Understanding and treating acne (for teens)

Acne Breakouts

Teenage acne comes along at completely the wrong time. You’re already going through a ton of scary (and embarrassing) changes (physically and mentally) and then – suddenly – your skin craters into oozing pustules of angry red pain. It feels like your life is over.  

Don’t despair. There are things you can do to ameliorate the situation (read on). But first, let’s find out what acne is, what causes it, and then bring on the solution (hint: a few foods you can try – and let’s reboot that skincare routine, too). Ready?

What is acne?

According to our friends at WedMD, more than 85% of teens get acne to some degree. So it’s a common skin problem which means, at some point during your development from a child into an adult (aka: “puberty”), you might well get clogged pores which can develop into whiteheads, blackheads and pimples (possibly painful ones – as if a pressure gauge of gunk is trying to erupt past your top layer of epidermis). Sometimes people get hard lumps on areas of the body with the most oil (i.e. greasy parts) – face, back, neck, upper arms and chest. 

Whatever erupts. Don’t SQUEEZE, tempting as it might be, they’ll just get infected and become worse. 

Ask your parents for their junior high photos.

Do they have acne in them? 

That sucks. Because it’s hereditary – which means you will probably get it too. 

But look at them now – it’s gone – so you know the acne situation is temporary. Okay?

Ready for a quick skin seminar?

Let’s just review how skin (the largest organ on your body) functions. Human skin has oil glands (or you’d look like a lizard). But suddenly – when you hit the teen years – there’s an increase in what are called “androgens,” which are sex hormones present in male and female humans.

FYI – we’re not talking about sex – as in kissing and those movie scenes set to soaring music – we mean sex as in your biological gender. 

So these androgens go into OVERDRIVE right about now. And, as a result, your oil glands start to produce too much oil (also called “sebum” if we want to be technical here, and why not). The oil then blocks the skin pores (causing pimples, blockages) and also hair follicles (cue: embarrassing greasy hair). 

It gets worse: the excess oil encourages the growth of “Propionibacterium acnes” – yes, that’s where the word “acne” comes from. Then the bacteria (yuck) and oil (worse) merge into pimples, blackheads, whiteheads and the rest of the acne family. 

What’s the difference between a blackhead, whitehead, pustule, pimple or cyst?

Good question. 

Do you have a raised red spot, with a white center? That’s a pimple. It means you had a blocked pore – and then it got inflamed and/or infected. 

Pustules are when bacteria grows in a pore that gets blocked, red and inflamed.  

Cysts feel like painful lumps under the skin’s surface and occur when inflammation/blockages happen deep inside the pores.

Whiteheads are different – they are blocked pores that close and then bulge up (with no clear center that looks tempting to squeeze). 

Blackheads are clogged pores which stay open (not closed like a whitehead) and have a dark area on the top. 

But I shower every day!

That’s great. And you’ve done nothing wrong – this is just part of being a teenager. You don’t get blackheads because your skin is dirty. The black part is because it “oxidized” – got exposed to the air. That’s all.  

It all sounds hideous.  

We’ll be honest with you – it is. 

But it’s temporary. You won’t be a teenager for that long, even if it feels like forever right now. This is just a natural process of transition from one biological stage (child) to the next one (adult). 

So hang in there. 

What causes acne?

No one really knows for sure – not even the esteemed medical people at the National Institutes of Health (and they pretty much know everything, medically-speaking). But there are many contributory factors such as: 

  • changing hormone levels during the teen years, as we explained above
  • certain medications can cause skin breakouts
  • reactions to make-up which blocks pores 
  • and, as we said, it can be in your genes (DNA, your parents had it – you’ll probably get it too). 

Stuff can make it worse – like getting sweaty on a hot day then wearing scratchy clothing that irritates your skin can lead to a breakout. 

And stress is a big contributory factor. That’s why some teens can lose it over their skin just before a test, first day of high school, or a major love/crush (cue pimples before the prom).   

Can it be treated?

It depends on how serious the acne is. There are lots of OTC (over the counter i.e. without prescription) treatments which contain compounds including: Azelaic acid; Benzoyl peroxide; Glycolic acid; Lactic acid; Retinoids (medications that come from vitamin A); and Salicylic acid. These mostly work on reducing oil production and cleaning up bacterial infections. 

Everyone’s skin is different so ask the pharmacist at your local drugstore to take a look at your face and see what they recommend. If it feels more serious that the occasional whitehead/blackhead and/or pimple – talk to your doctor. There are other things they could try to combat the hormonal shifts causing havoc in your body and skin. 

Will I have acne FOREVER?

No. You won’t. This stage is necessary to get you to become an adult, but you’ll look back in the future and the memory will fade. For now, it sucks, we get it. But don’t squeeze, pick or attempt home remedies. You’ll make it worse. 

Do I have to quit chocolate or other stuff?

You might well want to look at your food intake, because that can help. 

We’ll all different so sometimes what we eat affects us in different ways. There are some studies which say milk could cause acne because of the hormones cows make when they’re pregnant – which end up in the milk they produce. When you drink that milk, those hormones pass into your body. And your body reacts by breaking out. 

The researchers at WebMD also suggest you take a look at your level of  “high glycemic” (white bread, white rice, sugar, soda) foods. These affect your blood sugar levels, and your body will produce insulin as a result, which can affect other hormones which boost oil production. 

What can I eat?

Well, high fiber foods are not only good for you but help control blood sugar. So see if you can add more apples, carrots, beans and (plain, not sugary) oatmeal into your meals. You don’t have to go over the top – but these are just some of the things that can help. 

Finally let’s reboot your skincare routine.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest the teen years are a good time to get into a good skincare routine. Here are a few ideas to try, especially if you have acne:

  • Clean skin gently. 
  • Shave carefully. 
  • Stay out of the sun. 
  • Choose makeup carefully. All makeup should be oil free. Look for the word “non comedogenic” on the label (this is makeup will not clog up your pores). 
  • Shampoo your hair regularly. 

Finally, be kind to yourself. This teen acne stage will pass and, if you’re careful (and don’t squeeze), your skin will look glorious in a few years, we promise.

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