I’ve had my fair share of physical ailments, but somehow adult acne of all things is the one thing I haven’t been able to deal with. As a hormonal teen, I luckily never really had acne except for a breakout or two every month. As soon as I turned 23, that luck ran out.
I’ve tried everything under the sun to get rid of my acne – from literally scrubbing my face and having a 15-product skincare routine to leaving my face alone and just washing it once a day with mild soap or anything in between. My skin hates everything (including me lol).
This war with my skin was never-ending and every esthetician, Youtube video, dermatologist, and blog had really just been suggesting more products to use, pills to take, or to go on birth control. To be honest, I was sick of products and had reached a point where I thought that this is just something I will have to live with.
I wanted a resolution that healed my acne and worked through the root cause rather than temporarily ‘fixed’ it. That’s when I learned about Holistic health and wellness and started to dig my heels in.
*I am not a medical professional or nutritionist – all opinions are my own (based on research) – do with that what you will* Also, some links in this blog are affiliate links, but I promise you that I link only products I like and the price of those products stay the same whether you buy through this link or not.
What Causes Adult Acne
I had to start with the source so I could figure out how to treat my issues rather than the symptoms. Ultimately, acne is caused by excess sebum, oil, and dead skin stuck under the skin’s surface, causing it to inflame. You know this already, though. Turns out that excess sebum, oil, and dead skin is caused by a combination of things that at first seem un-fixable.
Digging through articles online, they all seemed to come to the conclusion that acne was related to:
- Hormones – and not just period hormones
- Your Environment
- Your Skin Products (lol yes, the face creams advertised to you to “treat” your acne)
- Your Workout
- Family History/Genetics
Acne Cause 1: Hormones
Acne cause: Androgens and Stress
Solution: Adaptogens/Antioxidants and Vitamins
Every time someone tells me that acne comes from hormones, I give a big eye roll because… obviously! The thing they don’t tell you is which hormones or how to fix this. Typically, when someone says that acne is hormonal, they are telling you there is nothing you can do about it except to wait it out and they’re assuming it’s because of your period.
Hormonal acne doesn’t just affect women – so how is it because of my period? It’s not.
The reason acne stems from hormones is because there are certain hormones that stimulate your skin’s oil glands – going back to the *actual* cause of acne: excess sebum/oil. The hormones that naturally affect these oil glands are Androgens and Cortisol (stress hormone).
Androgen (n.): Hormones that control male sex traits and development, influence female sexual behavior and later in life, puberty. They are also responsible for human facial hair development.Tulane University
Androgens aren’t intrinsically bad, but when in an imbalance, they do cause a couple of problems. Testosterone is the primary androgen in the cause of acne. Stress hormones like Cortisol, although not an original cause of acne, will aggravate sebaceous oil glands causing even more oil sebum production, making the situation worse. (Androgens include: testosterone, dihydroestosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate)
I’m not a male though, why do I have a lot of testosterone??
You don’t have to have a hormone imbalance to have excess testosterone. Let me repeat that- you can have extra testosterone, but still be in the normal range for hormones.
There are additional, more extreme factors that can affect testosterone levels, like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) (an increase in androgens in women), but for the average person a slight increase in testosterone can be normal. If you have additional symptoms that you’re concerned about, it may be worth reaching out to a doctor.
How do I ‘fix’ my hormones?
There are a couple of options here, but the first thing I have to touch on is that by fixing your hormones, I don’t specifically mean to higher or lower them. You should be focusing on bringing your body back to equilibrium and keeping your hormones at the correct level through Adaptogens. You also want to combat the excess sebaceous oil secretion through vitamins and minerals, both topically (on the skin), and orally (through food).
Adaptogen (n.) Natural primarily-plant substances that help your body adapt to stress by affecting your adrenal glands (the glands that release stress hormones – and Androgens).
Although there isn’t much research on adaptogens (mostly because big-pharma can’t really monetize plants), their use has been around for many years in Eastern/Ayruvedic medicine.
They help maintain and restore hormonal balance also known as homeostasis. Most of the time you would be hearing doctors prescribing something that would be anti-androgen (Accutane), rather than something that helps balance you out without harsh symptoms.
The one main adaptogen I will talk about has the most scientific backing in regards to stress reduction whereas many others don’t have as much research done.
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is an adaptogen that enhances the “function of the brain and nervous system, improves memory, and also improves the body’s resiliency to stress. Aka: reduces the risk of heightened cortisol levels when your body is under stress, thus helping to slow down your production of sebum/oil.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals that you can find in your average drug store, or in your favorite foods may be the easiest step towards clearing some of your hormonal acne, or could be the catalyst for your clear-ish skin. Vitamins and minerals alone likely won’t be the miracle product you were looking for, but a vitamin deficiency could be adding to the acne on your face. I want to iterate though, too much of anything is not good for you – the same thing applies to vitamins.
Low levels of zinc may make it more difficult for your body to control the amount of oil secreted from your sebaceous glands. Having the correct level of zinc will help in cell division, wound-repair, and as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
Foods that are good sources of zinc:
- Animal foods (fish, meat, eggs, and oysters) allow high absorption of zinc by the body due to animal proteins increasing gut absorption
- Cereals/whole grains and legumes also have a moderate amount of zinc, but our body only absorbs about 20-40%, based on the study Zinc Therapy in Dermatology: A Review
The best way to get zinc is through foods. Although it is also available in topical creams, there isn’t much backing up this use for acne, however it has helped with things like psoriasis.
Acne Cause 2: Your Environment
Acne cause: Dry Weather and The Sun
Solution: Vitamin A
The sun and weather around where you live can be a determining factor of whether or not your skin has acne. I know for me personally, going somewhere like Colorado tends to dry out my skin, causing me to breakout, while going to Florida may make my skin feel less dry.
The sun causes more than just acne, it causes a breakdown of collagen in the skin because of something called a “free radical” or something that’s trying to steal electrons from other bodily molecules. Excess UV rays from the sun trigger excess free radicals, causing changes to our sebaceous glands, making excess bacteria that results in acne.
If you’re in a dryer climate, you may end up with dry and flaky skin. Although not directly correlated, a lack of skin care could make this climate the cause of your acne. Since our body naturally sheds dead skin cells through our pores using sebum, having an excess of dead skin cells is an easy way to clog up your pores.
If you’ve ever heard of Retinol or retinoids in the skincare aisle of your local CVS, they are really saying vitamin A. Retinoids are the skin, hair, and nail strengthening chemicals that help with our immune system. It can help your skin deal with free radicals (bacteria on your skin that causes acne) and fight inflammation.
Most people can get enough Vitamin A through what they eat. It is found in:
- Orange veggies, like carrots/ sweet potatoes
- Orange fruits like mango/cantaloupe
- Green veggies, like spinach/ broccoli
With acne, however, vitamin A has the biggest effect as a topical cream or serum. It’s important to note that vitamin A creams/serums can be harsh and may worsen acne symptoms on sensitive skin. It also increases your susceptibility to the sun, so it is really important that it isn’t applied before sun exposure .
Some good topical vitamin A products include:
- Klaire Labs Micellized Vitamin A Liquid Supplement (Dietary) – $24
- TruSkin Retinol Serum (Topical) – $19
Acne Cause 3: Your Skin Products
Acne cause: Over-drying or Comedogenic Products
Solution: STOP, RELAX, SIMPLIFY & add Hyaluronic acid to your routine
I was this person with 20+ little sample size skin care products and an extensive skin care routine driven by things I had read online and implemented in my own routine because I wanted that QUICK FIX. Well, news to me and everyone else, a quick fix for acne doesn’t really exist.
Because every skin product claims that it helps to “promote clear skin” or straight up says “dermatologist-tested,” many people are quick to pull out their credit cards and try it. When they say “dermatologist-tested” they literally mean “tested by dermatologists,” otherwise it would say “approved by.” A lot of things are “tested” by dermatologists – that doesn’t mean they’re good????
Products typically solve one source of acne, and the ingredients are pretty experimental themselves. Don’t get me wrong, your Neutrogena cleanser may definitely be clearing out your pores, but they fill right back up because your body is supposed to have sebum in its pores. Clearing out your pores with harsh chemicals can not only irritate your skin and make it red if that’s not the solution your skin needed, but it can also make you break out worse.
If your skin is dry and you go and remove all the oil in your skin just to try and replace it with a moisturizer, your skin is going to protest and create MORE oil to bring itself back. This is going to clog your pores and also make you break out.
On top of that, not all skin care products are non-comedogenic (non pore-clogging). Many products will have a rating from 0-5 of how prone to pore clogging it is, and you don’t want to be using anything that is in the 3-5 range.
This means the days of rubbing coconut oil on your face to remove your makeup are over – coconut oil has a comedogenic rating of 4! FOUR?! That’s higher than olive oil…
How do I go from a 15-product routine without ruining my skin??
If you’re like me, you’ve likely been using way too many products thinking “the more the better.” Well, we’re both wrong. The best thing you can do for your skin is teach it how to survive on its own and not need 15 products including face wash, toners, moisturizers, oils, serums, etc. A lot of those products were produced by makeup companies anyway – makeup companies who benefit from you having acne that you need to cover up.
Now, this doesn’t mean throw out every product you own – this means read the ingredients on your products, know what you’re putting on your face, and know its purpose.
If you have dry skin, you should not be excessively using toners, alcohol, or anything that gives your face that “tight” feeling after you use it. If your skin feels tight, that means you just stripped all the oils from your face – good and bad. Dry skin needs MOISTURE – using a moisturizing cleanser rather than something with harsh “clarifying” chemicals will help your skin and may even clear it if your problem is related to overuse of drying products (this is very common).
If you have oily skin, you should also not be excessively using toners, alcohol, or anything that gives your face that “tight” feeling after you use it. You can definitely use these products in moderation, including salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, etc., but you’re likely better off solving this problem with your diet as I’ve already mentioned earlier. Excess oil can be genetic, but it is also often caused by you stripping your skin with products and your face overcompensating for the lost oil. Adding a light moisturizer is sometimes helpful for oily skin as it helps your skin think that it doesn’t need to produce as much oil itself.
With combination skin (like mine), the answer is somewhere in between. You want to keep the overly moisturizing products where they’re needed and not everywhere on your face. Typically, combination skin leads to an oily t-zone with dryness everywhere else. With that said, you should treat the oily t-zone like oily skin and treat the dryer skin like, well, dry skin.
Everyone should be looking for products that say “oil free,” “non pore-clogging,” or “non-comedogenic” so that you can avoid putting skin care products on your face that immediately “sink into” your pores and get stuck there. I know you’ve heard that phrase on a skin care commercial or two.
Hyaluronic acid is a staple of mine and should be everyones, regardless of skin type, because it is something that is naturally produced by our face to moisturize but is typically stripped from it when we cleanse. It creates a barrier between our skin and those pesky free radicals, helping with environmental issues, aging, and, by consequence, acne. An important note I’ve heard of when using Hyaluronic acid: apply moisturizer DIRECTLY after applying hyaluronic acid – it locks in the moisture from your moisturizer and doesn’t let the hyaluronic acid evaporate right off your skin.
Skin care also doesn’t need to be expensive. Expensive skin care does not equate to better skin care, because honestly the best skin care has a short list of ingredients that you know of and have a reason for using. The price of expensive skin care is supposed to tell the consumer “IT WORKS BECAUSE WE’VE SPENT MONEY ON IT” which is most definitely not true.
Acne Cause 4: Your Workout
Acne cause: Stress and Bacteria
Solution: Varied Workouts and Mindfulness
I know what you’re thinking: “I wash my face/shower after every workout so, I’m good.” Well, you’re wrong. Acne from your workout actually has to do with excess stress levels and touching your face.
If you’re hitting the gym really hard every time you go, you might be worsening your acne. Stress isn’t a direct cause of acne, but it definitely makes any acne-prone skin you have a little worse.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has become really popular recently. HIIT is great for fat loss, but it does increase your stress hormone levels in your body as does any intense exercise.
On top of just “stressful” exercise, being at a gym comes with a lot of germs.
If you’re at a public gym touching weights, the floor, the treadmill, etc. and then WIPING SWEAT OFF YOUR FACE??? EW. I know you’re cringing because you haven’t thought about this and you’ll never do this again.
But I want to workout??
You can still do your HIIT workouts and sprint, you just may want to keep those sessions to a 3-4 times per week schedule. Not only can you not give 80-90% of your energy into a HIIT workout more than 3-4 times a week physically, beyond that point you’re forcing your tired body to give too much energy, raising your cortisol/stress hormone levels, and thus adding to any acne you already have.
You can also still touch your weights, machines, etc. (I mean, how else would you workout), but you just have to be mindful of where you put your hands during/after you touch public gym equipment. There’s a reason most gyms provide sweat towels and it’s because this relatively unnoticed behavior is gross.
If your gym doesn’t provide sweat towels, bring your own hand towel and make sure that’s the only thing touching your face during a workout (and that you’re not defeating the purpose by throwing this towel on the floor when not in use).
Acne Cause 5: Family History/Genetics
I’m not going to go too in depth here because I think you know where this is going. Many people are acne-prone, or have a genetic predisposition to getting acne. The key here is management: management of your symptoms, management of your diet, and management of your skin care routine.
Having a predisposition to acne isn’t a death sentence and doesn’t mean “til death do us part.” What it means is that it will be harder to get under control – not impossible. Taking the steps I mentioned above and being aware of the things that you can control like diet and lifestyle, will make management of your acne much easier. Of course, if you experience other symptoms in addition to bad acne, it is definitely smart to reach out to a dermatologist or doctor to find out why that is happening.
All in all, solving skin problems from the inside out isn’t too complicated – it just takes some trial and error, but believe me it is totally and completely worth it at the end. Although there isn’t just one easy equation that solves all of your acne problems (without using a harsh pill like Accutane), there are many options that you can trial and error to find the acne management solution that works for you. Remember: there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone and the people who have figured out the secret to clear skin have really only figured out THEIR secret.
So, give a couple of these suggestions a try, one-by-one so you can track whether each works for you, and let me know if some of these not-so-secret holistic solutions have upgraded your approach to acne!