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Teenage acne: Understanding causes, types and treatment options

Acne is something that pretty much every teenager will have to deal with at some point to some degree. While that’s true, it certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

Before we get into treatment and prevention, it’d be helpful to talk about the different types of acne, what causes it and to dispel with a few myths.

Causes and types of acne

During puberty, teens’ bodies go through all sorts of hormonal changes that cause their skin to produce more oil. That oil mixes with skin cells and clogs pores — that causes acne. Greasy foods and chocolate do not cause acne. Stress does not cause acne (though it might make it worse).

There are three main types of acne. Comedonal acne is the most common type and is caused when pores get clogged and form blackheads and whiteheads. Inflammatory acne occurs when the skin under the blackhead or whitehead becomes inflamed. The third and most severe kind is cystic acne. Often very painful, cystic acne is caused by an infection at the site of the clogged pore and can cause permanent scarring.

Acne treatment

So, now that we have some background, what can you do about it?

The good news is acne treatment is a billion dollar industry and there are many options out there, from simple over-the-counter creams to prescription medication to physical cosmetic procedures.

To start, I’d recommend that everyone — teens and adults — wash their face twice a day and apply a gentle moisturizer. Look for lotions that are labeled “non-comedogenic” — this means that they won’t clog pores — and with an SPF of at least 30 for day-time use. People tend to think that lotion will make their face greasier and cause more breakouts, but the truth is it’s all about striking a balance. When your skin is dried out, your body will compensate by producing more oil, which then causes more breakouts.

For problem areas or spot treatment, start with an over-the-counter cream. You’ll want to look for products that contain salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide — those are the active ingredients that help unclog pores, reduce redness and inflammation, and have antibacterial properties. Be sure to avoid products with alcohol, since that will only dry out and irritate the skin.

A successful acne treatment comes down to a consistent routine of washing. And like any routine, it takes some time to see results. If after a couple months your child is not seeing any progress, then I’d recommend they try something new.

When to see a doctor

For more severe or persistent acne, you’ll want to take your child to their pediatrician or other primary care physician. Your physician can offer stronger prescription acne medications (either topical creams or pills to be taken orally). Most prescription acne medications do have some side-effects (dry skin and sensitivity to sunlight to name a couple), so be sure to discuss any potential risk factors with your doctor. For acne that persists or worsens after working with your primary care physician, a referral to a dermatologist may be warranted. A dermatologist can help with further care to help with the most troublesome or severe cases of acne.

We’ve all gone through adolescence and understand that acne probably seems like the end of the world to your teenager. Assure your child that acne is incredibly common, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about and most cases are completely treatable.