If you made it through your teens without a breakout, consider yourself something of a unicorn. Acne plagues an estimated 80% of people between ages 11 and 30 at some point, according to The National Institutes for Health. And acne can take a toll on teens’ already delicate self esteem. Adolescents and young adults who suffer from acne have higher rates of anxiety and depression than those who do not, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. But there are things teens can do to improve acne and breakouts. To assist you in shopping for products that can help , we spoke to dermatologists about the treatments and ingredients to look for, and they also told us their favorite picks.
What is acne?
Acne is a skin condition that primarily affects the face, shoulders, chest and back. Fueled by fluctuating hormones that increase oil production in the skin, breakouts happen when that oil (also known as sebum) combines with dead skin cells, clogs pores and traps bacteria, which then causes inflammation, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Indeed, both whiteheads and blackheads are clogged sebaceous glands, said Adnan Mir, MD, former Committee Chair for the Society for Pediatric Dermatology, Assistant Professor at New York Medical College and dermatopathologist at Dermpath Diagnostics in Port Chester, New York. (The black color is due to the oil reacting with oxygen, not due to dirt.)
“People with acne have glands that make more oil and are more easily plugged,” he said.
Though it affects teens, there’s actually no standard age or period of time when this “oil surge” calms down, according Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut: “It’s completely genetic,” she said. “Some people never get it, for some people, it lasts five years.”
The best treatment for teen acne, according to experts
The experts we spoke to said there are generally two ways to treat teen acne and pimples: preemptive face-washing with appropriate cleansers and spot-treating breakouts.
Wash your face with gentle, soap-free cleanser
It’s important for teens to remove any makeup before bed, and also to wash their face every day — twice a day if they have oily skin or if their face gets dirty throughout the day, like after a workout, according to Samer Jaber, MD, founder of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City.
When it comes to face cleansers, teen acne sufferers should look for gentle, non-comedogenic products, which means they won’t block pores, said Mir. And “cleansers with ingredients like glycolic acid, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide can be very helpful for those with acne,” said Jaber, “but be careful as they can be irritating and drying.”
Here are three face cleansers products recommended by the experts:
Mir says acne-sufferers should look for non-comedogenic products because they won’t block pores. This foaming cleanser — recommended by Gohara — is both non-comedogenic and contains zinc pidolate, which has astringent, anti-inflammatory properties shown to improve acne.
This gentle skin cleanser from French skincare company Avéne is formulated with Vitamin E and Hyaluronic acid, so it’s “hydrating to keep the skin barrier healthy, yet not pore-clogging,” said Gohara. The no-rinse cleanser works to remove makeup, dirt and oil while providing moisture, according to the brand.
“Foam-based cleansers are better for those with oily skin,” says Jaber, who likes this one from CeraVe. It’s formulated with hyaluronic acid to preserve the skin’s natural moisture and niacinamide, which helps to calm the skin. It’s fragrance-free, non-comedogenic, and should remove any excess oil, dirt, or makeup from the skin, according to the brand.
Pimples? Spot treat them
All three dermatologists recommended teens spot treat pimples, from the second they start to develop until they’re just about gone. Look for a product containing a retinoid (a form of vitamin A that helps unclog pores), benzoyl peroxide (a topical antiseptic) or salicylic acid (an exfoliant that removes dead skin and unclogs pores), according to the experts.
Here are three treatments recommended by the experts:
“Differin gel is the only OTC retinoid available without a prescription and was a prescription medication for years,” says Jaber. “If there’s one thing to pick to do for your acne, start using Differin gel at bedtime. Wash with a gentle cleanser, dry, and apply a pea size of Differin onto the entire face.”
This spot treatment, with 10% benzoyl peroxide, got a mention from both Gohara and Jaber for its strong, zit-zapping properties.
Jaber recommends this tried and true quick-drying formula to those who are allergic to benzoyl peroxide. It contains salicylic acid to fight acne and calamine to calm irritated skin.
What makes teen acne worse?
Washing your face too often
Believe it or not, washing their face too much can leave teens’ susceptible to more breakouts. “One of the mistakes I commonly see with teens is they really want to get their skin better, and so they over-[wash] their skin,” says Jaber. That can dry out skin, which “can actually make breakouts worse,” he said.
Piling on the trendy products
“Teens tend to turn to their favorite influencer and start putting what I call ‘the kitchen sink approach’ on their face,” Gohara said, and that can “stoke” the acne “fire.” Acne breakouts can take five days to disappear, so it’s important for teens to stick to a basic routine and give their skin time to heal, she said.
Over scrubbing or exfoliating
Mir said teenage skin already sluffs dead skin cells on its own, so he discourages the use of apricot scrubs or scrubs containing beads, because they can be abrasive and irritating. Gohara also said scrubbing is a big no-no. “Sometimes, teens think acne is from dirt and they start to scrub it, but scrubbing is bad,” she said. Gohara recommended teens use a gentle, alcohol-free exfoliant once a week, in the form of glycolic pads.
Here’s a product Gohara recommends:
Gohara says these pads, made for sensitive skin, exfoliate gently with an alcohol-free (non-drying) formula.
Don't pop pimples
Though it isn’t the absolute worst thing a teen can do (if the pimple has come to a head), according to the dermatologists we spoke to, all three warned against popping pimples. “Picking and popping pimples can lead to scarring, because you increase inflammation. Once in a while a dermatologist will do it, and some people feel a compulsion to pick and pop, but it's something that we like to discourage,” said Mir.
When to see a dermatologist for acne
If breakouts leave scars or don’t respond to a regular routine of gentle cleansing, exfoliation and spot treatment, a consultation with a dermatologist might be in order, said Gohara. “Some people need something stronger to manage their acne, like an oral antibiotic,” she said.
And teens shouldn’t get discouraged. Though acne can be really annoying, 99.9% of cases are curable, according to Gohara.