Mom Acne: Why You Still Have it and How to Get Rid of It

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Illustration courtesy of Leszek Glasner/

According to the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, 54 percent of women age 25 and older suffer from acne. I was one of them. My acne started when I was 13 and never went away. As a mom of two wonderful kids, I still suffered silently with dozens of inflamed pimples I couldn’t get rid of.

Acne develops when oily secretions in the skin’s sebaceous glands and bacteria, called sebum, are trapped in pores and become inflamed or infected. Your body produces sebum in response to certain hormones, which is why puberty initiates acne. But for many women, the root causes of acne continue well into adulthood. It wasn’t until I understood how these underlying issues caused my acne that I finally experienced clear skin.  

Although there is no cure for acne, there are several methods busy moms can use to manage it. Here are some of the surprising reasons why you may still have acne, and what you can do to finally achieve clear skin.

1. Diet

For years, dermatologists told us our love of chocolate and greasy pizza wasn’t causing our acne. Turns out they were wrong. A landmark review published in the March 2013 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined 50 years of research that proves diet really does affect skin. Processed carbohydrates (thick chips, white bread and white rice) and refined sugar (soda, candy bars and doughnuts) contribute to acne. So do dairy products. A 2007 study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that subjects who regularly drank skim milk had 44 percent more acne than those who didn’t. 

“A typical western diet of highly refined carbs, refined sugar, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and artificial sweeteners can cause inflammation of the skin,” says Jennifer Waller, founder and CEO of Celtic Complexion in Raleigh.

Simple, refined carbohydrates and sugars spike your blood sugar levels, which trigger your skin’s inflammatory response. Since dairy and other animal-based products are often injected with hormones, these hormones make their way into your body, which can affect your own hormones. And your hormones control sebum production in your sebaceous glands.

Solution: To improve your complexion, try cutting dairy, processed carbohydrates and refined sugars from your diet for 12 weeks. Focus on whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. You’ll see improvement, even if you eat a small slice of cake or piece of string cheese once a week. It sounds hard — and it is — but the results can be striking.

“Once people see the beautiful changes in their skin, they rarely return to their old habits,” Waller says.

2. Hormones

Spikes in certain androgen hormones, such as testosterone, increase oil production, which leads to clogged pores and trapped bacteria, which leads to pimples.

“During stress, our bodies produce excess hormones,” says Dr. Carol Trakimas, medical director and president of The Dermatology Center of Raleigh. The stress hormone, cortisol, also activates oil production. More stress equals more pimples.

Some women also suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder characterized by irregular periods, excess hair growth, obesity, enlarged ovaries, infertility and acne. Women with this disorder have high levels of testosterone.

Other women who don’t have elevated levels of testosterone may be sensitive to normal amounts of androgens in their system. If your acne flares up around your period, you might be a good candidate for hormonal treatment.

Solution: There are two effective hormonal treatments for women sensitive to the androgens in their system. Oral contraceptives such as Estrostep, Ortho Tri Cyclen and Yaz are approved by the Food and Drug Administration to fight acne. The estrogen in these pills sponges up small amounts of testosterone.

The second option is spironolactone. Dr. Sue Ellen Cox, a dermatologic surgeon, founder of Aesthetic Solutions in Chapel Hill, consulting associate professor at Duke University and contributor says spironolactone works by blocking the androgen receptors in your skin’s pores, reducing sebum production significantly. Spironolactone is the miracle treatment that finally cleared my skin after 20 years of acne.

3. Inflammation

Research has identified a link between oxidative stress, or inflammation, and acne. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, researchers found that inflammation and oxidative stress could cause acne, and that decreased antioxidant levels, particularly vitamins A, C and E, are commonly found in adults with acne.

Omega-6 fatty acids like canola oil promote inflammation, including inflammatory acne. On the other hand, a high intake of omega-3 is associated with a decrease in inflammation throughout the body.

Solution: “Focus on a diet rich in antioxidants,” says Dr. Peggy Fuller, a dermatologist and founder of Esthetics Center for Dermatology in Charlotte. “Think primary color foods — red, orange, yellow, purple and green.”

As an alternative, many dermatologists recommend taking 2,000 milligrams of a high quality omega-3 supplement containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to fight inflammation.

4. Cleansers and Makeup

Harsh treatments, toners, astringents and medicated cleansers can aggravate your acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Solution: Twice a day, use a mild, nonmedicated cleanser formulated for sensitive skin, such as Aveeno’s Ultra-Calming Foaming Cleanser. Avoid scrubs and rough exfoliates. Use only a tiny, pea-sized amount of topical medication to avoid irritation or dryness. And whatever you do, don’t pick, pop or squeeze your pimples, no matter how tempting.

Acne is healed from the inside out. Pimples begin forming deep within the skin weeks before you see the first whitehead. And sometimes, acne gets worse before it gets better.

Dermatologists suggest giving new products or dietary changes a full three months before you evaluate their effectiveness. So try some of these suggestions and exercise a little patience. Before long, you’ll enjoy clear, acne-free skin.

Kyla Steinkraus is a mom of two kids, ages 6 and 10. She is also the author of 25 children’s books as well as a forthcoming book on acne titled, “Real Solutions for Adult Acne. She welcomes comments at

Dr. Carol Trakimas, medical director and president of The Dermatology Center of Raleigh, offers an online dermatology service at Some dermatologists are now able to diagnose and prescribe treatment plans online, so you don’t have to miss work or sit through an office appointment. Note: Not every medical case is suited for online dermatology; for example, annual full body examinations should be handled through in-office visits.

Categories: Health