to clearer skin!

Causes of Adult Acne

Reducing Stress to Reduce Acne

Stress can come in many forms. Emotional, mental, and even physical stressors affect us more often than we think.

Even activities or lifestyles that we enjoy, like working out or spending time with friends, can be sources of stress if we’re not careful.

Overcoming emotional or mental stress can come in the form of taking a random vacation day from work, or saying “no” to an evening out with friends. Or it can mean tackling any negative self-talk that you may be struggling with.

And physical stress can range from pushing yourself too hard at the gym, eating foods that you may have intolerances to, or even avoiding foods out of fear instead of informed intuition.

If any of these root causes of stress resonate with you, I’ve got you! I’ve created an online coaching program and community with you in mind!

My Fed and Fearless Coaching Program is designed for women just like you. In this program, I help women develop what I call a “Fed and Fearless” mindset. This mindset allows these women to approach their health goals from a self-care perspective, and become fearless in their pursuit of a healthy, meaningful life.

We go over nutrition, training, self-care, and more, in order for you to become your healthiest, most vibrant self. Not only that, but you’ll learn how to put your focus on the things that truly matter in your life, including living out your bigger purpose.

Click here to apply for my Fed and Fearless Coaching Program!

I also have a free Facebook group for my community of women where we share insight and support around a host of health and wellness topics. I’d love for you to come join us there!

Causes of Adult Acne

Cause of Adult Acne #2: Hormonal Imbalances

Hormones are at the root of most cases of adult acne. And it’s no coincidence that women and our ever-shifting hormones are more likely to develop adult acne than men.

And you’ll know it when you see it. Hormonal acne most commonly occurs on the chin and jawline and pops up right around the start of your period.

More often than not, hormonal acne is a result of high testosterone levels.

Right before your period, levels of estrogen and progesterone plummet, initiating your monthly bleed. This drop in these two hormones leaves testosterone levels relatively higher at this time of your cycle than any other.

And if your hormones are already imbalanced (even if only slightly), this sharp decline in estrogen and progesterone can further exacerbate those imbalances. This, for many women, can result in acne.

But when your acne doesn’t just serve as a signal to the start of your period, there could be more at play with your hormones as a cause of adult acne.

Endometriosis and PCOS are two relatively common conditions in women. Both conditions are driven by general hormonal imbalances, a common cause of stubborn adult acne.

PCOS and Acne

PCOS is characterized by excessive testosterone levels, insulin resistance, and chronic inflammation.

When testosterone levels are high, women with PCOS can suffer from irregular or missing periods, male-pattern balding, and – you guessed it – acne.

Testosterone can cause or worsen acne because it increases oil production on the skin. And as we know, oily skin is one of the main drivers of adult acne.

The chronic inflammation seen in PCOS can also be a significant driver behind acne in women with this condition.

Endometriosis and Acne

The hormonal imbalances are different in women with Endometriosis than in women with PCOS. But women with Endometriosis can also see an increase in acne as a possible symptom.

Estrogen dominance is the most common hormonal imbalance seen in women with this condition. And, you guessed it, estrogen dominance can also play a role in the development of adult acne.

Estrogen Dominance is characterized by abnormally high levels of estrogen compared to progesterone.

Progesterone is a key player in whether or not we develop acne. This hormone regulates the production of a testosterone byproduct known as dihydrotestosterone, or “DHT.”

DHT is responsible for oil production on our skin, which is completely normal. But when this oil production is in excess, it can be a cause of our adult acne.

When progesterone levels are low, as is common in estrogen dominant Endometriosis, DHT production isn’t as heavily regulated. This decrease in DHT regulation increases overall DHT levels, resulting in oilier skin and more often than not, acne.

But just because you’re dealing with hormonal imbalances doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to a lifetime of acne. There are several easy dietary shifts you can make to start healing your hormones, and your acne, with food!

Causes of Adult Acne

Balance Your Hormones with Food

It’s a good idea to get tested for PCOS (or even Endometriosis) if your acne is more severe than a few stray pimples before you get your period. Especially if you exhibit other signs and symptoms of either of these conditions.

But even if you do have these conditions, food is a simple, inexpensive, and proven way to start balancing your hormones and getting rid of your acne.

If you do have PCOS, I wrote an entire blog post on how you can start healing the common underlying causes of this condition with food alone.

And in general, my food recommendations for promoting hormonal balance are simple.

Eating a diet that contains mostly real, unprocessed foods is key to balancing hormones. And within that mostly whole food template, I’d recommend focusing heavily on the following foods for healthy hormones:

  • Healthy fats like avocados, coconut products, salmon, sardines, egg yolks, and
  • Leafy greens like spinach, kale, chard, and collard greens
  • Inflammation-fighting foods like berries, green tea, cacao, and turmeric
  • High-quality protein sources like grass-fed chicken, beef, and sustainably sourced seafood
  • Starchy carbs like sweet potatoes, plantains, bananas, and legumes

You can also help support happy hormones by reducing your intake of refined sugars, grains, and industrial seed oils.

Causes of Adult Acne

Cause of Adult Acne #3: Inflammatory Foods

When consumed in moderation, foods like dairy, wheat, and sugar aren’t foods that automatically need to be eliminated from a health-promoting diet.

But if you’re struggling with acne and consuming these foods regularly, cutting them out of your diet may help improve the severity and frequency of your breakouts.

Dairy and Acne

Dairy, specifically from cow’s milk, contains something called IGF-1. IGF-1 is a growth hormone and can lead to inflammation and an increase in insulin. Both inflammation and elevated insulin levels are factors we already discussed that can cause adult acne.

Dairy also contains sugar in the form of lactose. For many people, especially as they get older, lactose becomes a source of digestive upset and even acne.

Not all dairy impacts the risk of acne equally. Research suggests that skim milk is typically the biggest culprit. And high-fat dairy products like butter and ghee are far less likely to trigger acne than lower fat dairy like cheese and milk.

Grains and Acne

Wheat – and grains in general – can also be contributing factors behind those pesky pimples.

These foods, especially those that contain gluten (found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye), can be inflammatory in many people.

Eating gluten causes the secretion of a protein called zonulin. This protein regulates the tight junctions of our intestinal lining. And when these tight junctions are open, bacteria, toxins, and food particles can slip through the gut barrier. These intruding particles trigger our immune system, which can lead to a systemic inflammatory response.

This inflammatory response to zonulin occurs more severely in people with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity. But if you’re dealing with acne and eating a lot of grains, this inflammatory response could be a culprit. Try cutting grains out for 30 days to see how this change impacts your skin health.

Sugar and Acne

Excessive sugar intake can lead to increased systemic inflammation and insulin resistance. And as we already know, these two factors are some of the main drivers behind many cases of adult acne.

Furthermore, a high-glycemic diet (one that is high in sugar) has actually been shown to play a role in the development of cystic acne. So if you find yourself consuming sugar on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to take a break for a couple of weeks to see what impact this has on your skin.

If you haven’t noticed a trend, all of these potentially acne-causing foods can be drivers of inflammation in our body.

Removing or minimizing these foods, if you do indeed have an inflammatory response to them, can not only help clear up your acne but may also improve other areas of your health too!

Causes of Adult Acne

Replace Inflammatory Foods

When it comes to supporting a healthy body through food, I’m a fan of a real-food, Paleo-ish approach. This is the same approach I take when coaching clients who are struggling with acne.

Removing the top acne-causing offenders, dairy, grains, and sugar, is important when you’re searching for a cause of your adult acne. But it’s equally as important to focus on health-promoting foods like leafy greens, high-quality fats, and grass-fed proteins.

When trying to determine if a certain food is a root cause of your acne, I recommend removing one of the offending foods at a time. Then take a few weeks to assess if there are any changes in your acne. Skin changes can take a while to really show up so give yourself at least 3-4 weeks to experiment.

If you’re unsure of which food to remove first, I would start with dairy. Dairy is generally the most common dietary cause of adult acne.

As I mentioned before, higher fat dairy products like butter and ghee are often less of a problem for acne than lower fat dairy. And if you’re really missing milk or yogurt, you could try other sources of dairy besides cow’s milk.

Goat’s milk is often easier to digest and doesn’t contain the same types of inflammatory hormones as cow’s milk. So goat’s milk may not have the same acne-causing effects as milk from cows.

Removing foods from your diet can be difficult and mentally taxing. But remember your “why” for removing these foods in the first place. If clear, worry-free skin is your goal, removing these potentially inflammatory foods from your diet could bring you one step closer to achieving it!

Causes of Adult Acne

Cause of Adult Acne #4: Gut Imbalances

An unhealthy gut could also be to blame for your persistent adult acne.

Did you know there’s actually something called a “gut-skin axis?” And new research in this area is giving us greater insight into possible causes of skin conditions like adult acne, rosacea, psoriasis, eczema, and more.

The primary regulator of this gut-skin axis is our gut bacteria, also known as our microbiome.

These beneficial gut bugs do far more than just keep our digestion running smoothly. They actually play a role in our skin health and the development of certain skin conditions.

The results of several studies show that there is evidence to support that the health of our microbiome can be a contributing factor in the development of acne or other skin conditions.

And one study showed that up to 40% of people with acne also had low stomach acid. Low stomach acid can set the stage for bacterial imbalances like SIBO and Candida, which can potentially also lead to acne.

Scientists have also found a link between acne and leaky gut (or intestinal permeability). This means that some cases of adult acne could be caused by the inflammation brought on from having a leaky gut.

There is a clear relationship between the health of your gut and the health of your skin. So working to improve your gut health could also be a contributing factor in helping to get rid of your stubborn acne.

Causes of Adult Acne

Happy Gut, Happy Skin

My favorite way to naturally, and inexpensively boost the health of my gut and microbiome is by consuming probiotic-containing foods.

Probiotic-containing foods include raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, or yogurt (there are many dairy-free options if you’re avoiding dairy!).

Sometimes, you might need more targeted probiotic support than what probiotic containing foods can offer. You can read my article on probiotics to help determine if you might benefit from a probiotic supplement.

Supporting your microbiome can also be as easy as including plenty of prebiotic containing foods in your diet. Prebiotics are fibers in many plant foods that we can’t digest, but that then act as food for our gut bugs.

Foods high in prebiotic fibers are things like asparagus, leeks, bananas, and artichokes. Including some of these prebiotic-rich foods every day will help to keep both your gut and your skin happy and healthy.

Causes of Adult Acne

My Favorite Products for Adult Acne: Beautycounter + Curology

While it’s critical to work on addressing the root cause of your adult acne, sometimes topical solutions to acne are sometimes a must. I’ve dealt with skin issues myself and I can tell you that it’s a huge relief when you finally find a treatment protocol that works.

Whether it’s because you need a quick fix for that unwanted pimple, or you need targeted topical treatments to address a larger acne breakout, it’s great to have effective skin care products for controlling stubborn acne.

Especially when clear skin will boost your confidence and help you feel more like yourself!

My go-to skin care products when it comes to keeping my skin clear of acne has generally been Beautycounter. More recently, I’ve added in Curology to deal with more stubborn issues.

Let me share with you my favorite product recommendations for you to add to your anti-acne arsenal!

Beautycounter Recommendations

Here are some of my go-to Beautycounter products for helping control my adult acne.

This is Beautycounter’s complete acne-fighting collection. This collection contains a cleanser for acne-prone skin, a matte finish toner, an all-over acne treatment, a spot treatment (which works so well!), and hydrating gel cream.

There are so many conventional skincare products developed specifically for acne, but that also contain questionable ingredients. So, when it comes to finding products that actually work AND are 100% safe, Beautycounter’s Countercontrol Collection is at the top of my list.

You can use all of the products in the collection, or just purchase the ones you need. If you’re just going to buy individual products I’d highly recommend the SOS Acne Spot Treatment and the Clear Pore Cleanser.

I’ve used the Spot Treatment several times when I’ve needed a quick fix for an untimely breakout. And I’m always pleasantly surprised at how quickly the acne spot disappears after just a few treatments.

The Clear Pore Cleanser is a great maintenance tool that I’ll use a few times a week in place of my regular cleanser. I love how it exfoliates and removes excess oil without leaving my skin feeling tight and dry like other acne cleansers do.

This nutrient-rich charcoal and clay mask (that smells like peppermint, by the way) works to absorb excess oil and draw out impurities. It’s incredibly popular and truly one of Beautycounter’s “cult” products.

Whenever I’m experiencing a breakout, I use this mask once or twice a week on my entire face. You can also use it as a spot treatment when you start to notice an unwanted breakout starting. Some people even leave it on overnight!

Using facial oil on your already oily skin may seem counterintuitive. But trust me, this oil is lightweight and absorbs quickly so it doesn’t leave you feeling weighed down and greasy.

This oil contains a blend of meadowfoam seed oil and wild chamomile to help calm and soothe your inflamed skin. It’s one of my favorites when it comes to maintaining that healthy glow!

The Overnight Peel packs a one-two punch when it comes to dealing with acne. This leave-on AHA/BHA acid peel improves skin texture and minimizes the appearance of pores, fine lines, and dark spots without irritation or over-drying.

It helps unclog pores as well as reducing post-acne discoloration and scarring. I love the glow you wake up with after a night of wearing this gentle peel to bed!

Contrary to popular belief, dry skin can be just as acne-prone as oily skin. So I like to use this Nourishing Night Cream before bed to keep my skin from getting too dry overnight.

This cream moisturizes my skin so it feels soft and hydrated in the morning. And it absorbs quickly so I never feel greasy.

Click here if you want to browse all the products that Beautycounter has to offer.

And feel free to email me at hello@lauraschoenfeldrd.com if you want any more information about these products and how to pick the products that work best for you.

PS – I’m a Beautycounter consultant who has loved being a part of this movement. If you’re interested in becoming a Beautycounter consultant and helping to get safer skincare into the hands of more women, click here. I’m happy to chat with you about getting involved with this awesome company!


As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not opposed to using medical intervention when necessary. Even when it comes to skincare.

In the past, I’ve used topical tretinoin to help me deal with keratosis pilaris, specifically on my face. Because despite supplementing and generally eating well, my facial skin has had some rough patches over the past few years.

However, I was finding that the high potency tretinoin that my dermatologist prescribed was causing a lot of skin irritation, making it hard for me to use on a regular basis.

I saw an ad on Instagram for Curology and saw some incredible before and afters, and I was curious to test out the product for myself. When I saw they had a free trial available, I figured why not give it a go?

If you’re not familiar, Curology is a skincare company that creates custom dermatologist-formulated skin treatments that are designed for your unique skin concerns.

Now, I wouldn’t consider this as completely “safe” as a company like Beautycounter. But I looked into the ingredients and the EWG ratings were generally pretty good. So I felt comfortable using it as an as-needed treatment.

And honestly? Curology (with its lower dose tretinoin and azelaic acid) has been amazing for helping me get rid of the weird little keratin bumps I was getting around my cheeks and jawline, without causing excessive irritation. I was pretty impressed by how fast my skin purged the plugs without causing major inflammation. And compared to some of the medical esthetic treatments I had gotten recently, it was so much more affordable and more gentle on my skin. All while still being effective!

So if you’re dealing with more stubborn acne or even keratosis pilaris like I was, and products like Beautycounter haven’t been enough for you to see results, I highly encourage you to test out Curology as another option. It really has done wonders for my skin. And I’ve only been using it for about 3-4 weeks at this point.

Causes of Adult Acne

Loving You for You, Acne or Not

Now that we’ve looked at several factors that can cause adult acne and some ways you can try to overcome it, I want to leave you with some encouragement.

Acne or not, you are beautiful, and worthy, and valuable. These are such important truths to store deep in your heart.

Because, even if you try all of these potential acne remedies and more, you might still struggle with occasional breakouts or even full-fledged acne attacks.

And if you do, you have to believe that how your skin looks doesn’t make you any less of a person. You have to love you for you, pimples on your face or not.

I know that having a complexion that you’re less than proud of can make it more difficult to show up in the world as your authentic self. But it’s the truth that you’re more than a body. You have so much more value to offer the world than just clear skin.

Ned some additional encouragement around these areas? Want some targeted help to work on your acne and your mindset around your skin? I’d love to help!

You can sign up to work with me one-on-one, or in my Fed and Fearless Coaching Program, where I help women just like you nourish their mind, body, and spirit so they can live a fearless life!

What about you? Do you think your acne could be due to any of these causes I discussed? Have you tried any of my recommended fixes or any of my Beautycounter/Curology recommendations? How have they worked for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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Your Friend and Business Mentor

I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

I help nutrition entrepreneurs grow their income and their impact by packaging their brilliance into transformative coaching and consulting programs, and get crystal clear on their marketing strategy.

I'm on a mission to help nutrition business owners drop the hustle and come into alignment with their ideal business goals, so they can work from a sense of ease and abundance, and build the online business of their dreams. 

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