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Ask An Expert: Breakouts, acne and spots explained - what your skin is trying to tell you

Q ‘I’m 31 and suffer from repeat breakouts. What causes adult acne and what is my skin trying to tell me!?’
Asked by: Charlie, East London

A Marie Claire Digital Beauty Editor Katie Thomas: Spots, acne, blemishes, zits, blackheads, pimples – whatever you call them, they can be a menace. The trick to treating them is identifying them correctly - via our expert guide to guide to spots and the best acne treatments, below.

Indeed the condition that dermatologists call ‘adult-onset acne’ is on the rise - and interestingly most common amongst women going through menopause – we can thank our hormones for that one.

Thankfully there are many results-driven over-the-counter skin care solutions that really work, and they needn’t cost a fortune. On a budget? See the best purse-friendly skincare combinations - and don’t forget to regularly clean your makeup brushes - once a month is recommended. Then consider yourself one skincare step close to model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s supermodel skin...

Then you can consider yourself one skincare step closer to model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s supermodel skin... (pictured above)


Blackheads are one of the most common types of mild acne. They look like tiny dark spots and are essentially clogged hair follicles. You can find them on the chin, nose, forehead and sometimes on the chest and back (aka bacne). They’re not painful, but they’re a pain in the backside, as they can look unsightly – think of the seeds on strawberries.

The way to beat the blackhead is to introduce salicylic acid into your routine. It exfoliates the skin and unclogs pores. Caudalie’s Vinpopure Clear Skin Purifying Toner utilises a 100% natural salicylic acid, which refines skin texture and tightens pores. Use morning and night before your serum.

Fabled by Marie Claire also swears by both Origins Pore Cleansing Moisturiser and Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish to keep blackheads at bay – the multi award-winning plant-based hot cloth cleanser that effortlessly removes daily grime and makeup, cleansing pores for an almost squeaky-clean finish, minus any nasties.

Whiteheads are officially the worst; we feel your pain. They look gross. They appear when your pores are clogged up with dirt, oil and bacteria and become inflamed. If you find you’re getting these more regularly than you’d like, try using a retinol serum every evening, like Institut Esthederm Intensive Retinol Vitamin A Concentrated Formula Serum.

Fabled by Marie Claire also swears by Sarah Chapman Overnight Facial which is fuss-free, results-driven skincare at it’s very best. This potion leaves skin plump, lines and uneven textures smoothed and dull skin looking brighter and more radiant - think of it as your fast-track to faking that iconic Skinesis facial glow, while you snooze. Aka it’s the dream.

Prefer a retinol-based formulation? Before it was found that retinol was an effective treatment for wrinkles and fine lines, it was originally used as an acne treatment – it really is that good. Fabled by Marie Claire Executive Content Editor Gilly Ferguson swears by Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream: ‘It shrunk the look of my pores, cleared up the blackheads on and around my nose in just two months and – hormonal breakouts aside – my whiteheads have all but vanished!’ If you’re looking to add retinol into your daily routine, Origins Plantscription Retinol Moisturiser is a must-try, helping to speed up surface cell turnover for softer feeling, clearer-looking skin.

It can be tempting to go to town on a whitehead and try and pop it. This should be avoided, as we so rarely know the right way to pop them.

However, if it’s so bad that you feel like you can’t leave the house experts would give you permission to wrap your index fingers in tissues (to prevent further bacteria) and push gently on either side of the spot.

Pustules are painful, be warned. They’re very similar to whiteheads, but bigger and whiter. They’re actually called pustules because of how much pus they have in them. You want to treat these as soon as possible, because some pustules can become cysts (more on those below).

Products containing salicylic acid are going to work well on these as well and something targeted will hopefully stop the inflammation in its tracks. We love Origins Super Spot Remover Blemish Treatment Gel – it reduces redness, eliminates excess oil and clears out clogged pores, plus it’s non-comedogenic – aka the perfect partner for acne-prone skin.

Cysts are large, inflamed bumps found on the skin that are essentially a more acute form of whiteheads and blackheads. They can either be really painful or painless, but can be bothersome, as they can look unpleasant.

Cysts can sometimes go away naturally, however they can’t be treated at home and if they persist or really start to concern you contact your GP who will either prescribe you some over the counter remedy or refer you to a dermatologist for further investigations into cystic acne.

Looking to conceal acne scars? Here’s how to treat oily skin and breakouts during seasonal switch ups, as well as the best non-comedogenic concealers for acne-prone skin.

Pregnant? See the expert’s guide to treating pregnancy-related breakouts - for anyone who’s concerned about spot solutions that are safe to use during pregnancy.

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