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Debunked: 5 most common lies about adult acne

by Amy Capetta /  / Updated 
acne, adult acne, pimple, zit
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According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne is the most common skin disorder in the United States—it affects up to 50 million people and will affect nearly 85 percent of all people at some point in their lives. Most commonly appearing on the face, chest and back, acne consists of breakouts in the form of pimples, deeper lumps (cysts or nodules) and plugged pores (blackheads and whiteheads). 

But aside from knowing that acne can be unsightly and upsetting, how much do you really understand about this condition—especially when it surfaces on your postpubescent adult skin? In honor of Acne Awareness Month, let’s clear up some common misconceptions. 

Adult + acne = not normal 
If you think dealing with zits as an adult is a rare or odd occurrence, think again. “From the dermatologists point of view and from what studies have shown, adult acne is quite common,” states Dr. Christine Cabell, dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon at Geisinger Health System in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “In fact, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of adults at some time can have acne.” 

While the underlying origin of both teenage and adult acne is the same—skin inflammation caused by a pore-blocking oil called sebum—Cabell explains that pimples, whiteheads, etc. can be more problematic for the older crowd. “Adults can have a little more trouble with breakouts than teens because their skin is drier, so they’re dealing with dryness, wrinkles and acne together,” she says. 

An occasional breakout does not, however, automatically indicate a skin “condition” and require a trip to the dermatologist’s office, “If you’ve tried a few over-the-counter products and have had little-to-no results, or possibly some side effects, like itching, dryness or rash, and you’re unsure which product to try next, then it may be worth your time to see a dermatologist and get a professional opinion.” 

Poor eating habits cause acne 
“It is a common misconception that chocolate, pizza, and greasy foods cause acne,” says Dr. Jwala Karnik, chief medical officer at Suneva Medical, Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif. “While the foods you consume may play a small role in the overall health of your skin, there is no direct, definitively-proven correlation between eating these so-called ‘acne foods’ and having a breakout.” 

Cabell agrees, yet adds that if someone insists a certain food causes their skin to erupt, she suggests they remove it from their diet. Sometimes, it’s the only way to figure out if you do indeed have a reaction to a certain food.

Stress causes breakouts
Excessive worrying can’t be blamed for your bad skin…well, entirely blamed, anyway. “Stress may be a factor in acne occurrences, so while there may be some truth to this ‘myth,’ it’s difficult to quantify or prove that there is a causative relationship between stress and acne,” says Karnik. 

Basically, no need to quit your job for the sake of clear skin.

Tanning makes acne go away
Not quite. In fact, the harsh UVA and UVB rays from the sun may further irritate breakouts for some people. Also, some acne medications can make skin ultra sun-sensitive, says Karnik, which would complicate current skin issues. ”Tan skin may hide the redness of acne, it does not help clear it up,” confirms Karnik. 

Acne is just a cosmetic problem
Breaking out does not put someone’s physical health at risk. But, “multiple studies have shown that acne has negative effects on self-confidence and self-esteem and can be linked to depression,” states Karnik. “If left untreated, acne can lead to permanent scarring, which can also lead to further emotional distress.” 

Cabell sums it up like this: “If I’m seeing a patient for one reason and they’re having a few breakouts yet they’re not bothered by it, then I wouldn't bother treating it,” she says. “But if another patient comes to me and is concerned about the same amount of breakouts and they have not seen much improvement from using OTC products, then it’s worthwhile treating. The bottom line—there is no minimum threshold that someone has to wait for in order to receive professional treatment. Each person is in control of their own skin.”

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