Old people who try and tell you that your teens are the best years of your life probably don’t remember the drama, the anxiety about your future or the hormones you’re dealing with right now.
High school, and your teenage years are a particularly difficult time, particularly when it comes to the confidence-crushing appearance of acne.
If you’re a teenager struggling with breakouts and blemishes, you’re probably looking for solutions anywhere you can find them. The good news is there are several that can help you, no matter how severe your acne is.
Before you start slathering your face in creams and serums your friends suggest to you, though, you need to know a little bit more about your acne, and how it differs in symptoms and solutions from the breakouts other people get.
Acne is actually a bacterial infection as a result of imbalance in your skin’s normal processes. It happens when one of four things get out of whack in your pores: oil production, dead cell disposal, bacteria growth or inflammation.
Based on these factors, you get the different types of acne, such as white and black heads, papules, cysts and others.
A “blemish” as you might call it, can actually be any of these things, but pimples and their various cousins drop in on your face, back, and chest when dead cells and natural oils (sebum) get stuck in your hair follicles and and create ideal conditions for the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes.
What causes this to happen is not one specific thing — it could be anything from problems with your diet and water intake, stress or even the weather.
But the central cause is typically male sexual hormones like androgens, which can throw all of your normal processes out of balance, especially in your adolescence.
One of the first things it can do is turn your sebum production to overdrive.
Normally, oil is an important part of your skin’s everyday health. Your pores produce it through the sebaceous gland to help your body discard dead skin cells that maybe aren’t dropping off as quickly as they should.
When things go awry, your pore can fill with too much oil and skin cells, which makes for a habitat and food source for bacteria.
Depending on what happens next, you get different kinds of acne.
While any pimple is a bad pimple, some are signs of more severe problems than others. There are different kinds of blemishes that you might be seeing.
Blackheads are open bumps filled with excess oil and dead skin.
Whiteheads are closed versions of blackheads.
Papules are inflamed whiteheads, and pustules are papules containing pus.
Nodules are pimples filled with solid materials, and cysts are a version of pus-filled pimples that can cause scarring.
There’s also fungal acne, which is the result of yeast developing inside the follicle.
Based on which ones you have, your acne can be graded from mild to severe.
Mild acne is typically made up mostly of whiteheads and blackheads, but as more papules and pustules appear, you move to moderate.
Once you see inflamed nodes and nodules, it’s considered severe.
Acne is treatable, and there are quite a few strategies you can employ to fight it off and reclaim ownership of your skin. If you’re seeing the occasional blemish, lifestyle changes and a cleansing routine may be enough to eliminate the problem, but if your acne is more serious, more involved methods might be necessary.
Here are some things you can do to get rid of acne.
Not to be too condescending, but your solution might be as simple as just taking care of that excess oil problem.
Blotting papers, astringents like witch hazel or even the occasional mask might be a good fit for you as an easy way to up your skincare routine.
Products like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and others might be recommended by a healthcare professional.
The opposite of oily skin is not, however, dry skin and if you’re seeing acne problems when oil doesn’t seem to be the problem, it’s actually possible that your breakouts are due to dehydrated skin.
Well-hydrated skin sloughs off dead cells well, but dry cells tend to get stuck in your pores, starting a snowball that leads to acne.
A proper solution? Moisturize and hydrate.
Drinking water is a huge part of skin health, and if you’re not getting it, that may be where you should start. Moisturizers are an effective part of a daily skin routine, and while you may have heard of things like aloe vera, you’re better off looking for products that contain hyaluronic acid, which in studies has been shown to help retain moisture.
Speaking of dry skin cells sticking around too long, another important part of your upkeep may just be focusing more on properly cleaning and exfoliating your skin, so those dead cells don’t stay around.
Washing your face and scrubbing is good for its health, but chemical exfoliants like retinoids might provide additional benefits if a cloth and water doesn’t feel like enough.
Retinoids (also called retinol or retin-A) are vitamin A compounds that do two things: get rid of dead skin on the top layer of your epidermis, and boost growth of new cells beneath.
There are over-the-counter options, but prescription retinols like tretinoin might have the strength you need if things are serious.
Since the 1960s, tretinoin has been an acne treatment mainstay, and it has been shown to increase collagen synthesis.
Side effects can include irritation and peeling, depending on skin type. If you have sensitive skin, you should disclose this to your healthcare provider or dermatology practitioner before beginning treatment.
A high glycemic diet, poor hydration and general stress can unbalance your natural processes, and while they can mess your skin up, they can also lead to diabetes, hypertension and a lot of other stuff you don’t want to be dealing with in a decade or two.
Avoiding bad foods and drinking a lot of water may sound like a hassle, but it’s going to pay off in the long run, for more than just your skin.
Studies aren’t conclusive on whether certain foods cause increased sebum production, but there’s a lot of research to suggest they’re correlated with acne problems in some way.
Food and water aren’t the only things, though.
Stress is also something to cut back on for your skin and overall health. If you’re having issues with it, consider consulting your healthcare professional for a referral for a therapist.
You’ve probably seen enough glow up posts on social media to know that many people win the teenage acne war by, well, turning twenty. As much as you may grow out of these problems, there are products and other solutions available to help you win the fight sooner.
Your high school years don’t have to be a waiting game — and you don’t have to blow out a certain number of birthday candles to get to feel confident in your own skin.
If you have moderate to severe acne, or persistent problems with acne, consult a healthcare professional and look into treatments.
Already tried lifestyle and dietary changes? It may be time to try adding something more powerful to your arsenal.
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Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.