- Acne is a skin disorder that affects most teenagers to varying degrees.
- The symptoms of teenage acne include pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, papules, nodules and cysts.
- Teenage acne is caused by excess oil, called sebum, which blocks pores and leads to an overgrowth of bacteria.
- Teenage acne can be effectively treated using non-prescription and prescription medications, as well as natural remedies.
- A good skincare routine and lifestyle practices can help soothe teenage acne.
Teenage acne is a common skin condition that affects up to 95% of adolescents. It occurs when oil glands produce too much sebum, which blocks pores and causes breakouts. The symptoms of teenage acne include pimples, whitehead and blackheads, as well as more painful, inflammatory blemishes such as papules and cysts.
Teenage acne can be distressing, especially when symptoms are severe. The social and psychological impacts of acne include low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. The good news is, there are many effective non-prescription and prescription medications to treat teen acne. There are also simple skincare and lifestyle practices that can help alleviate symptoms.
Symptoms of Teenage Acne
The symptoms of teenage acne can range from mild to severe. Symptoms present on areas of the body where the most oil glands are located, including the face, neck, chest, back, shoulders and upper arms.
Acne can appear in many forms, including:
Whiteheads, blackheads and pustules are non-inflammatory blemishes. Whiteheads are clogged pores that have been closed over by skin. They are characterized by a white head. Blackheads are a build-up of sebum and dead skin cells that become trapped within pores. They can be recognized as a raised bump with a dark head. Pustules are a type of pimple that contain yellowish pus. All of these are symptoms of mild teenage acne. They aren’t typically painful, rarely cause scarring and respond well to non-prescription treatments.
Papules, cysts and nodules are inflammatory blemishes. Papules are small, red lesions that form around clogged pores. Cysts form underneath the skin when pores become blocked, leading to infection. Nodules are hard, painful lesions that form deep below the skin’s surface. While nodules are the most severe form of teenage acne, all types of inflammatory acne are serious. These symptoms can be very painful and typically require prescription medication.
Teen acne vs pimples
The terms ‘pimples’ and ‘acne’ are often used interchangeably. While both skin conditions can be distressing to teens, they are not the same.
Pimples usually appear by themselves and heal naturally within days. Acne is a chronic skin condition that occurs when multiple breakouts appear. Acne symptoms can last for months or years and can be extremely painful. Unlike pimples, teenage acne requires treatment to alleviate symptoms.
What Causes Teen Acne?
Acne is caused when pores become blocked by excess oil, dirt or dead skin. While acne can affect people of all ages, it’s most common among teenagers. This is due to an increase in sex hormones, called androgens, around adolescence. Androgens trigger excess oil production by causing oil glands to enlarge and become over-productive.
There is also research to suggest that teenage acne is influenced by genetic factors. So, if your mother or father suffered from acne, that tendency may be inherited.
In addition to hormones and genetics, other factors that can cause or exacerbate teenage acne include:
- Medications such as lithium, halogens, contraceptives and some anti-cancer drugs
- Cosmetics and hair styling products
- Heat, sweat, pressure or friction from clothing or hats
- Squeezing or picking blemishes
Adolescence is a stressful time. Most teenagers face academic and social pressures, plus the challenges of a changing body. These emotional stressors can influence the severity of acne. In fact, research indicates that teenage acne symptoms increase with stress, particularly during examination periods.
Will teenage acne go away on its own?
Teenage acne commonly lasts for five to 10 years. Studies show that the prevalence of teenage acne decreases, in both males and females, from 18 years of age. This coincides with the end of adolescence and hormonal fluctuations.
While teenage acne may resolve with age, the right treatment can lessen the duration and severity of symptoms. This, in turn, reduces the social and psychological impacts. Appropriate treatment is also important to prevent scarring, particular in severe cases where papules, cysts or nodules are present.
Treatments for Teenage Acne That Work
There are many treatments for teenage acne, including over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications. Some treatments are topical, while others are taken orally. The type of treatment usually depends on the severity of symptoms.
OTC treatments for teenage acne are available in different topical forms, including cleansers, gels, scrubs, soaps and lotions. When choosing an OTC acne treatment, look for products containing active ingredients that are proven to deliver benefits to the skin. The most common acne-fighting ingredients include:
- Salicylic acid
- Benzoyl peroxide
Salicylic acid clears pores and helps to correct abnormal shedding of skin cells. It is found in a number of OTC products, particularly cleansers. While salicylic acid can effectively treat mild cases of teenage acne, it does not have any impact on sebum production, nor does it kill bacteria.
Retinoids regulate cell growth and help prevent clogged pores that cause acne. OTC gels and creams containing retinoids can be very effective at relieving mild to moderate teenage acne. They can also be used as maintenance products to keep skin clear after successful treatment.
Benzoyl peroxide is an organic acid with antibacterial properties. It has been successfully used to treat both non-inflammatory and inflammatory teenage acne for decades. Benzoyl peroxide unblocks pores and dries out acne lesions. It is typically found in lotions or gels, in different concentrations, and is suitable for mild to moderately-severe cases of teenage acne.
When using OTC treatments, it may take four to eight weeks to notice improvements in the skin. To prevent redness and dryness, start with the lowest strength products and increase gradually if needed.
If teenage acne is moderate to severe, or if skin fails to respond to OTC treatments, your doctor or dermatologist may prescribe a stronger topical medication.
Gels containing high-strength retinoids such as adapalene or tretinoin, as well as higher concentrations of benzoyl peroxide, have been proven effective for treating moderate to severe acne. These ingredients are particularly effective for reducing scarring.
Another effective ingredient is azelaic acid which acts as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent. Azelaic acid can help treat moderate breakouts by reducing irritation and redness. However, it should be used with caution on sensitive skin, as it can cause tingling, itching or stinging, particularly in the first few days of use.
Topical antibiotics may also be used to fight bacteria and reduce inflammation, although antibiotics for acne are often prescribed as oral medications.
Oral medications are recommended to treat inflammatory teenage acne where symptoms are moderate to severe. These medications can be used alone, or in conjunction with topical treatments. The main types of oral medications prescribed for teenage acne are:
Antibiotics work to fight acne by reducing bacteria and inflammation. They are more potent than topical antibiotics as they fight infection from the inside out. The most commonly prescribed antibiotics for acne include tetracyclines and macrolides. To prevent resistance, these medications should be used for the shortest possible time.
Isotretinoin is the most effective treatment for moderate to severe teenage acne. It works by reducing the size of oil glands, so that much less sebum is produced. This prevents bacteria growth. Isotretinoin is usually taken for a period of 16-20 weeks. It has been proven to reduce sebum production by up to 90% within six weeks.
Like OTC treatments, prescription medications for teenage acne can be slow-acting. They may take weeks or months to produce noticeable results.
Best Skin Care Routine for Teen Acne
A simple daily skincare routine can soothe teen acne by removing excess oil and keeping pores clear. In a study of patients with mild to moderate acne, the following 3-step skincare routine was proven to significantly improve acne and the overall appearance of skin when followed twice a day.
- Cleanse gently with an appropriate cleanser containing acne-fighting ingredients
- Use a mild toner to remove excess oil and hydrate skin
- Apply topical acne treatments, as prescribed or directed.
When used together, the three steps of this skincare regimen target the four aspects of acne pathophysiology – increased sebum production, blocked pores, bacteria production and inflammation.
If skin is dry, moisturizer may be used after acne treatments have been applied. Sunscreen is also recommended, with or without moisturizer, when skin will be exposed to the sun. This is particularly important as some acne treatments can cause photosensitivity.
Natural Treatments for Teenage Acne
There are several natural remedies you can use to treat teenage acne at home. While these are not as powerful as OTC or prescription medications, they may provide some relief for mild to moderate symptoms.
To treat acne at home, apply one of the following ingredients to the affected area with clean fingers or a cotton pad:
- Aloe vera (undiluted)
- Raw honey (undiluted)
- Lemon juice (undiluted)
- Lime juice (undiluted)
- Tea tree oil (mix a few drops with water)
- Apple cider vinegar (mix 1 tsp with 3 tsp water)
A healthy diet can also help, as studies have shown a relationship between diet and acne. Foods with a high glycemic load, such as refined carbohydrates, sugars and fast foods, and are known to elevate insulin levels. Insulin stimulates the secretion of androgens and can cause an increase in sebum production.
Try limiting these foods in favor of fresh, nutrient-dense options such as fruits, vegetables and high-fibre foods. A zinc supplement, taken orally, can also improve the condition of skin and relieve redness and irritation.
Teenage acne is caused by excess sebum, which blocks pores and leads to an overgrowth of bacteria. As sebum production increases around puberty, most teenagers are affected by acne to some extent. There is also a link between teenage acne and other factors, such as genetics, diet and stress.
Teenage acne presents as blemishes around the face, neck, chest, back and arms. Symptoms range from mild to severe and can include whiteheads, blackheads, cysts and nodules. As well as the physical symptoms, which can be extremely painful, teenage acne can have devastating emotional effects.
Fortunately, there are many options for treating teenage acne. For mild to moderate cases, OTC treatments containing active ingredients such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide provide relief by clearing pores, killing bacteria and drying out skin. For severe cases, prescription medications (topical and/or oral) are proven highly effective for reducing symptoms and preventing scarring.
While most cases of teenage acne require medicinal treatment, natural remedies and a healthy diet may also help to alleviate symptoms. A good skincare routine is also essential for reducing excess oil and keeping pores clear.
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