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How to prevent and treat teen acne

University of Minnesota Health Pediatric Dermatologist Sheilagh Maguiness, MD, shares acne care tips for parents and teens.
Pediatric Dermatologist Sheilagh Maguiness, MD (pictured), offers tips for treating and preventing teen acne. Maguiness, who sees patients at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, recommends a healthy diet low in processed sugars to help breakouts.
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Acne: It’s an unfortunate reality for teens. While the factors that cause pimples to develop are complex, there are easy ways to help prevent and treat outbreaks when they occur.

Acne can be caused by hormones, a genetic predisposition, bacteria and overactive sebaceous glands—which secrete oil onto the skin and hair. People even wonder whether specific foods can cause acne. Truth is, we don’t actually have scientifically proven answer to this question yet. Still, we know that a healthy diet low in processed sugars is good for you, and early evidence shows that it’s probably helpful for reducing acne as well.

We asked Pediatric Dermatologist Sheilagh Maguiness, MD, for some helpful tips and information for teens and parents battling acne. Scroll down to read more.

Generally speaking, there are four types of acne.

Acne is commonly divided into four types: whiteheads, blackheads, small red pimples called papules or pustules and cyst-like nodules. It usually starts to appear around puberty, but sometimes kids will develop acne as early as 9 or 10 years of age.  Acne typically starts with mild whiteheads and blackheads. Then, it can turn into red and inflamed pimples or cysts, which create pit-like scarring.

Learn more about University of Minnesota Pediatric Dermatology care.

Cleanse, don’t pick.

A good skin care routine always involves washing your face. It’s best to use gentle cleansers twice daily or after vigorous exercise. Avoid over-scrubbing or over ‘exfoliating.’ Because acne is not caused by dirt, you don’t need fancy soaps or scrubs. In fact, over cleansing can actually be harmful because it may dry out your skin, which makes medications (if needed) less effective.

Those with acne should never pick or pop pimples. This can lead to scarring, brown spots on the skin, pain and more severe bumps.

When needed, use benzoyl peroxide.

Over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide is a great first step for treatment of acne breakouts. It comes in many different forms, including cleansers, gels and lotions. Watch out though: Benzoyl peroxide can bleach towels and clothing. Sometimes this treatment can also dehydrate or irritate skin, so consider using an oil-free moisturizer along with the treatment. Look for labels that say “non-acnegenic” or “non-comedogenic.”

Adapalene, a new, over-the-counter option, is a mild, topical retinoid cream that can treat and prevent acne. It was previously available only by prescription. Adapalene is best applied nightly, using a pea-sized amount. This small dab of gel is enough to treat the entire face (less is more!). If dryness or irritation occurs, your teen can take a few days off to allow the skin to rehydrate. For some, this product works best when applied every other day, paired with an oil-free moisturizer. It usually takes about three months for these at-home approaches to produce results.

Want more tips for controlling acne? Check out this video featuring Sheilagh Maguiness, MD.

When all else fails, dermatologists can help treat stubborn acne.

If these gentle cleansing and over-the-counter options do not resolve the problem, you might consider a visit to a dermatologist. Severe acne that is painful, red or inflamed will often require stronger creams, oral antibiotics or hormonal therapies that can only be prescribed by a doctor.

In rare cases, what looks like acne might actually be a symptom of another underlying medical problem.  If your child has persistent red bumps on his or her face without blackheads, or if they show acne between 4 and 8 years old, see a specialist. This is a sign that something else may be wrong, and it’s best to address the problem as early as possible.

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