Finding the Best Acne Treatment for Teens

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

If you’re looking for the best  teen acne treatment, you aren’t alone.  Teen acne is an incredibly common condition among people of any age, from elementary school to retirement, but it’s even more likely to develop during the teenage years. This is largely due to hormonal shifts and big stressors that take place around that age. Even though all acne is caused by the same basic factors of inflammation, bacteria, and oil production, there are still different kinds of acne that respond best to different treatment. Teenage acne is typically the result of increased oil production, so the best acne treatment for teens is to reduce oil buildup, although there are other useful solutions as well.

Teen Acne
Most teens experience acne at some point, so we want to help you find the best acne treatment for teens.

How Stress Contributes to Teenage Acne

Because teenagers don’t usually have to worry about paying rent or raising children (although some teens face those stressors as well), adults sometimes forget that teenagers are in a period of transition, in almost every way. The body is transitioning as hormones make dramatic shifts, many people transition from friend group to friend group, looking for somewhere to belong, and teens are preparing to transition from student to whatever they decide to be after high school, a decision that can cause an enormous amount of stress. Dermatologists believe that these stressors play a big role in the increased level of acne during the teenage years. The best acne treatment for teens addresses the stressors that might be contributing to their acne.

Stress is a major factor in any kind of acne because stress leads to inflammation, one of the main causes of acne. Stress is inherently linked to the fight, flight, or freeze response because our bodies don’t recognize the difference between a literal, physical threat and an emotional one. When we are stressed about our relationships or a big presentation, our bodies interpret these stressors as threats and release stress hormones like cortisol to help prepare our bodies to fight the threat.

One way the body prepares for a fight is through inflammation. If the skin is slightly inflamed, irritants are less likely to penetrate the skin and cause distracting itchiness or pain. This may help when facing physical danger, but when you’re lying awake at night stressing about a bio test, all the inflammation does is cause acne. Before we can dig into why inflammation causes acne, we need to consider the other hormones that play a vital role in teenage acne: testosterone and estrogen.

Testosterone, Estrogen, and Teenage Acne

Hormonal shifts start to occur for most people between the ages of 10 and 14, and they usually don’t settle into their new “normal” until age 18-20. During those years in between, hormones can vary widely, wreaking all kinds of havoc on the body. The hormonal changes most closely linked with acne are the fluctuating levels of testosterone and estrogen.

Everyone produces both testosterone and estrogen. Typically, men have higher levels of testosterone, women have higher levels of estrogen, and nonbinary or intersex folks can have any number of combinations of the two. When it comes to acne, it doesn’t matter exactly how much testosterone or how much estrogen your body makes—what matters is the relationship between them.

Every individual has “normal,” or baseline, levels of each hormone, and if everything is working properly, this baseline level should not cause acne. However, if testosterone increases or estrogen decreases, acne could ensue. For example, many women experience increased acne in the week before their period. This is because estrogen levels typically drop at that time, and because estrogen balances out testosterone, this decrease creates a relative increase in testosterone levels.

On its own, testosterone doesn’t cause acne, but increases in testosterone (or decreases in estrogen) can cause the skin to produce more oil. For most teenagers of any sex, testosterone and estrogen levels are always shifting and changing, so the skin may be consistently oily. This can lead to acne troubles because oil production is one of the three main factors in acne formation.

How Acne Forms

Finding the best acne treatment for teens can be tricky, but it’s easier if you know which kind of acne you have and how it formed. Inflammation, bacteria, and oil production are the three main factors to consider when treating acne.

All acne starts with inflammation. When the skin is inflamed, oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria get trapped beneath the surface, leading to everything from blackheads to cysts. When you’re stressed or when something irritates the skin (like picking at your acne), the inflammation response is triggered and the skin starts to swell slightly.

When the skin is inflamed, p. acnes bacteria can cause pimples and cysts, but most of the time, p. acnes live peacefully on the surface of the skin. Their main food source is the oil your skin naturally creates, so when left alone, p. acnes can actually help reduce oil buildup. The problem only starts when bacteria get trapped in a pore due to inflammation.

With teenage acne, inflammation and bacteria can be a problem, but the biggest acne culprit is excess oil production. The skin always produces a certain amount of oil to protect itself from irritants, but when hormones shift, oil production can go into overdrive and clog pores. The best acne treatment for teens helps reduce this excess oil.

The Best Acne-Fighting Ingredients for Teens

Instead of declaring one miracle product that we believe is the best acne treatment for teens, we think it’s more realistic to recommend the best acne-fighting ingredients for teens. We recommend looking for products that contain one of two ingredients (or both!) that are especially helpful for teenage acne: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

Salicylic acid is a gentle exfoliant that can break up the oil and dead skin cells causing blackheads and whiteheads, and using it consistently can prevent pores from clogging in the first place. We like to recommend this ingredient for teenage acne specifically because excess oil is very common for teens, and salicylic acid can keep oil from building up in the pores.

At Exposed Skin Care, we offer several products with safe but effective concentrations of salicylic acid, including our Facial Cleanser, Clearing Tonic, and Clear Pore Serum. Each of these products contain either 0.5% or 1% salicylic acid, and they are all good options for keeping excess oil to a minimum and treating blackheads and whiteheads.

The other ingredient we like to recommend for the best acne treatment for teens is benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide carries oxygen beneath the surface of the skin which kills p. acnes bacteria because they are anaerobic, meaning they can only survive if they stay away from oxygen. Applying benzoyl peroxide consistently can treat pimples that are already on the skin, but it can also prevent new pimples from forming by lowering the number of p. acnes bacteria on the surface of the skin.

Our Acne Treatment Serum contains 3.5% benzoyl peroxide, which is strong enough to kill 99% of p. acnes bacteria. We recommend using it along with our Facial Cleanser, Clearing Toner, and Clear Pore Serum in our Basic Kit.

Finding the Best Acne Treatment for Teens
The best acne treatment for teens prevents and treats acne while keeping the skin healthy.

Teen Acne Tips

It’s true, these kinds of articles are rarely written by teenagers themselves, but this author had plenty of acne in her teens, just a few short years ago. I remember that it wasn’t “just acne” or “not that big a deal,” no matter what my friends with annoyingly clear skin said, and I remember Googling the best acne treatment for teens about once a week. Here are some of the tips I wish I’d found as a teenager:

  1. Take your acne seriously, but don’t let people bully you into feeling ashamed.

Acne can contribute to serious mental health issues, like low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, so don’t let anyone tell you it’s no big deal. But at the same time, don’t listen to toxic messages about acne. That means when those awful commercials about “getting rid of embarrassing acne” or “ugly blackheads” come on, mute your computer or change the channel. It means that if your dermatologist talks about your acne like it’s cancer, tell your parents you’d like to try a different doctor if possible. It means that it’s okay to be upset about your acne, but it’s not okay for others to tell you that you’re supposed to feel that way.

  1. Patience and consistency are the best tips for treating acne.

Sadly, it can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks for any acne product to really work. I know I tried several products in my teens for a week or two, then, discouraged with my continued acne, I gave up and switched products. I stayed trapped in this cycle until I was nearly in my 20s when I realized my acne would never go away unless I decided to really stick to a skin care routine. Once you do your research and decide on a treatment system, follow your routine as best you can for a full 6 weeks. If you miss a day or two, don’t panic or give up. Just start back up again. It’s better to continue after a missed day than to stop completely.

  1. It’s cheesy, but true: you aren’t alone.

Acne is one of the most common skin conditions in the world: nearly 80% of people have acne between ages 11 and 30. But just knowing that isn’t always enough. That’s where the internet can do wonderful or terrible things. There is a lot of nasty stuff about acne on the internet, because people can find a way to be nasty about anything. The good thing is, there are also really helpful, supportive places on the internet, like this website or acne forums. There are a lot of people out there who might feel just like you, and you can support each other through these difficulties.

Teen Acne Treatment Tips for Parents:

Full disclosure, I am not a parent, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt, but I was a teenager with acne. My hope is to provide tips for parents to avoid misunderstandings and to lead to better interactions with your teenager about acne and skin care.

  1. Be aware of the messages your teenager is receiving.

You might not be enforcing the idea that acne is inherently shameful, but your teenager needs you to actively negate those messages of shame that they hear from the media. They may not know where this sense of shame is coming from, and if you don’t provide positive messages about acne, they might assume it’s coming from you. This can lead to a lot of tension and misunderstandings. If a shame-based acne commercial comes on, say something. You can laugh and say how ridiculous it is that acne is anything to be ashamed of, or you could get upset and say how much you hate those kinds of commercials and the lies they spread. The important part is to challenge those negative messages without making your teenager feel like it’s a lecture. Casual is typically better than intense.

  1. Provide helpful reminders for your teen to keep up with their acne treatment routine, but only once and a while.

Constantly checking in might make your teen feel like you don’t trust them. Even if you know they’re forgetting to do their routine in the evening, resist the urge to remind them every single night, and definitely don’t yell or punish them. The best acne treatment for teens requires consistency, but it also requires parental support and trust. It is their skin and they are getting older; you need to trust them to do this at least partially on their own. This sense of trust can actually build trust in other areas of the relationship as well.

  1. Don’t shut down your teenager’s emotions about their acne.

Even when this is well-meaning, it can be more harmful than helpful. Some parents try to tell teenagers that acne isn’t a big deal because it won’t matter in 10 years, but you would likely not say that to a fellow adult, even about a more trivial problem, like drama over the holidays. When you tell your teen that their problems won’t matter once they graduate or once enough time goes by, you’re overlooking the importance of the teenage years. It’s true that they aren’t adults yet, but they are still people with real problems and complex feelings, and they need to know you take them seriously.

Teen Acne Treatments
It can be difficult to develop a strong relationship with your teen, but listening to them and taking their concerns seriously can go a long way.