What You & Your Teen Need to Know About Skin Care


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If you have a teenager in your life, chances are good that he or she will struggle with breakouts. In fact, the American Association of Dermatology estimates that 85% of teenagers will have acne at some point.

It all seems too unfair--just when kids are hypersensitive about their appearance, acne shows up, wreaking havoc on their self-esteem and confidence. For young people especially, the benefits of clear skin are undeniable. Unfortunately, acne is one of the trickiest skin disorders to treat. But, if you have all the facts and a variety of realistic options, you can help your teenager greatly reduce or even eliminate breakouts.

Here's what you need to know to put together an effective, easy-to-follow skin-care routine that addresses all the causes of acne. Your teenager, believe it or not, will thank you!
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Recommended Skin-Care for Teens

Why Do Teenagers Break Out?

  • Mostly because of raging hormones: During the teen years the body produces excessive amounts of hormones, especially androgens, which trigger oil production. The more oil produced inside the pores, the more likely the pores will become clogged and rupture. Bacteria, called Propionibacterium acnes, begin to multiply, resulting in inflammation and causing a red, swollen, and unsightly pimple.
  • Not cleaning their face twice a day: Although dirty skin is not a cause of acne, if you have acne and you don't cleanse your face twice a day, there will be a build-up of dead skin cells that will clog pores and cause breakouts. For girls: Not completely removing your makeup at night will definitely make matters worse.
  • Exposure to irritants: Ingredients such as alcohol, menthol, camphor, eucalyptus, and fragrant plant extracts cause inflammation, which in turn increases oil production, resulting in more pimples. Avoid products that include these (or any) irritants!
  • Applying pore-clogging moisturizers, facial masks, foundations, or concealers: Many girls pile on the makeup, especially concealers, or they use cream moisturizers with pore-clogging ingredients. Beautypedia can help your teen select products that are far less likely to cause irritation.
  • Inconsistent skin care: The secret to clearer skin is to stick to a consistent, effective skin-care routine. Although it is impossible to cure acne, you can keep it under control by using well-formulated products. Reassure your teen that consistency and patience are essential!
  • Hair-styling products: Heavy application of gels, mousses, pomades, or hairsprays to the hair that falls on your face can cause breakouts in those areas. Keeping the hair off your face and reducing the amount of styling products can help a great deal.

How Can I Help My Teen Establish a Skin-Care Routine?

  • Focus on skin type, rather than on age: There's no difference in how a 15-year-old or a 50-year-old should treat acne--age is not a skin type! In fact, most acne routines for teens contain needless irritants, which will only lead to more oily skin and create more pimples.
  • Streamline their skin-care routine: It doesn't take a multitude of skin-care products and a complex routine to combat acne, and for teens such a process is probably too elaborate for them to follow anyway. All they need to do is use a well-formulated cleanser, toner, exfoliant, and topical disinfectant, plus a sunscreen every morning (which for a girl can be included in the foundation and/or pressed powder), and possibly a lightweight toner/gel moisturizer at night.
  • Combat false advertising: Teenagers are inundated with as much anti-acne hype as women are with antiwrinkle hype. We know all too well that this kind of marketing is seductive, often making outrageous claims that lead to disappointing results. Help your teenager keep their expectations realistic by discussing what is and what is not possible from skin-care products.
  • Don't forget their fragile egos: Peer pressure is brutal for teens, and their desire to fit in dictates a lot of their behavior and choices. That's why acne breakouts can deliver a devastating blow to your teen's self-esteem. Acne is difficult at any age, but for teenagers it is tormenting. For them a pimple is not merely a pimple!

What Really Clears Acne?

Here is a step-by-step guide to everything you and your teen need to know to attain clearer skin--and it's a lot easier than you might think!

Step 1. Use a gentle cleanser: To stop redness, help skin heal, and reduce oil production it is essential to wash twice a day with a mild, water-soluble cleanser. Always avoid soaps and bar cleansers, which are too drying for skin; the ingredients that keep a bar cleanser or bar soap in bar form can clog pores. Also avoid abrasive scrub cleansers because the irritation can make matters worse--acne simply cannot be scrubbed away.

Step 2. Exfoliate: One of the proven causes of acne is a build-up of dead skin cells blocking the pores, but it's also possible for the pore lining to become abnormally thick with too many skin cells. Both can cause oil to back up in the pore, which starts the process of making pimples. The best way to exfoliate is to use a product containing salicylic acid (BHA). BHA not only effectively and gently exfoliates skin on the surface, but also exfoliates inside the pore, kills bacteria, and has anti-redness properties. Paula's Choice is one of only a handful of companies that have formulated effective BHA exfoliants. The improvement you'll see is often nothing short of amazing!

Step 3. Eliminate acne-causing bacteria: Study after study has shown that benzoyl peroxide kills P. acnes bacteria. It is the most effective and widely available over-the-counter anti-acne treatment. Look for products with a lightweight texture that don't include irritants of any kind. Remember, Beautypedia can help you find the best products for the least amount of money.

Step 4. Protect against sun damage: Skin cannot heal acne if it's battling daily sun damage at the same time. Broad-spectrum sun protection from a well-formulated, lightweight sunscreen with SPF 25 or higher will accelerate the healing process for acne and will keep your skin protected from further damage. For girls, foundations and/or pressed powders with sunscreen are great alternatives.

Step 5. Absorb oil: Unfortunately, there's no way to topically control oil production caused by hormones, but you can help control the oil that comes to the skin's surface by not using overly emollient products and by absorbing oil whenever possible. The best options include using a gentle clay mask periodically and using oil-blotting papers throughout the day. It's imperative that whatever product you use does not contain irritants like menthol, camphor, or alcohol, which are surprisingly common in most absorbent anti-acne products.

Step 6: Squeeze carefully: It's almost impossible to leave bothersome blemishes alone, but over-squeezing or picking will cause scarring and make everything look and feel worse. However, if you know how to properly remove the contents of a pimple and then reduce the inflammation afterwards (Step 1 through Step 5 above), doing so can actually promote healing. To learn how, follow our step-by-step guide.

Which Anti-Acne Products are Best for My Teen?

  • For over-the-counter options The Paula's Choice Research Team's Best Acne Products list will prove invaluable.
  • Whatever treatment plan you choose, the products must be formulated without irritants.
  • Feel free to mix and match products from different brands to determine what works for you.
  • If 6 months of trying a variety of over-the-counter options fails, consider seeing a dermatologist for prescription options. Differin, EpiDuo, Tazorac, and other prescription retinoids all have been proven effective in treating acne.

Acne Myths You & Your Teenager Probably Think Are True

  • Acne can be "scrubbed" away: FALSE!

    Every other acne commercial features a fresh-faced teenager, happily scrubbing their way to clear skin. The fact is that acne is not caused by dirt, and scrubbing skin too hard or too often risks tearing and irritation. The best way to exfoliate is with a non-manual chemical exfoliant containing salicylic acid (BHA), and don't rinse it away.
  • Only teens suffer from acne: FALSE!

    Any person at any age can get acne. Teenagers are more prone to acne because of overactive hormones during puberty, but there is no guarantee that acne will clear up at a certain age. Lots of people who didn't have breakouts during their teen years struggle with acne in their 20s and beyond.
  • Getting a tan can clear up acne: FALSE!

    A tan may make your skin look better for a short time, but it doesn't heal acne, inhibit oil production, or prevent bacteria growth. And, keep in mind that down the road, unprotected sun exposure and getting a tan is a major cause of wrinkles, discoloration, and skin cancer.
  • Chocolate and greasy foods cause acne: FALSE!

    There are no specific foods that cause acne for everyone. The only way diet plays a role in causing acne is if you are allergic to certain foods, such as dairy, wheat, nuts, or some fish. Experimenting is the only way to find out whether or not such culprits are a problem for you.
  • Acne is contagious: FALSE!

    The kind of bacteria that cause acne, P. acnes, is anaerobic, which means it doesn't like air or sunlight. It lives below the skin's surface, and doesn't leave, because if it did it would die; therefore, it cannot be transferred.

  • Skin-care products tingle because they're "working": FALSE!

    A cooling or tingling sensation is caused by irritating ingredients such as menthol and alcohol. These irritants, unfortunately, are all too commonly included in anti-acne products because they produce this misleading sensation. Don't mistake that tingle as a sign the product is working to combat acne; it's working alright, but only to cause irritation--it's not making your acne any better. Ready for the truth? Alcohol and menthol stimulate oil production in the pore lining, making oily skin and acne even worse!

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula's Choice.

Sources: Cutis, August 2010, pages: 94–99, 103–108; International Journal of Dermatology, April 2010, pages 448–456; Clinics in Dermatology, January-February 2010, pages 12–16; The New Ideal in Skin Health: Separating Fact from Fiction, Carl Thornfeldt and Krista Bourne, 2010, page 61; Journal of Health Psychology, November 2009, pages 1105–1118; Expert Opinion in Pharmacotherapy, April 2008, pages 955–971; Dermatologic Surgery, January 2008, pages 45–50; Skin Therapy Letter, August-September 2004, pages 1–3, 9

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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