Adolescent acne may be a common problem — one experienced to some degree by an estimated 85 per cent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 — but that doesn’t mean it’s not an upsetting one. For many teenagers, acne is embarrassing, frustrating, and even painful. And it can also be the source of serious feelings of mental distress: there is some evidence that the two conditions can make each other worse.
The good news is that there’s an increasing number of ways to treat acne effectively, especially if they are used when the condition is still relatively mild.
"The vast majority of pimples are caused by three things: dead skin, sebum oil, and bacteria,” Roberta Perry, owner of ScrubzBody skin-care products, tells the Huffington Post Canada. "If these factors are kept at bay, then acne [and/or] pimples are reduced by more than half."
Here are nine things to know about adolescent acne, from how to prevent and treat it, to when to seek professional help.
Keep hands away from the face: If your teen is struggling with acne, reminding them to keep their hands off their face is one way to help prevent the problem from worsening. "Bacteria that is sitting on hands is transferred to the face when touched,” Perry says. "If this bacteria gets in the pores and mixes with the dead skin-sebum oil plug, it becomes a pimple."
Don’t over cleanse: If cleansing your face helps prevent acne, shouldn’t cleansing it more often help even more? The opposite is actually true: cleansing the skin too often can strip off too many of its natural oils, stimulating your skin to produce more to compensate. It can also irritate or dry out skin that is already sensitive, exacerbating any problems.
Do moisturize: Your teen may worry that moisturizing their skin will just lead to clogged pores and pimples, but an appropriate moisturizer can help skin stay balanced and counteract the dryness that can be a side effect of some anti-acne products and medication. Look for moisturizers designed for acne-prone and sensitive skin, with ingredients that may help prevent future breakouts.
Exfoliate regularly — and properly: Perry recommends regular exfoliation in order to clear dead skin cells that might otherwise clog pores. But avoid those harsh, scrubby exfoliants you likely used as a teen. There are plenty of gentle, non-abrasive options available from retailers and dermatologists, including some formulated specifically for acne-prone skin.
Try botanical oils: Contrary to popular belief, cleansing with oils can actually make skin less oily if you do it properly, Perry says. "When you use harsh cleansers, you strip the skin of its own oils, so it literally creates more,” she says. "Botanical oils also help break up existing sebum oil and dead skin clogs that have built up in the pores, so there is less chance it will become infected and become a pimple.” Speak to a skincare professional to learn about the oils that might help your kid's particular skin, and how to use them.
Links to depression: The effects of adolescent acne can be mental as well as physical or aesthetic. Some teens with acne do experience depression, and it’s not necessarily related to the severity of their skin problems, says Amie Skilton, a naturopath and aesthetician. There’s also evidence that acne and related conditions, like polycystic ovarian disease, can have correlations with depression that aren’t yet fully understood, Delhi-based dermatologist Dr. Sonam Yadav tells the Huffington Post Canada.
When to get expert help: There are times when over-the-counter products and at-home treatments might not help your kid’s skin, and Perry says it’s then worth bringing an expert like a dermatologist into the equation. You should also see an expert if your child’s skin becomes infected: this can be painful, cause scarring, and might require medication to heal. And even if prescriptions aren’t required, expert advice can help manage the problem and help your teen feel like it’s something that can be tackled — and is normal. “Ideally, young kids must see a dermatologist at the earliest hint of acne, when it is easiest to combat,” Yadav tells HuffPost Canada. "This would reduce the risk of scars and low self-esteem."
Possible medications: Antibiotics may be prescribed if bacteria is believed to be related to the acne, or if there is an infection, though it’s recommended that antibiotic treatment of acne shouldn’t last longer than three months because of the potential for antibiotic resistance. Topical medications with vitamin A can be helpful, but they can cause skin dryness and increase sun sensitivity, Yadav says. There are times when prescriptions may be warranted but it’s important to understand and balance the benefits with potential side effects.
What about Accutane?: Isotretinoin (Accutane) is helpful for severe acne but can cause serious birth defects if used during pregnancy, and is also associated with worsening depression and suicidal thoughts, Yadav says. "It is unfortunate because the patients with most severe acne benefit the most from this treatment but may already be struggling with self-esteem,” she says. “However, dermatologists are well versed with this side-effect risk and do screen and counsel patients and family."