Fighting off acne!

It’s the bane of every teen’s existence: Acne! Indeed, imperfect skin is an unfortunate reality for many kids during adolescence. And it comes right about the time teens care more about their appearance than ever.

While the reasons for developing acne are complex, there are ways to help prevent and treat outbreaks when they occur. 

As with most skin conditions, acne is caused by many factors. Hormones, genetic predisposition, overactive sebaceous glands and bacteria can all play a role. 

People even wonder if specific foods cause acne. The truth is, we don’t actually have a scientifically proven answer to this question. But a healthy diet — low in processed sugars — is good for you, and early evidence shows that it’s probably helpful for reducing acne as well.

What is it?

Acne is commonly divided into bumps (called comedones), such as whiteheads and blackheads, and inflammatory acne, like red pimples and pustules. It usually starts to appear around puberty, but sometimes kids start having acne as early as age 9 or 10. 

Acne typically starts with mild whiteheads and blackheads. Then it can turn into red and inflamed pimples and cysts, and even create pit-like scarring.

Cleanse, don’t pick

A good skin-care routine always involves washing your face. It’s best to use gentle cleansers twice daily or after vigorous exercise. Avoid over-scrubbing or over-exfoliating. 

Because acne isn’t caused by dirt, you don’t need fancy soaps or scrubs to cleanse. In fact, over-cleansing can actually be harmful because it can dry out your skin, which makes many skin medications (if needed) less effective.

Teens should never pick or pop pimples. This can lead to scarring, brown spots, pain and worse acne.

Over-the-counter options

A good first step in treating acne breakouts is over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide. It comes in many different forms, including cleansers, gels, lotions and more. (Watch out, though, benzoyl peroxide can bleach towels and clothing!) 

Sometimes this treatment can dry or irritate teen skin, so using an oil-free moisturizer can be helpful. Look for labels that say non-acnegenic or non-comedogenic.

One new, over-the-counter option is adapalene. Adapalene, also known as Differin gel (0.1 percent), is a mild topical retinoid that can treat and prevent acne. 

It was previously available only by prescription. Adapalene is best applied nightly, using a pea-sized amount. This small dab of gel is enough to treat the entire face. Less is more. 

If dryness or irritation occur, your teen can take a few days off. For some kids, this product works best when applied every other day and paired with an oil-free moisturizer. 

Keep in mind: It usually takes about three months for these at-home approaches to produce results. Stick with it.

The stubborn stuff

If gentle cleansing and over-the-counter options don’t clear things up, you might consider bringing your teenager to a dermatologist. Severe acne that’s painful, red or inflamed will often require stronger creams, oral antibiotics or hormonal therapies that can be prescribed only by a doctor.

In rare cases, what looks like acne might actually be a sign of an underlying medical problem.

If your child has persistent red bumps on his or her face without blackheads — or if he or she suffers from acne between 4 and 8 years old — see a specialist. It could be a sign that something else is wrong, and it’s best to address it as early as possible.

By following these tips, your teen can hopefully treat — and prevent — acne outbreaks easily, and focus on the more fun parts of his or her teenage years.

Dr. Sheilagh Maguiness is an assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She sub-specializes in pediatric dermatology and is one of the only board-certified pediatric dermatologists in the Twin Cities. Maguiness practices at the University of Minnesota Health Pediatric Dermatology Clinic at the Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Learn more 

Watch a five-minute video with Dr. Sheilagh Maguiness to learn more about acne at