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Wiping Out Teen Acne

Acne happens. But that doesn't mean your teen has to live with it.

According to Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., co-author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual, even minor cases of acne can be both physically and emotionally scarring. "Your teen is probably more upset about their acne than they're letting on. Teens tend not to talk about how upset they are about things. They don't want to upset their parents," she says. So basically, if you see bumps on your kid's face, assume that your teen sees it as a problem, and take action to wipe it out. "It makes them a target for bullies," says Greenberg, "and it certainly doesn't make them feel sexual–at the time of life when they're testing out their sexuality."

"If treatment is delayed too long, you can end up with scarring. Treatments can't get rid of the scars a patient already has"

The good news: There are now treatments that can control pretty much any case of acne.

Mild or serious?

According to Dr. Robin Gehris, MD, Chief of Pediatric Dermatologic Surgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, it's okay to give over-the-counter acne meds a try if your teen's case is pretty mild. However, if you're seeing redness, pustules, cysts, or any acne that's already causing scarring, skip the corner drugstore and go straight to a dermatologist. "If treatment is delayed too long, you can end up with scarring. Treatments can't get rid of the scars a patient already has," says Gehris. She also recommends early treatment for patients with a family history of aggressive acne.

OTC treatments

"Most of the over-the-counter treatments contain either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid," Gehris says. "Just be careful, because the benzoyl peroxide can bleach clothing and linens. It is also very drying and can cause redness and peeling. I sometimes will advise people with very mild acne to start with a gentle salicylic acid wash, which can break open some of the shallow bumps, and won't bleach fabrics." she says.

Some folks swear by natural remedies, like tea tree oil or alpha hydroxy acids. Gehris says that there might be a role for natural remedies in treating mild acne, but warns that the lack of regulation of these products is a problem. "There are so many uncontrolled formulations on the market that might not be tested for safety," she says. "We especially discourage people from going online and getting medications from places like Canada and China—these can sometimes be laced with other ingredients that aren't safe."

The problem with most over-the-counter acne meds is that they're aimed at spot treating pimples that already exist. "Ideally, you want to get on a regimen that can prevent future breakouts," says Gehris.

Prescription treatments

"A good rule to follow is that if your skin hasn't improved after four to six weeks of an over-the-counter treatment, jump ship and go to a dermatologist," Gehris advises. (Don't wait that long if you're seeing redness or scarring.) She recommends finding a pediatric dermatologist, if you can—they have extra years of training focused specifically on your kid's age group. If not, an adult dermatologist will do.

The dermatologist will evaluate your teen's skin and help you make a plan to clear it up. Common treatments include prescription creams that help keep acne from forming, and antibiotics that kill the bacteria that helps create pimples.


There are a few things your teen can do to minimize the risk of breakouts. Pass along these tips:

  • Wash your face gently (don't scrub), and take the time to remove any makeup every night.
  • Shower ASAP after exercising. "That extra sweat will lead to and overgrowth of yeast on the skin, which can definitely play a role in acne," says Gehris.
  • Use only makeup or sunscreen that's labeled as "noncomedogenic," "nonacnegenic," or "oil free."
  • Keep hair products off your face as much as possible—they can clog pores.
  • Wash long hair or bangs frequently to avoid oily locks brushing against your skin.
  • Don't pick at existing pimples. You'll only irritate them, and can cause scarring.

Above all, resist the urge to treat the pimply phase of life as a rite of passage. With a bit of good hygiene—and a good doctor—your teen can kiss acne goodbye.

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