If you're a teen, chances are pretty good that you have some acne. Almost 8 in
10 teens have acne, as do many adults.
Acne is so common that it's considered a normal part of puberty. But knowing that
doesn't always make it easier when you're looking at a big pimple on your face in
the mirror. So what is acne, and what can you do about it?
What Is Acne and What Causes It?
Acne is a condition of the skin that shows up as different types of bumps. These
bumps can be blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, or cysts. Teens get acne because of
the hormonal changes that come with puberty. If your parents had acne as teens, it's
more likely that you will, too. The good news is that, for most people, acne goes
away almost completely by the time they are out of their teens.
The type of acne that a lot of teens get is called acne vulgaris
(the meaning of "vulgaris" isn't as bad as it sounds — it means "of the common
type"). It usually shows up on the face, neck, shoulders, upper back, and chest.
The hair follicles, or pores, in your skin contain sebaceous glands
(also called oil glands). These glands make sebum, which is an oil
that lubricates your hair and skin. Most of the time, the sebaceous glands make the
right amount of sebum. As the body begins to mature and develop, though, hormones
stimulate the sebaceous glands to make more sebum.
Pores become clogged if there is too much sebum and too many dead skin cells. Bacteria
(especially one called Propionibacterium acnes) can then get trapped inside
the pores and multiply. This causes swelling and redness — the start of
If a pore gets clogged up and closes but bulges out from the skin, you're left
with a whitehead. If a pore gets clogged up but stays open, the top
surface can darken and you're left with a blackhead. Sometimes the
wall of the pore opens, allowing sebum, bacteria, and dead skin cells to make their
way under the skin — and you're left with a small, red bump called a pimple
(sometimes pimples have a pus-filled top from the body's reaction to the bacterial
Clogged pores that open up very deep in the skin can cause nodules,
which are infected lumps or cysts that are bigger than pimples and can be painful.
Occasionally, large cysts that seem like acne may be boils caused by a staph
What Can I Do About Acne?
To help prevent the oil buildup that can contribute to acne, wash your face once
or twice a day with a mild soap and warm water. Don't scrub your
face hard with a washcloth — acne can't be scrubbed away, and scrubbing may
actually make it worse by irritating the skin and pores. Try cleansing your face as
gently as you can.
If you wear makeup or sunscreen, make sure it's labeled "noncomedogenic" or "nonacnegenic."
This means it won't clog your pores and contribute to acne. And when you're washing
your face, be sure you take the time to remove all of your makeup so it doesn't clog
Acne isn't really helped by the sun. Although a tan can temporarily make acne look
less severe, it won't help it go away permanently — and some people find that
the oils their skin produces after being in the sun make their pimples worse.
If you use hair sprays or gels, try to keep them away from your face, as they also
can clog pores. If you have long hair that touches your face, be sure to wash it often
enough to keep oil away. And if you have an after-school job that puts you in contact
with oil — like in a fast-food restaurant or gas station, for example —
be sure to wash your face well when you get home. It also can help to wash your face
after you've been exercising.
Many over-the-counter lotions and creams containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide
are available to help prevent acne and clear it up at the same time. You can experiment
with these to see which helps. Be sure to follow the instructions exactly —
don't use more than you're supposed to at one time (your skin may get too
dried out and feel and look worse) and follow any label directions about allergy
Some people do find that they notice their breakouts get more severe when they
eat too much of a certain food. If you're one of them, it's worth trying to cut back
on that food to see what happens.
What if I Get Acne Anyway?
Sometimes even though they wash properly and try lotions and oil-free makeup, people
get acne anyway — and this is totally normal. In fact, some girls who normally
have a handle on their acne may find that it comes out a few days before they get
their period. This is called premenstrual acne, and about 7 out of 10 women get it
from changes in hormones in the body.
Some teens who have acne can get help from a doctor or dermatologist (a doctor
who specializes in skin problems). A doctor may treat the acne with prescription medicines.
Depending on the person's acne, this might mean using prescription creams that prevent
pimples from forming, taking antibiotics to kill the bacteria that help create pimples,
or if the acne is severe, taking stronger medicines such as isotretinoin, or even
having minor surgery. Some girls find that birth control pills help to clear up their
If you look in the mirror and see a pimple, don't touch it, squeeze
it, or pick at it. This might be hard to do — it can be pretty
tempting to try to get rid of a pimple. But when you play around with pimples, you
can cause even more inflammation by popping them or opening them up. Plus, the oil
from your hands can't help! More important, though, picking at pimples can leave tiny,
on your face.