As if the teenage years weren’t hard enough emotionally, they also seem to be the most difficult physically as well. As teens navigate their way through school and friendships, their appearance tends to be more important to them than ever before. It also seems to be the time when most young people begin to have trouble with acne. Knowing you’re not the only person battling the problem doesn’t lessen the stress on you, so it helps to have some ideas on how to combat acne and to know when to see a doctor.
Overactive Oil Glands Get Most of the Blame
Acne has a wide range of causes, but the most common cause is overactive sebaceous oil glands. These glands produce a substance that, in the right amount, is good for the skin, lubricating it and keeping it waterproof. Overactive sebaceous oil glands, however, produce too much of this substance. When it mixes with dead skin cells, it clogs pores causing bacteria to multiply, resulting in acne.
Other causes that may also play a role in teenage acne can stem from heredity, diet, menstruation, emotional stress and hormones.
Preventing acne can be difficult, especially if the cause of it is hereditary or hormonal, as is the cause of many cases of acne in teens. There are steps that can be taken that can lessen the severity of acne and help control outbreaks.
- Avoid over-drying: Make sure you’re not over-drying your skin with products like astringent. While they may work for controlling oil in the short term, they’re actually doing more damage by drying your skin too much.
- Don’t wash your hair every day: Shampooing your hair daily if it’s oily can minimize breakouts.
- Watch your diet: Foods with a high glycemic index, such as rice, breads, pasta and sweets, have been linked to acne. Try switching to a healthy diet full of lean protein and leafy greens.
- Drink water: While drinking water will not make acne disappear, it’s good for your body, including your skin. Staying hydrated will help keep your skin soft, supple and elastic.
- Be Gentle: First, don’t pick or squeeze pimples. This can worsen the problem and cause scarring. Second, wash your face gently with a cleanser made specifically for your skin type. If you don’t know your skin type, see a dermatologist. As a general rule, people with dry skin should look for a cream cleanser (these typically do not suds), people with combination skin should look for a gel cleanser that does not leave the skin feeling tight or dry and people with sensitive skin should look for a cleanser that contains glycerin. If you have any questions, see your dermatologist before making any purchases.
- Choose facial products wisely: Look for products that say “noncomedogenic” or “nonacnegenic.” These won’t clog pores. Also, look for oil-free products. Avoid products with benzoyl alcohol. These will likely overly dry your skin, which, as we discussed with astringent, will do more damage in the long run than good.
Over-the-Counter Treatment Tips
If you know which skin type you have and are looking for an over-the-counter product to help control acne, it’s good to know which active ingredients to look for.
- Salicylic acid kills bacteria, unclogs pores and helps keep them from becoming clogged, and can gently dry excess oil.
- Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria, removes excess oil and helps keep pores clear. This is a stronger ingredient and may dry your skin if it isn’t already on the oily side, so make sure you see a dermatologist before purchasing something with benzoyl peroxide.
- Sulfur helps remove excess oil and removes dead skin cells.
- Alpha hydroxyl acids, also called AHAs remove dead skin cells and stimulate new cell growth for smoother skin. AHAs you’ll most commonly see in skincare products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. AHAs can also help improve the appearance of acne scars.
When to See a Dermatologist
There’s not a threshold you need to cross before you see a dermatologist about teenage acne. If you have acne and over-the-counter products haven’t worked or you’re feeling emotional distress because of it, make an appointment. It is vitally important not to underestimate how emotionally stressful it can be for teenagers to have acne. I find that so often, teens will say they don’t care about their appearance, but inwardly feel self-conscious about everything. As their parent, try not to put extra pressure on them about their appearance and possibly make them feel worse. Parenting is a fine balancing act.
After seeing a dermatologist, it is possible that your doctor will prescribe medication — oral, topical or a combination — to help combat the problem. Other options might include chemical peels to help with oily skin, blackheads and breakouts or Fraxel laser resurfacing for acne scarring. You should also see a doctor if the acne is severe, painful or started after you began a medication for another issue, such as a medication for depression or anxiety.
Dr. Riva Collins is a board-certified dermatologist who at Kelsey-Seybold’s Main Campus and Tanglewood Clinic. Her clinical interests include medical and cosmetic dermatology. She has 20 years of experience treating teens and adults with acne.