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How to Manage Acne in College

Vicky Davis, FNP

Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 1/18/2022

Ah, college: the midpoint between the horrors of high school and the misery of the working world. Just kidding. Kinda.

College is a great opportunity for experiences and new viewpoints, as well as for exploring yourself and defining who it is you really want to be. Oh, and learning stuff, too. 

Unfortunately, college is also a mid-point between two less optimism-inducing things: adolescent acne and adult acne. 

For college students suffering from acne, things can get complicated fast. Whether it’s a hormonal shift, a new source of stress or a sudden and severe change in diet, there are many things that can cause acne in college. 

Managing it is another thing altogether.

Why Acne Can Affect You In College

College is arguably one of the worst times in your life for acne — or, at least, it has the capacity to be. 

Acne (also known as acne vulgaris) is a result of imbalances in your skin health. When your oil production goes haywire, it creates an ideal breeding ground for bacteria that cause acne. 

These bacteria feed off of the dead cells that may likewise begin to fill your pores. When this happens, you have a bacteria factory on your hands.

And imbalances can also be caused or exacerbated by stress. Stress acne is a huge problem for college students, many of whom accidentally hit all of the risk factor increases on a regular basis, including poor diet, stress, poor sleep and more.

Worse yet, when you’re in college, you’re in a crucial period between age groups for types of acne. That means that, depending on your age, you might experience both adolescent and adult acne issues between freshman year and graduation. 

Fun, right? 

College Acne: Is it Adolescent Acne or Adult Acne?

Acne is far more likely to be caused in your adolescence (which can impact your skin into your late teens) with hormone activity and excessive oil production — either of these things can knock your skin off balance and increase the severity of acne.

In adolescence, puberty causes these hormonal imbalances. But they can actually last or begin occurring into your twenties and thirties. This is sometimes referred to as persistent acne — where your adolescent acne persists into your adulthood.

At that point, your acne might be due to less efficiency in your skin, which may be the result of those dead cells piling up, creating a dry, rough landscape that usually causes your sebaceous glands to produce more oil.

It’s sort of a lose-lose situation. 

Worse yet, adult acne impacts the happiness of its sufferers more than adolescents, according to studies.

College acne may be adolescent or persistent acne, and depending on which form you have, your treatment may vary. 

This is why it’s important to consult a healthcare professional if your acne is causing you chronic adverse effects — like embarrassment or low self-esteem, pain or discomfort.

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How to Manage Acne While in College

Managing acne in college is no different than managing acne elsewhere — it just may be a bit harder. 

Regardless, there are certain things you need to get in the habit of doing to keep your skin looking clear, healthy and glowy.

Manage Acne Bacteria

Nothing is going to help your skin if you can’t get the bacteria under control. 

This might be best done with products that limit oil production, because the bacteria lives in oil. 

But it might also be best to ask for prescription medications if you feel overwhelmed. 

Antibacterials have been shown to generate results, especially when used with complementary products. 

Exfoliate to Remove Dead Cells

Dead cells feed that bacteria — getting rid of them with scrubs can work, but chemical exfoliants have been shown to do that and more. 

In fact, in certain prescription forms, retinol can help you clear away dead cells while also promoting collagen production

Look Into Retinoids

Retinoids like tretinoin are considered a mainstay in the treatment of acne. Like retinol, which is also a type of retinoid, tretinoin helps unclog pores and help generate new skin cells while clearing away old dead ones. 

It’s available by prescription only, which means you’ll need to see your healthcare provider to learn more about it. It’s available in different strengths, and comes in liquid, gel and cream formations. 

Remove the Oil to Restrict Bacteria Growth

One of the simplest ways to deal with acne is to moderate and control your oil levels

The easiest way to do this is by removing it, which can be done with simple blotting tools or with products like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid if you need the extra help.

Moisturize to Prevent Dry Cells

Of course the other problem your skin might have is that it’s too dry. Having dry skin or a dry skin type is a treatable condition. 

In this case, removing dry, dead skin cells is an important part of maintenance, as is keeping your skin moisture levels higher. 

Hyaluronic acid is a great component for skin moisture — research indicates that it can retain 1,000 times its weight in water, helping your skin increase its on-hand supply. 

Lifestyle Changes

On the big picture level, there are things outside of the ecosystem of your pores that matter to your skin health and acne resistance. 

If you’re dealing with higher stress levels or are persistently dehydrated, it may be contributing to your acne in the worst ways. 

Studies aren’t sure how much the contents of your diet affect your acne, but what is known is that more water and less sugar benefits your health generally, and anything that has the potential to decrease inflammation can have skin health benefits.

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What To Do About Acne in College

Whether you currently have mild acne or severe acne, whether you’ve always had bad skin, or recently you’ve noticed that something is making your acne worse, there are solutions.

Handling acne as a college student is about taking care of yourself, and that’s one of the first things that many people learn about the hard way during their first years out of the house they grew up in. 

And those changes in your body, diet, hormones, and habits can all have a serious impact on your skin health

While we’ve discussed the variety of potential solutions to college acne, it must be stated that a healthcare provider is really the best tool you can use in your skincare routine

Visiting a healthcare professional to ask questions about the issues you have with your skin is the best way to find the teen acne treatment that will actually work for you. 

Doing that will give you the tools you need to manage your acne in way fewer than eight semesters, and while you may not get a degree in clear skin, you’ll certainly be proud to display the results thereafter.

7 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Jegasothy, S. M., Zabolotniaia, V., & Bielfeldt, S. (2014). Efficacy of a New Topical Nano-hyaluronic Acid in Humans. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 7(3), 27–29. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3970829/.
  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. (n.d.). CAN THE RIGHT DIET GET RID OF ACNE? Retrieved March 5, 2021, from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/causes/diet
  3. Rodan, K., Fields, K., Majewski, G., & Falla, T. (2016). Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and reconstructive surgery. Global open, 4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp), e1152. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5172479/.
  4. Endly, D. C., & Miller, R. A. (2017). Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 10(8), 49–55. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605215/.
  5. Acne. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/acne.
  6. Ko, H. C., Song, M., Seo, S. H., Oh, C. K., Kwon, K. S., & Kim, M. B. (2009). Prospective, open-label, comparative study of clindamycin 1%/benzoyl peroxide 5% gel with adapalene 0.1% gel in Asian acne patients: efficacy and tolerability. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology : JEADV, 23(3), 245–250.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19438817/.
  7. Skroza, N., Tolino, E., Mambrin, A., Zuber, S., Balduzzi, V., Marchesiello, A., Bernardini, N., Proietti, I., & Potenza, C. (2018). Adult Acne Versus Adolescent Acne: A Retrospective Study of 1,167 Patients. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 11(1), 21–25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788264/

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.