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Acne in elementary school? Pimples are starting younger, dermatologists say

The face of acne is getting a lot younger, say dermatologists across the country, who are starting to see more cases of pediatric acne – as in kids as young as 7.

The problem has become widespread enough to prompt the leading group of pediatric dermatologists to establish new guidelines for treating kids of all age groups, something that has also been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Doctors believe it's likely linked to earlier onset puberty, which causes hormones called adrenal androgens to start increasing, triggering pimples to erupt sooner on these young faces.

Dr. Andrea Zaenglein, a co-author of the new treatment recommendations, estimates that she now sees around 10 or 15 new cases of pediatric acne every month.

“The principals of therapy for adolescent acne and pre-adolescent acne are exactly the same,” says Zaenglein, who this week presented the information at the American Academy of Dermatology’s summer meeting. “You want to treat it as aggressively as you need to, to get it under control.”

Most of these younger children have mild acne – mostly a spattering of whiteheads and blackheads, called comedones, on the forehead, nose and chin. In these cases, the recommended treatment is an over-the-counter product containing benzoyl peroxide; if that doesn’t work, a combination therapy involving benzoyl peroxide, an antiobiotic and/or a retinoid may be prescribed.

There’s a glimmer of an upside here: In cases of kids with acne, the parents are more likely to be more heavily involved, making sure their child sticks to the treatment prescribed by their dermatologist. But Zaenglein points out that while parents of teenagers know to watch out for skin problems, it may not occur to parents of younger children that this is a problem that may require professional care.

In girls especially, Zaenglein says, pre-teen acne “can be a predictor of more severe acne in adolescence. And you want to make sure that those girls get treatment throughout their teenage years.”

Emotionally, acne is awful no matter how old you are. “But it’s a lot harder when you may be the only kid in your class that has it,” Zaenglein says.

“So it’s important to recognize the problem, and don’t ignore the fact that it’s there, because puberty lasts a long time and there’s no reason to think it gets better on its own,” she says.