The teenage years bring a whirlwind of growth and new experiences for kids — and also for their parents. A less welcome part of this life stage is acne. “The majority of teens experience some degree of acne. It’s considered a normal stage of development,” says Sarah Stein, M.D., director of pediatric dermatology with the University of Chicago Medicine and Comer Children’s Hospital.
As a parent, you may remember your own experiences with acne, and you may even hope for a smoother time for your teen. If you wonder what causes acne, and what you can do to preempt its development, rest easy. The root cause of acne is not within your control.
Changing hormones cause skin secretions to become stickier, clog pores and develop into pimples. “Parents often ask if acne is related to their child’s diet, and there’s not strong evidence that diet plays a role,” says Adena Rosenblatt, M.D., Ph.D., pediatric dermatologist with UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s Hospital.
Don’t be surprised if you notice pimples on your child’s face long before their official teen years start, Dr. Rosenblatt says.
“Parents don’t realize that the age of onset of puberty has decreased,” she says. “Younger kids, especially girls, could see acne at age 11, 10 or even 9. They may be the first in their class and parents wonder why their child is getting acne so young. It’s reassuring to know that it’s normal and a part of development during puberty.”
So what’s the good news? With consistency and attention to a healthy skin care routine, your child can treat their current acne and even prevent future breakouts. We share the latest expert advice from our UChicago Medicine experts.
Good skin care routine
While the presence of acne is not caused by a lack of cleanliness and kids should never be made to feel like they are not clean enough, an early start to a lifelong skin care routine can be helpful. Gone are the days when kids can tumble into bed or onto the school bus without some sort of skin care routine, so help them establish positive habits while they’re young. But gentle does it.
“It’s worth it for parents to gently encourage their children as pre-teens to adopt good skin care measures,” says Dr. Stein. “Gentle cleansing twice a day is a great place to start.” Washing the face with warm water and a cleanser applied with the hands, rather than with a rough cloth or brush, is best, Dr. Stein says. “Gently wash the face all the way to the hairline, then splash with warm water to rinse and pat dry with a towel,” she recommends.
“There is a misconception about exfoliation,” says Dr. Rosenblatt. “Brushes and scrubs can cause more inflammation of the skin as well as irritation.” Just as brushing their teeth twice a day is important, washing your face twice a day may help control acne.
Medications can help
If your child expresses frustration with acne breakouts, consider an over-the-counter acne therapy. If your child consumes social media, they may already have seen advertisements for a variety of different products, and it can be hard to know where to start.
“Washes and topical preparations that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can be helpful,” says Dr. Rosenblatt. “A newer product that we used to prescribe but patients can now buy over the counter is Differin gel, containing the active ingredient adapalene.” Be aware that these products can be drying to the skin, she says, but careful gradual use can balance the dryness with the benefit of reducing the development of new pimples. It is important to avoid topical products that are greasy or oily — look for labelling that indicates the product is oil-free to ensure that it won’t contribute to acne formation.
If over-the-counter remedies don’t seem to help, or for more severe acne or larger red bumps — called cystic acne — a pediatric dermatologist can prescribe medication. “We typically start with something topical like a cream or a wash, and depending on the severity, we may move on to oral medications,” says Dr. Rosenblatt.
When to see a pediatric dermatologist
A consultation with a pediatric dermatologist can be helpful to the teen who is motivated to have clearer skin.
“It’s important to meet with the teen and take the time to talk with them about optimal skin care and discover what products are good for them,” says Dr. Stein. “An open dialogue is so important because acne is a personal issue and we need to understand how it affects the individual so we can choose treatments tailored to each person’s needs.”
And, because acne can cause skin discoloration that can last for a while, particularly in skin of color, “the earlier we can control acne, the fewer dark marks we will see,” Dr. Rosenblatt says.
If you do plan a visit with a pediatric dermatologist, be sure to bring a list of products your child has used or is using, or simply take a picture of the labels, Dr. Stein recommends.
For best results, encourage your child to be consistent with their care regimen — and patient, too. If there’s a big event like prom coming up, no medication is going to work overnight.
“It’s a process, and a condition that we don’t cure but we manage. Our goal is to find treatments that are safe and easy to use so that teens will continue to use them for several years,” Dr. Stein says. “We have fantastic treatments and more products are always being introduced. We should be able to find a treatment that works well for each individual.”
Much more than a cosmetic concern, teen acne can impact self-esteem and self-confidence, so if it’s concerning to your teen, it makes sense to explore treatment, says Dr. Stein.
“Acne is not something everyone has to suffer through,” she says. “Clearer skin can be truly important for a teen’s self-image and self-confidence.”
Learn about UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s unique approach to the care of women and children. Discover uchicagomedicine.org and visit UChicago Medicine’s pediatric dermatologists in Hyde Park, Naperville and Tinley Park.