Cystic acne is unsightly — but worse than that, it can be painful. And what’s with blemishes cropping up at the most inopportune times?! They always seem to strike right before a major event or big work presentation.
Lucy Hale knows the struggle. In an interview with Byrdie.com, the Pretty Little Liars actress talked about her ongoing battle with cystic acne. Hale’s skin troubles didn’t start until well after puberty: “The day I turned 21, my skin just went nuts,” she said. But breaking out as an adult isn’t uncommon. According to a study published in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, 54% of women over 25 have facial acne.
What causes acne?
While bacteria (P. acnes) and inflammation are the two main culprits for pimples, acne is also influenced by hormones, explains New York City-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD. “When a woman’s androgen receptors are particularly sensitive, these hormones can trigger excess oil production and cause skin cells to become sticky, leading to clogged pores and breakouts.”
The first step in treating your skin is figuring whether you are in fact dealing with hormonal acne. One clue is where the blemishes appear: “Adult women most commonly suffer from hormonal acne on the lower third of the face and jawline,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Another typical indicator is flares that happen before or during your period.
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What’s the best way to treat a breakout?
When blemishes crop up, apply over-the-counter products with either 1% hydrocortisone cream along with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide and 2% salicylic acid, says Dr. Zeichner. A good one to try is Neutrogena On-The-Spot Acne Treatment ($5; target.com). And whatever you do, don’t pick your face. It will only make things worse, and can lead to inflammation and scarring.
How can you prevent hormonal acne?
To prevent new cysts from forming, the most important thing is to keep your skin clean. Hale swears by the K-beauty inspired ritual of double-cleansing. She starts with DHC Cleansing Oil ($24; amazon.com) and follows with Restorsea Reviving Cleanser ($65; restorsea.com). Using an oil cleanser on oily skin may seem counterintuitive. But it can actually help remove excess oil better than a water cleanser. That’s because oil clings to oil, whereas water and oil tend to separate.
Another major factor to take into consideration is your lifestyle. If you’re overly stressed, it’s likely that your skin will show it. “When you’re under stress, your brain sends messages to the adrenal gland, which releases hormones that turn up oil production in the skin,” says Jeanette Graf, MD, a dermatologist in Great Neck, New York. “This excess oil interacts with your skin’s natural bacteria, resulting in acne.”
RELATED VIDEO: Lucy Hale: ‘Embrace Your Flaws’
Poor diet can play a role too. Foods high in fat or refined sugar make the inflammatory reaction worse, Dr. Graf points out.
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Hale says exercise (and specifically SoulCycle) is her secret to managing stress. And the star has noticed a link between clearing her mind and clearer skin. She’s on the right track, says Dr. Graf: “The endorphins that exercise releases can decrease stress hormones in your body.”
A combination of better diet, less stress, and the right topical products should keep hormonal acne under control. But if in addition to breakouts, you also have irregular periods and hair growth along the jawline or on your chest, an underlying hormonal abnormality could be to blame, says Dr. Zeichner. It’s worth seeing a dermatologist for evaluation, he says, so you can get the treatment you need.