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About 25 to 35 percent of people, especially women, have acne throughout adulthood. “I see a lot of women who feel pretty hard done by because they thought acne was a teen affliction,” says Humphrey. Nodules in adult women’s skin tend to be deeper than teen acne and often form on the chin, jaw and neck.
Caused by hormone fluctuations, pimples appear before, during or after menstruation. Pregnancy can also play a role: Some women find their skin clears, while others who had perfect complexions before will suddenly see spots. “Because hormones shift over time, some women may have acne flare-ups all the way to menopause,” says Humphrey.
Although there isn’t much you can do on the preventative side (it’s a myth that eating chocolate or greasy food can trigger a breakout), there is evidence that eating dairy or a lot of high-glycemic foods can cause blemishes in some people. The good news is there are many treatments available for acne-prone adults. In addition to topical creams, oral medications can help control hormones and reduce flare-ups, says Humphrey. They’re currently only available in tablet form, but scientists are working on creams to regulate hormones topically.
Unfortunately, hormone regulation isn’t a good option for pregnant women, who should also avoid most oral antibiotics (such as Tetracycline), and they absolutely have to stay away from Accutane (which can cause birth defects). But that doesn’t mean moms-to-be have to put up with pimples. “Topical antibiotics are generally safe for short-term use during pregnancy,” Humphrey says. “I also sometimes use a glycolic-acid solution because it can improve acne and soften the skin.”
For those looking for other options, lasers and light treatments (done safely in a doctor’s office) have also shown some benefits. “There’s no conclusive evidence that they’re more effective than conventional treatments, but they may be a good complementary option,” says Humphrey. (Lasers decrease oil production while light therapy targets bacteria.) As an added bonus, these treatments may also help reduce acne scarring.
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A version of this article appeared in our April 2012 issue with the headline: Acne Through the Ages (p. 44).