Last Updated on August 9th, 2019
Even though many teens struggle with acne—approximately 85%—it can make teenagers feel alone and insecure1. To find the best acne treatment for teens, it’s important to consider the teen’s skin type, the particular kind of acne they’re dealing with2, and the different ways to treat acne. You’ll want to know what triggers particularly bad breakouts, risk factors that could turn acne into more serious skin conditions, and what all the different acne treatment products are designed to do. This article will cover all these topics, provide some tips for parents and teens, and answer frequently asked questions about teenage acne.
Article Table of Contents
It can be easy to blame teenage acne on bad hygiene and too much junk food3, but the biggest player is actually the chaotic stew of hormones present in adolescence.
It starts around age 8, when our bodies start producing stress hormones released by both the adrenal gland and our skin. This can cause increased inflammation, which leads to pimples, and an increased sensitivity to acne-causing bacteria that previously lived in large numbers on our skin without causing any issues. This increase in stress hormone levels explains why children sometimes get acne before adolescence.
When kids become teenagers and their sex hormone levels also rise, the combination of hormones often leads to the increased acne seen in most teenagers.
Many studies show that people with different ethnic backgrounds present with different acne troubles in their teenage years4. For instance, many black or African-American teenagers develop acne around the edges of the scalp and the forehead due to oil-based pomade often used with black or African-American hair. According to dermatologist Dr. Jennell Nelson, the best acne treatment for teens for this kind of acne is to use dimethicone-based hair products5 to reduce the amount of oil at the scalp, forehead, and temples.
Additionally, many black, African-American, and Hispanic teens don’t develop acne until their early 20s. Although this no longer qualifies as teenage acne, it is nice to know that you’re not odd or alone if your acne starts after high school.
To find the best acne treatment for teens6, it’s also important to know if they have an oily, dry, or combination skin type. Oily skin types will want to use a product that cuts down on oil production and exfoliates the skin to remove excess dead skin cells. Others with dry skin need to make sure any acne treatment products they use are not too drying, and should focus on increasing moisture without increasing oil; water-based moisturizers are a great solution. Combination skin is both oily and dry, and can be extra frustrating. Water-based moisturizers and spot treatment products can be a good combination for this skin type.
Teenage acne comes in many different shapes and sizes, and each kind reacts differently to various acne treatments7. The best acne treatment for teens takes into account what makes pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads different, and seeks out products that help treat the root cause of each one.
Blackheads—Also known as comedones, blackheads forms when your sebaceous glands produce excess oil, otherwise known as sebum, which mixes with dead skin cells and gets lodged in one of your pores. This mixture is not covered over with skin, and its exposure to the air turns it black. It’s just a myth that blackheads are caused by dirt. You can be the cleanest, neatest person in the world and still get blackheads, it’s part of being human.
Whiteheads—This type of acne forms the same way as blackheads, but in this case, the dead skin cells and oil are trapped underneath the skin so that no air can get to it, so it remains white instead of turning black.
Pimples—Also called pustules, pimples form just like whiteheads, with oil and dead skin cells trapped in a pore. But with pimples, pressure builds up in the pore until it ruptures, allowing bacteria to get in. This results in a minor infection, which inflames the surrounding skin and creates pus, which is then pushed to the surface of the skin.
Products that provide the best acne treatment for teens8 seek to do one or more of three things: exfoliate skin to remove oil and dead skin cell buildup, kill acne-causing bacteria, or reduce inflammation. There are a variety of readily available products that accomplish these goals, such as:
Retinoids: Most retinoids are prescription treatments, but one, adapalene, is available over-the-counter. Retinoids exfoliate and unclog pores, so it can be useful on all kinds of acne. One example of over-the-counter adapalene is Differin.
Benzoyl Peroxide: These products aim to reduce acne-causing bacteria on the skin and reduce inflammation. Benzoyl peroxide interacts best with skin that is still growing and changing, making it a great choice for teens specifically. Still, you’ll want to start with the lowest possible concentration (2.5%) and be careful not to get it on clothes or towels if possible, as it can cause bleaching. Benzoyl peroxide can be found in several over-the-counter brands, such as Proactiv, Neutrogena, and Clearasil, although these brands tend to overuse benzoyl peroxide which can dry out your skin, so be cautious with some of these big name brands.
Salicylic Acid: Treatments containing salicylic acid cleanse pores down to the hair follicle, plus they have anti-inflammatory properties that can be soothing for painful acne. Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in products like Misumi or Clearskin. If you aren’t seeing results from these products, their concentration of salicylic acid may be too low, and if you notice these products drying out your skin, you should discontinue use. Dry, irritated skin is very counterproductive to treating acne.
Combination Medicines: These acne treatments are some of the most popular on the market because they combine the best aspects of stand-alone products. The best acne treatment for teens right now is a combination treatment9: the Exposed Skincare line, which combines just the right concentration of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, along with several natural additives that keep skin from drying out, like aloe vera and sage extract. Exposed Skincare understands that nearly all acne can be treated with these ingredients if they’re balanced correctly10.
Combined in their three-step formula11 (cleansing, treating, and moisturizing), these ingredients find that perfect balance: they are strong enough to treat your acne, but gentle enough to keep your skin healthy.
For parents who have seen the astronomical price of some acne treatment products, it’s also helpful to know Exposed Skincare won’t break the bank, with a 60-day supply available on Amazon for under $65. Even though this sounds like an ad, it really isn’t. Exposed Skincare is just the product we most highly recommend as the best acne treatment for teens.
If products like Exposed Skincare aren’t giving you the results you’re looking for, it may be time to get prescription-strength solutions from a dermatologist. Some products they might prescribe include:
Antibiotics: Hormone changes in teenagers can cause an increase in acne-causing bacteria12 living on the skin, which means a topical or oral antibiotic can help.
Birth Control: Unlike other acne treatments discussed so far, birth control addresses the main cause of teenage-specific acne: hormone fluctuations13. Birth control can even out hormones in teenage girls and help reduce acne.
Isotretinoin: This is a prescription medication often used for cystic or severe acne that has proven resistant to other treatments. Isotretinoin can take 4 to 5 months14 to show results, and requires consistent follow-up visits to your dermatologist. As a note, if your doctor prescribes the brand Accutane, you should be aware of a somewhat embarrassing side effect: Accutane can cause excessive flatulence. If you notice this side effect, it might help to try other brands, such as Absorica or Claravis.
Retinoids: At the prescription level, there are many retinoid products available to treat acne from mild to severe. A dermatologist will be able to recommend the right concentration for your needs.
Benzoyl Peroxide: If you or your teen have tried over-the-counter benzoyl peroxides to no avail, a prescription from the dermatologist can provide a stronger product that can help.
In most cases, the best acne treatment for teens is some combination of acne-fighting products, but there are some lifestyle changes that can also help. Stress hormones play a major role in teenage acne, so there are some stress-reducing lifestyle changes that can help. A big one is getting more sleep. Teenagers are busy people, juggling school, extra-curriculars, friends, family, and sometimes a job, so sleep often ranks pretty low on the totem pole. But if your body doesn’t get enough sleep time to break down stress hormones, there will be some left over in your body the next day. If you don’t get enough sleep again the next night, the stress hormones can build, and this process keeps repeating until you find yourself dealing with both anxiety and breakouts.
Another lifestyle change that can help with acne15 is lowering your teen’s sugar intake. High glycemic foods, such as white bread or white rice, can cause blood glucose levels and blood insulin levels to rise, which leads to the production of hormones that increase oil production, which can contribute to acne16.
Teenage girls with acne and unwelcome hair growth may be dealing with a variation of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) that does not cause ovarian cysts or disruptions to the menstrual cycle. This form of PCOS causes non-diabetic insulin resistance17, which leaves the ovaries with a lot of excess sugar to “burn.” The ovaries do this by creating extra testosterone, which can cause increased sebum production and lead to acne. Cutting down on sugar can reduce blood-insulin levels and testosterone production.
Note to parents: Although cutting down on sugar could improve your teen’s acne, it’s important not to focus too much on diet. Teenagers often feel a lot of pressure to live up to male and female beauty standards, and although you may just be trying to help, too much focus on a teen’s diet can contribute to low self-esteem, disordered eating, or an eating disorder. The best acne treatment for teens isn’t a radical diet change, it’s consistent treatment with a product that works for their skin.
Just as certain lifestyle changes can improve acne18, there are others that can trigger breakouts or contribute to consistent acne. One such trigger is alcohol consumption. Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, which can lead to redness and irritation on the surface of the skin. This causes skin to release more sebum, which in turn can cause more acne. This is especially prevalent for teenagers of Asian descent. It is common for people with Asian heritage to breakdown alcohol into acetaldehyde more quickly than people of European descent, and this quick breakdown can lead to increased irritation and acne.
Teenagers should also avoid smoking. The chemicals in cigarettes can reduce your body’s natural antioxidants that help suppress sebum production, leading to more acne.
Acne is a frustrating skin condition, but it can sometimes lead to more serious conditions, like folliculitis or acne keloidalis nuchae.
Folliculitis19 occurs when the hair follicle of a pore becomes inflamed, usually with a bacterial or fungal infection. Teens who shave their heads are more likely to develop folliculitis, which typically looks like small red bumps or pustules. Hair trimmings, dead skin cells, and bacteria can get trapped in a hair follicle and create an infection that can look like acne, but quickly turns into small sores that won’t heal. If symptoms don’t go away on their own after a few days, you should contact a doctor.
Another serious skin condition that can result from acne is acne keloidalis nuchae (AKN)20, which is most commonly found in black or African-American boys, post-adolescence. However, it is still possible to see AKN during the teen years, so it’s important to know what to look for. Similar to folliculitis, AKN occurs when the hair follicle is inflamed, but AKN is a more chronic condition which leads to raised, keloid-like lesions or scarring alopecia (hair loss where the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicle). The cause of AKN isn’t clear, but it seems related to repeated skin abrasions or unusual immune system behavior. AKN can be treated with antibiotics, steroids, surgical removal of keloids, or light/laser therapy, but it can take several months before treatment produces improvement.
Take teenage acne seriously, but don’t encourage any shame surrounding it.
Our society has a tendency to catastrophize acne; even dermatologists sometimes talk about pimples like they’re the plague. You know finding the best acne treatment for teens could improve your teenager’s acne can help their self-esteem, but putting too much pressure on it can actually have the opposite effect. When you say “You have acne and I want you to feel good about yourself, let me help,” your teenager might hear “You have acne, which is bad, so you are bad, let me fix you.”
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne affects teenagers so much that it can lead to anxiety and depression21, which are serious mental health issues that teenagers are already susceptible to. As their parent, it’s important for your teenager to know that you see acne as a real problem without treating it like something to be ashamed of.
Encourage your teen to change their sheets, pillowcase, and towel frequently.
All of these linens can collect bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells, which can create more acne if not washed regularly. Try to remind your teenager to wash their sheets, pillowcase, and towel once a week to reduce acne.
The best acne treatment for teens takes time, try to be patient.
It can be hard to stick to a complicated skin care routine23 when it’s been 2 weeks and you still haven’t noticed any difference. But switching skin care routines every few weeks can be bad for your skin, not to mention discouraging for you. When you try something new each week and nothing helps, it can feel like there’s nothing you can do about your acne. Avoid the added stress and try to follow one routine for at least 6 weeks. If you don’t see any improvement at that point, try switching products or speak with a dermatologist.
Keep following your acne treatment plan, even after your acne clears up.
Once your acne has improved, it can be tempting to stop using all the facewashes, creams, etc. But teenage acne is largely caused by hormones, meaning that if you stop treatment, it will likely come back. Teenage acne is all about maintenance, which means once you find a routine you’re comfortable with, stick to it especially when you have found the best acne treatment for teens that works for you.
Sunscreen is your new best friend!
Many acne products make your skin extra sensitive to the sun, so even if you’re only going out for an hour or two, make sure you apply an oil-free sunscreen.
I have dark/ethnic skin; will benzoyl peroxide affect my skin pigmentation?
Because benzoyl peroxide can bleach clothes, pillow cases, etc., it is a common myth that it can bleach and lighten skin.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, benzoyl peroxide does not cause skin lightening24 or create light spots on your skin.
As for darkening, research at this time is inconsistent. Many personal accounts suggest that benzoyl peroxide makes natural hyperpigmentation (the dark spots that form once acne has healed) last significantly longer for darker skin. In theory, if the benzoyl peroxide is used consistently, you will have less acne and thus less hyperpigmentation, so the lengthened skin recovery time would become less of an issue. However, if it is not helping reduce your acne, the side effects may not be worth it.
Are there any natural or DIY options to treat teenage acne?
Although over-the-counter and prescription acne treatments are usually the best acne treatment for teens, there are many other natural or DIY options. A word of caution to all those trying natural or DIY acne treatments: do your research! Some natural or homemade acne treatments advertised online can dramatically worsen acne, so make sure you only try homemade options that are supported by recent research.
According to the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology25, honey is a great option due to its antimicrobial properties. Acne is often caused by an increased amount of certain types of bacteria, which honey can clear from your skin. You can buy many honey-based products at drug stores or even supermarkets, but you can also create your own honey-based acne treatments at home! One great option is a honey-apple mask26. The honey helps with acne-causing bacteria while the apple helps exfoliate your skin to get rid of dead skin cells and excess oil. Just peel the skin from a medium sized apple, scoop the seeds out, and put the remaining apple through a mixer until it is a fine pulp. Then add 3 to 4 tablespoons of honey and mix well, and voila! An inexpensive, fun best acne treatment for teens.
According to the International Journal of Cosmetic Science27, another good natural option is essential oils, such as eucalyptus oil, to fight acne-causing bacteria. These can be purchased in gel form and applied directly to the skin or you can create your own acne treatment28 by mixing a few essential oils like lavender, lemon, and eucalyptus with a base like yogurt or flour.
Many websites may recommend tea tree oil, but it’s not the best acne treatment for teens because it can interfere with sex hormones. Its most common side effect is the growth of breast tissue in teenage males, which is often undesirable.
Essential oils are a good natural alternative for treating teenage acne—but tea tree oil can have a significant side effect.
Why do I have blackheads on and around my nose that won’t go away?
Because believe it or not, those aren’t blackheads! Crazy, right? Those little bumps are the result of totally natural oil glands functioning, called sebaceous filaments, which are tiny hair follicles in your skin that release a normal amount of sebum (natural skin oil). The reason these particular sebaceous filaments are more visible on your nose is because your pores are bigger there, not because they are clogged, like with blackheads. Attempting to squeeze the oil out of these filaments can actually lead to blackheads, because when you empty the follicle of its natural oil, it is open to dead skin cells and acne-causing bacteria.
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