- Acne is a very common skin condition among teenagers and can be mild to severe
- Causes are primarily due to hormonal fluctuations but also include certain medications, heat and friction from clothing
- Teenage acne can be effectively treated with over-the-counter and prescription medication as well as natural remedies
- Adopting a good skin care routine and lifestyle practices can help treat acne and prevent future breakouts
Teenage acne is a common skin condition that affects nearly 95% of this population. During adolescence, hormonal levels fluctuate and cause an increase in sebum (oil) production. This excess oil combines with debris and Propionibacterium acnes bacteria to block pores and cause acne.
Fortunately, there are many targeted therapies, both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription, to effectively treat teenage acne. Other solutions include following a good skin care regimen and adopting some lifestyle practices to alleviate symptoms and help prevent future breakouts.
Symptoms of Teenage Acne
Acne can typically be categorized as either inflammatory or noninflammatory, with lesions ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms present on those areas of the body where sebaceous glands are located: the face, neck, chest, back, shoulders and upper arms.
Physical symptoms of noninflammatory acne include pimples, whiteheads and blackheads; larger cysts, papules, pustules and nodules are signs of inflammatory acne. The psychological impact of acne includes low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
Inflammatory acne is more severe than noninflammatory acne and can be quite uncomfortable.
Pores are more extensively blocked by oil, dead skin cells and bacteria, resulting in infection. This activates the immune system which responds by sending white blood cells to fight the infection – causing swelling, redness and discomfort.
Teen acne vs. pimples
The difference between acne and pimples is that acne is a skin condition and pimples are but one of the several symptoms of this condition.
Pimples are typically mild lesions that appear as small red bumps and develop individually.
Acne is a chronic skin condition with a recurring cycle of breakouts and healing.
What Causes Teen Acne?
During puberty, sex hormones called androgens increase in activity. This in turn increases oil production of sebaceous glands and results in pores becoming blocked with oil and debris.
Other factors that can cause or exacerbate teenage acne include:
- Cosmetics and hair styling products that can block pores
- Heat, sweat, pressure or friction from clothing or hats
- Medications such as steroids, contraceptives and lithium
- Squeezing or picking blemishes
Will teenage acne go away on its own?
Teenage acne commonly lasts for 5–10 years. Studies show that the prevalence of teenage acne decreases in both males and females from 18 years of age. This coincides with the start of adulthood and the end of hormonal fluctuations.
While teenage acne may resolve with age, it is very important to treat and prevent acne breakouts with acne-targeted medication. Waiting for acne to go away on its own can result in more severe symptoms and often scarring. This is particularly so for inflammatory acne.
Treatments for Teenage Acne That Work
There are many effective topical and oral treatments to treat teenage acne, including OTC and prescription-strength medications. The chosen treatment will depend on the severity of symptoms.
OTC treatments are available in different topical forms, including cleansing lotions, gels, medicated pads, foams and leave-on products. When choosing a product, look for those that contain active ingredients proven to target acne breakouts, such as the following.
It clears pores and helps heal acne lesions, and can be found in concentrations of 2.5–10%.
When using OTC treatments, it may take 4–8 weeks to notice improvements in the skin. To prevent redness and dryness, start with the lowest strength and increase gradually, as needed.
Salicylic acid penetrates deep within skin to dissolve dead skin cells that clog pores. It is found in a number of OTC products, particularly cleansers. This acid is best for noninflammatory acne as it cannot regulate sebum production nor kill bacteria.
Retinoids can be especially effective for inflammatory acne as they can kill acne-causing bacteria, reduce inflammation and help prevent clogged pores. OTC gels and creams containing retinoids can be very successful at relieving mild to moderate teenage acne.
Your doctor may prescribe a stronger topical medication for severe forms of acne or for skin that fails to respond to OTC treatments.
Topicals that contain high-strength retinoids such as adapalene or tretinoin have been proven effective for treating moderate to severe acne and are an excellent choice for reducing scarring. Benzoyl peroxide may also be prescribed in a higher concentration.
Another effective ingredient is azelaic acid which acts as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent. Azelaic acid can successfully treat mild to moderate forms of acne by reducing inflammation, redness and irritation. 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 such as clindamycin and erythromycin can treat mild to moderately severe inflammatory acne by killing bacteria and reducing inflammation. They are available as lotions, gels, pads and as a solution that is similar to a toner.
Oral medications are prescribed for inflammatory teenage acne when symptoms are moderate to severe. These medications can be used as is or alongside topical treatments.
Antibiotics work to fight acne by reducing bacteria and inflammation, and are more potent than topical antibiotics. The most commonly prescribed antibiotics for acne are tetracyclines and macrolides. To prevent resistance, and due to some possible side effects, these medications should be used only for the short term.
Isotretinoin is a powerful retinoid that is prescribed for deep cysts and nodules associated with more severe forms of acne as well as moderate acne that fails to respond to other treatments. It works by regulating oil production and reducing bacteria levels. Isotretinoin is usually taken for a period of 16–20 weeks and has a number of potential side effects.
Best Skin Care Routine for Teen Acne
Adhere to a daily skin care routine using products that can target acne, soothe skin eruptions and prevent future breakouts. When choosing your skin care products ensure you opt for the ones formulated for your skin type.
- Use an appropriate cleanser containing acne-fighting ingredients
- Use a mild toner to remove excess oil and hydrate skin
- Apply topical acne treatments consistently and as directed
- Apply a light-weight moisturizer that is noncomedogenic (won’t block pores)
When followed consistently, this skin care regimen successfully targets the four aspects of acne pathophysiology – increased sebum production and bacteria, blocked pores and inflammation.
Sunscreen is also recommended during the day to protect against sun damage and because some acne treatments can cause photosensitivity.
Natural Treatments for Teenage Acne
There are several natural remedies you can use to soothe mild to moderate inflammation, reduce bacteria and clear pores.
Apply one of the following ingredients to the affected area with a cotton pad:
- Aloe vera gel effectively fights bacteria and reduces inflammation
- Apple cider vinegar is an astringent best used on oily skin and can clear oil and target blackheads; dilute first with water
- Tea tree oil is comparable to benzoyl peroxide in reducing inflammation; dilute first with water
Teenage acne is a common skin condition that is usually the result of fluctuations in hormones. This causes excess sebum production and bacteria to become blocked in pores. Other causes include genetics, poor skin care habits and friction from clothing.
Teenage acne presents as blemishes around the face, neck, chest, back and upper arms. Physical symptoms range from mild to severe and are classified as inflammatory or noninflammatory. Negative psychological effects include depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
Fortunately, there are many options available. These include OTC and prescription medications with active ingredients such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to effectively clear pores, kill bacteria and reduce oiliness.
For moderate or severe acne, prescription medications (topical and/or oral) have proven highly effective for reducing symptoms and preventing scarring. Natural treatments can help soothe irritation and treat mild acne symptoms.
For best results, ensure you treat your acne as soon as possible and consistently. This will reduce your risk of symptoms worsening and will help avoid possible scarring. Additionally, by maintaining a good skin care regimen you should see improvements in your skin in as little as 4–8 weeks.
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