Coping With Teen Acne
Whether correct or not, our society teaches children that how they look is as important as who they are -- often more important. These lessons can lead to horrific ramifications. Depression, eating disorders, self-isolation or social anxiety are all conditions that can result from the pressure teens feel to "look good." So what can teens do when such conditions are caused by acne?
With proper education and treatment, teens can stop worrying about their skin and concentrate on what's really important to them: their lives.
About 95 percent of American teens suffer from acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. As some cases are less severe than others, teens may be able to conceal their skin condition with makeup, tinted skin treatments or by using their hair or clothing to conceal affected areas.
"Because [a teen's] image has been interfered with by the pimples, camouflage is very important," says Dr. Sadia Baxt, a certified dermatologist in Paramus, N.J. "Certainly young girls who are going to school can use makeup to cover their pimples so they have an enhanced view of themselves. I've even given a tinted cream to the boys that allows them makeup-like coverage for their pimples, as it gives them the camouflage they need and want."
Michelle Smith, a writer from Chico, Calif., recalls the frustration of having acne when she was 13. "I would get [blemishes] on my chin, the sides of my face along my jaw line, my chest, and my back and shoulders. I would wear clothes that covered them or long hair to hide my acne," Smith says. "I can remember walking around trying to hide my face with my books or leaning with my hand covering my pimples. It was such an awful thing -- feeling ugly."
Diet Plays a Small Role
One of the most common misconceptions regarding acne is that eating chocolate or greasy foods causes breakouts. Yet, Baxt says, only a small percentage of cases are actually inflamed by diet. "There is no scientific evidence that diet plays a role with adolescent acne," Baxt says. "I do feel that stimulants in the diet may play a role in the pustule component of acne -- the white heads. However, in adult acne, diet may play a role and some teenagers have an adult form of acne. So I advise the teens I treat to stay away from alcohol, caffeine, shellfish and nuts."
Acne's association with adolescence and unclean skin causes teens to fear how they are viewed by their peers. Fear of judgment can often have an impact on self-esteem and self-worth.
"I often see teens too late in the development of acne to help with [self-esteem] as an issue," Baxt says. "There are so many myths that have been perpetrated about pimples on the adolescent population. Teens tend to feel dirty and that no one is going to accept them or the way they look.
"Parents often think 'They have pimples, I had pimples, it's just teenage acne and it will go away by itself.' But while it is going away by itself -- which usually gets worse before it gets better -- the whole concept of the teenager being judged by his peers ... is a significant factor and plays a large part in how teens feel about themselves."
Self-esteem problems associated with acne are never as clear as when they happen to you. "I had always had pimples growing up, but it became much worse as I got older," says Jennifer Reno, a registered nurse from southeastern Michigan. "At 17, the [acne] became quite bad. It was worst on my face. I was very self-conscious about it. My self-esteem at that time was incredibly low ... I didn't really withdraw from activities, but I was more aware of looking different, and wondered how people perceived me."
Treat It Early
When should parents seek treatment for their teen's skin blemishes? The sooner the better.
"Parents who have children and teens who are just starting to show signs of acne -- and who themselves have had a strong history of acne -- should know that it's time to get [their children] into the dermatologist," Baxt says. "That's where a lot of the focus should be -- get these kids in early enough to be treated. I don't think you make a teen self-conscious by saying, 'You know, I noticed you have been buying over-the-counter things for your face and maybe it is time we see somebody about it.' You have to figure out where your teen is and be responsive."
Understanding what acne is should be the first step in treatment. It's a multifactor disease, with no single cause, says Baxt. It's also an inflammatory disease. "Rubbing, picking and manipulating, and hot water are not going to help an inflammatory disease, they are going to make it more inflamed," she says.
Instead, Baxt suggests teens wash with cool or lukewarm water, using their fingertips -- no scrubbing or buff-puffing -- and applying over-the-counter treatments. If your teen's skin doesn't respond to this treatment, a dermatologist may be needed.
Contrary to social beliefs, all acne is not responsive to the same products. What works for one teen may not work for another. "The problem is you have to know what kind of acne is present to treat it properly," Baxt says. "There are a lot of over-the-counter products that are very effective -- benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid -- for people who have oily skin and acne. The problem comes with people with sensitive or dry skin, as some of these products are extremely harsh. They may not do as well with these over-the-counter products and they usually need some professional help."
Cause Could Be Medical
If a teen has sought a dermatologist's help without success, the acne's cause may be medical. Hormonal abnormalities, ovarian conditions, thyroid difficulties and even diabetes can contribute to the presence of acne. "There are systemic diseases that are associated with acne. This is especially true in adults and in teens that are unresponsive to acne treatments," Baxt says. "Polycystic ovaries, thyroid problems and diabetes are all associated with acne. It shouldn't be considered that this is just acne and it will go away. If it doesn't go away or respond to treatment, other issues should be looked at. A dermatologist can help guide the parent and the teen into what should be evaluated."
Acne is treatable. Teens do not have to live blemish-filled lives, trying everything on the market or hiding their face to avoid being seen. "Acne is not a fact of life you have to accept," Baxt says. "You can win the battle over acne."