Clearing up myths about teenage acne
As a family medicine physician at of one Chicago’s busiest suburban hospitals, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., I often provide care for teens who are confused about what causes acne and how to clear it up. Acne can strike fear into even the most confident teenager. But the truth is that almost everyone in the United States between the ages of 14 and 18 has to deal with some form of it.
Teenagers can take several steps to help clear up their acne before turning to medication, whether it’s over-the-counter or prescribed. But many teens hang on to common myths about what causes acne.
Below are some of the most common myths and remedies that can help:
1) Excessive washing prevents acne
Many teens think that dirt causes acne, so they wash their skin vigorously many times a day. Acne really occurs when bacteria gets trapped in the skin’s oil glands, often because of hormonal changes during puberty.
Washing your face too often can strip the skin’s natural oils, causing it to overcompensate and produce extra oil. Scrubbing is also detrimental. It can irritate the skin and increase inflammation. That means over-washing and scrubbing too hard actually makes acne worse.
I recommend washing twice a day with a soap containing salicylic acid. Teens already using a prescription medication to treat acne can use a gentler soap, such as Cetaphil or Purpose, to avoid further irritating or drying out the skin.
2) Moisturizers lead to more acne
When your skin is dry, it senses that and starts to produce more oil. After washing teens should always use a noncomedogenic moisturizer, which means it won’t block pores.
I also recommend that teens use moisturizers with at least SPF 30, especially if they’re on acne medications.
3) Out of sight, out of mind
Many teenage girls cake on makeup to cover up their acne, but that can backfire. Makeup that is heavy or comedogenic will clog their pores and make more pimples. I advise teens to change their pillowcases regularly, use a fresh towel every day, avoid touching their faces and limit their use of hair care products.
What about food?
Teens should avoid “high glycemic” foods, such as bread, bagels and cake, that raise their blood sugar levels. That can lead to hormonal changes that increase the skin’s oil production and worsen acne.
What about medication?
Some teens need over-the-counter medications to fight acne. It’s best to start with anything containing benzoyl peroxide, which can get rid of bacteria in the skin. Products with sulphur can also be effective because they provide an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effect. They include retinoids, which unclog the pores.
Use topical acne medication when the skin is completely dry, because water can reduce their effectiveness. Apply it to the entire affected area, not just individual lesions, to treat existing acne as well as prevent new blemishes. Keep these products away from sensitive areas, including your eyes and the corners of your mouth and nose.
If daily topical medications are too drying or irritating, try using them every other day. But remember that any remedy, non-medication and medication, needs between six and eight weeks to work. If a teen’s acne is not getting any better after that, it may be time to seek the help of a doctor.
Before your teen visits the doctor, pay attention to any triggers, such as menstruation, stress, new medications, a family history of acne, or any other symptoms that might suggest a hormonal influence. Your doctor will use that information to determine the best treatment plan. Keep track of what has been tried and how the skin reacted.
Depending upon the severity of your teen’s acne, your doctor may start with a topical treatment before moving to other treatments.
If topical antibiotics are not effective, your doctor may prescribe other treatments, including oral antibiotics, which are stronger, or hormonal treatments.
A referral to a dermatologist for stronger medications may be necessary when your teen’s acne is more severe or fails to respond to therapy.
I recommend that parents check with your primary care physician first before tapping a dermatologist.
About the Author
Dr. Adele Castaldi practices family medicine at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Arlington Heights, Ill. Her philosophy of care: “I provide complete and compassionate care for the whole individual. Educate and provide patients with the tools they need to live healthy lives.”