What's Causing My Adult Acne? 6 Things That Cause Chronic Breakouts

Have you ever heard the myth that chronic acne is a skin (aka. surface) issue, and  this or that skincare is the key to calm, clear skin? If you've experienced chronic acne,  and have tried every product promising clear skin to no avail, you know. The struggle is real and it goes way beyond your skin. But with so much information (and misinformation) about adult acne out there, it can be confusing and difficult to pin down what the solution is. We'll be touching on all things healing acne over the next few blogs, but the first, most important and valuable information you can learn about your acne is what's causing it. If you can pinpoint what's likely causing your chronic breakouts, you can begin to address and heal them at their root. So what's causing your adult acne? These are the 6 most common things that cause chronic breakouts.
1. Hormonal Imbalances

If you find yourself experiencing chronic, severe and probably cystic breakouts - particularly if you're a woman and the breakouts occur mainly around your lower cheeks and jawline - there's a huge likelihood that your acne is caused, at least in part, by hormonal imbalances. Hormone imbalances are by far one of the most common (and yet least talked about) causes of chronic adult acne and can show up as blackheads, whiteheads and/or painful cysts. 

Very simply, a hormone byproduct called DHT (Dihydrotestosterone) exists in both men and women. When estrogen levels are low or when we have too much testosterone or other androgen hormones in our bodies, an overabundance of DHT wreaks havoc on our skin by causing sebaceous glands to overproduce sebum (our skin's natural oils.) This excess sebum caused by DHT is directly associated with clogged pores and breakouts. 

Hormonal imbalances may be caused by underlying chronic health issues like PCOS, by falling estrogen levels (ie. during menopause or before your period) or by a chronic excess of androgen hormones in the body. We'll talk about how to balance your hormones holistically in a future post.

2. Stress (aka. an Unsettled Spirit)

Another one of the most common causes of chronic breakouts is, you guessed it, stress. Or as I like to say, an unsettled spirit. By now you know that I'm a huge advocate for and believer in the connection between skin and spirit. And while it sounds like a whole lot of woo-woo, science agrees! Our stress levels are undeniably and directly linked to our skin health (and our health in general.) While there are obvious stressors to be aware of - not getting enough sleep, working yourself to a point of burn-out, not taking time for basic self-care - there are also the less obvious sources of stress, aka. the emotional, mental and spiritual triggers that can lead to physical symptoms like chronic acne.

Unresolved childhood trauma? Something to look at. Resentment, anger, or fear running the show? Also something to look at. Oftentimes, we think of stress as being caused by the most obvious external stressors like work and raising kids. But what really puts stress on your system (and spirit) as a whole are the internal, unresolved, less talked about issues that are, truthfully, so much harder to look at and face. Some of these include: feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, codependency, feelings of unworthiness, and low self-esteem.

If you find that your skin is chronically inflamed and breaking out, ask yourself: How is my spirit doing? Is there anything I'm holding on to? Ask, and really listen. Where is your stress really coming from? By looking beyond the most obvious sources of stress, we can begin to reduce stress at the soul level, healing ourselves and our skin from the inside out.

3. An Inflammatory Diet

Another cause of chronic acne lies in our guts. In fact, some would say that acne isn't a skin problem, it's an inflammation problem. And inflammation often begins in the gut. An inflamed, unhappy, and imbalanced gut has been linked to all sorts of skin problems, but how it and the food you eat directly relates to acne is this:

Certain foods are known to cause inflammation in the body, particularly if you have certain sensitivities or if you are already experiencing (sometimes unknowingly) other gut issues like Candida yeast overgrowth, a lack of stomach acid, 'leaky gut syndrome', or an imbalance of good and bad bacteria.

In fact, it's not uncommon for those with chronic, severe acne to also show signs of these specific gut imbalances. The foods we eat can either fuel inflammation and perpetuate these issues or help heal and reverse them. A diet high in inflammation-causing foods like non-Organic or processed grains, processed sugar, and conventional dairy may be causing or at least contributing to your breakouts.

We'll do a whole post on how to eat to heal your acne, but in the meantime, start to pay attention to what you're eating and when cystic breakouts begin or clusters of pimples pop up. Specific food-related breakouts typically occur 48-72 hours after consumption and are often located on the forehead, upper cheeks, and/or chin.

4. Lack of Certain Fatty Acids

Studies have shown that those with acne have elevated levels of sebum production - in other words, our skin tends to produce more oil than it needs. But studies have also shown that the sebum produced by oily and acne-prone skin inherently lacks a specific type of fatty acid called Linoleic Acid. Linoleic Acid is an Omega-6 fatty acid that lends anti-inflammatory benefits and a lightweight feel to our skin's natural sebum. Without it, sebum is harder, stickier and easily clogs pores - hence the constant pore congestion and breakouts.

Luckily, Linoleic Acid can be supplemented topically to help balance our sebum so that it's not so sticky and pore-clogging. Linoleic Acid is found in abundance in natural, unrefined plant oils like Guava Seed Oil and Sacha Inchi Oil, both in our Balancing Act serum. 

5. Comedogenic Products

While the products you're using aren't likely the primary culprit when it comes to chronic acne, they may be contributing to or exacerbating the problem. Many skincare ingredients are rated on a Comedogenic scale from 0-5. A rating of 1 or lower indicates that the ingredient is highly unlikely to clog your pores (otherwise known as non-comedogenic), while a rating of 2 indicates that it may clog pores in sensitive, acne-prone individuals, and a rating of 3 or higher indicates that it's very likely the ingredient will cause clogged pores aka. break you out. 

Because acne-prone skin already overproduces sebum, it's super important that the products you use have a low comedogenic rating. Generally speaking, a huge number of synthetic or heavily processed ingredients (too many to realistically keep track of) are prone to clogging pores. So if you haven't already made the switch to clean, green skincare, definitely start there. As for natural ingredients, plant oils high in Linoleic Acid are going to be non-comedogenic, while oils high in Oleic, Stearic and/or Lauric Acid are going to have a rating or 2 or higher (so you'll want to limit or avoid these.) 

Some of the most common, natural pore-clogging culprits include: 

  • Cocoa Butter
  • Coconut Oil
  • Carrot Seed Oil
  • Algae Extract
  • Marula Oil 
  • Palm Oil

Comedogenic ratings are not the final word on whether or not an ingredient will work for your skin. Some ingredients may not clog pores, but can cause inflammation or irritation in sensitive, acne-prone individuals (ie. essential oils.) And some people can use Cocoa Butter and Coconut Oil without any issue. But if you're especially acne-prone and in the thick of it, a good rule of thumb is to check your products and avoid or limit exposure to ingredients that rate or 2 or above on the Comedogenic scale. 

6. Harsh or Drying Skincare

If you have acne-prone skin, you also have sensitive skin. But the problem is, most of us don't treat our acne-prone skin like it's sensitive (even though it is!) In fact, most skincare isn't created for sensitive skin and, ironically, skincare that's marketed and geared towards acne-prone skin tend to be especially intense. These products, the ones we gravitate towards for our acne when we're desperate, tend to be incredibly harsh, drying and actually exacerbate the problem rather than helping to heal it.

A great example of this? Your cleansing routine. You know that old myth that the key to clearing your acne is cleansing more or better? So. not. true. At least not in the way we thought. (We wrote a post on this topic and a magical cleansing method called Oil Cleansing that you can read about here.) In short - conventional cleansers strip your skin of it's natural sebum and dry you out, often causing irritation and inflammation for sensitive skin. Then, in an attempt to make up for the sebum it's lost, your skin tries to compensate and overproduces sebum, which if you've read this far, you know that acne-prone skin already overproduces sebum and the sebum it produces is hard, sticky, and acne-causing. So throwing your skin out of balance so that it produces more of that sebum is not what you want from your skincare, am I right? 

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Besides the cleanser you use, you may be over-exfoliating, using products that contain harsh actives, or overloading your skin with fragrance or essential oils that could be causing you to break out. Check your labels and opt for a simple, gentle, and nourishing routine like the one we'll share in just a few weeks.


There you have it - 6 things that cause chronic breakouts. If you struggle with chronic, severe acne, chances are it has to do with more than one of these, maybe all of them. Healing acne generally requires a holistic approach, but the good news is you don't have to completely change your life - least of all, overnight. Focus instead on making small changes that restore your body (hormones, emotions & gut) to balance and support your skin's natural ability to heal. A good place to start is in the food you eat - diving into this topic next week!