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Harvard Medical School
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Guiding Your Child Through The Adolescent Years
Middle Adolescence Features
Learn the facts about teen acne.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Unfortunately for most adolescents, acne is as much a part of the teen-age years as learning to drive and high school dances. Most adults can still remember at least one time when a badly placed pimple threatened to ruin a perfect evening. Even though acne is incredibly common (almost 85% of adolescents will be affected), it may be difficult to treat, and it can cause a great deal of anxiety and distress. Know the facts about acne to best help your teen deal with this inevitable part of growing up.

Acne is a skin disease that occurs mainly on the face, chest and back when pores become plugged by normally occurring skin oils and dead skin cells. Hormones play a large role in the development of acne, which is why adolescents are usually the most severely affected by this condition. It also explains why some women have severe flare-ups related to having their periods (menstrual cycles).

During puberty, high levels of hormones increase how much sebum, an oily substance that normally helps protect the skin from infection and dryness, is made in the body. This sebum (oil) then builds up and becomes trapped in the pores by dead skin cells that block the opening. A specific bacteria germ called Propionibacterium acnes is thought to contribute to blocking these pores. This results in the typical acne lesions, medically known as comedones, but more commonly called whiteheads or blackheads.

Acne also tends to run in families. Your teen-ager is likely to develop acne if you or other members of your family had acne as teen-agers.

It is important for parents to know the facts about acne and be able to separate what is true from what is not true. Then you can more easily help your teen to prevent and treat acne lesions. Here is a list of common myths and the — truth about them:

  1. Eating certain foods causes acne. Eating chocolate or greasy foods such as French fries and potato chips does not cause acne.
  2. Dirt causes acne. Dirt on the skin has no role in the plugging of pores, so washing one's face too often or with harsh soaps or scrubbing pads will not help the condition, and may in fact worsen it.
  3. Acne is not a serious problem. Acne can leave permanent scars on the skin and can have severe psychological effects on a teen-ager.
  4. Sweating flushes out the pores. While regular exercise is essential for overall health and well-being, it can increase oil production in the skin and may worsen acne for some people.
  5. Sun dries up acne. Spending time in the sun may improve the appearance of acne for a short time, but eventually will cause more pores to clog, making acne worse. In addition, repeated sun exposure causes wrinkles and may lead to skin cancer.
  6. Acne is caused by sex and masturbation. This simply is not true and probably was made up, just to scare kids and keep them away from these behaviors.
  7. Acne only affects teen-agers. Adults get acne, too. Many women have problems with acne around the time of their menstrual periods or during pregnancy.

So now that you know the truth about acne, how can you help your teen prevent it? The following are suggestions that you can pass along:

  • Wash the face gently with mild soap. Don't wash too often or use harsh scrubs.
  • Don't pinch, pick at or "pop" pimples. This damages the surrounding normal skin and makes acne worse.
  • Keep your hands off your face.
  • Avoid things that rub or put pressure on the skin, such as hair, headbands or hats.
  • Eat a healthy diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables, and drink plenty of water.
  • Always get a good night's sleep.
  • Learn ways to deal with stress and lower your anxiety level.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing while exercising and make sure athletic equipment fits properly, so that it does not rub against the skin, causing irritation.
  • Shower immediately after exercising, especially if sweating heavily, and don't hang around in wet workout clothes.
  • When shaving, use an electric razor if possible. If shaving with a straight razor, use warm water with lots of lather and shave in the direction that the hair is growing. Using an alcohol-free aftershave may help prevent breakouts as well.
  • When using makeup or other cosmetics, look for products labeled "non-comedogenic" that are not supposed to make acne worse.
  • Avoid skin products that contain fragrances or high concentrations of alcohol.
  • Cover the skin while using hairstyling products.

Even if your teen-ager follows every one of these recommendations, he still may have problems with acne. Anytime your teen is feeling badly about his acne, no matter how mild, take him to see his pediatrician to discuss treatment options. Most pediatricians are comfortable handling the treatment of simple acne, and can refer your teen to a dermatologist (skin specialist), if necessary.

Prepare your teen to be patient. Most acne treatments take quite a bit of time even to begin to show improvement, sometimes as long as six to eight weeks, and often things get worse before they get better. It is important that you help your teen stick closely to the prescribed treatment plan. Check back with the doctor regularly so that any necessary adjustments can be made. Once your teen finds a treatment plan that works, he should continue to follow it carefully, even when there aren't any visible lesions. It is important to treat the things that cause acne, before lesions appear on the skin.

Remember, acne can be difficult for teens to handle, as teens may feel embarrassed, unattractive, dirty and awkward. Teach your teen the facts about acne and help him understand that he did not do anything to cause his acne. Encourage your teen to talk about how his acne makes him feel. Remind your teen that acne is very common and he is not alone.

For further information consult the following Web sites: — An excellent source for information, edited by dermatologists with helpful pictures and links to reading material. — A Web site developed by a person who suffered from severe acne as a teen, it provides message boards and links for teens and parents who want to know more.

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Last updated August 14, 2014

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