It’s a common occurrence for teens — after waking up, you look in the mirror and spot a pimple on your nose, cheek, chin or another highly visible part of your face.
Teenage acne can be very frustrating. It often develops suddenly, leaving you with whiteheads, blackheads and painful, inflamed acne that can affect your appearance and take a toll on your self-confidence.
If you’re in your teens or early 20s and have acne, it’s important to realize that you’re not alone. Research indicates that acne can affect up to 95 percent of people during adolescence, making it one of the most common skin conditions in the world.
Luckily, acne is almost always treatable, with a variety of products and medications designed to help you take control of acne and improve your skin.
Below, we’ve explained why and how teen acne develops, as well as the basics of what acne is from a medical perspective. We’ve also listed the numerous treatment options that are available to help you keep acne under control and prevent breakouts in the future.
Acne is a type of inflammatory skin condition. It’s an extremely common condition, affecting up to 50 million Americans annually according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
For most people, acne begins during adolescence. However, can often continue into adulthood, with some people affected by acne well into their 20s and thirties.
Most people start to notice acne developing at the beginning of their teens. You might begin by noticing small, single pimples that develop on your face, or significant breakouts when multiple pimples form at once.
For most teens, acne isn’t physically harmful or dangerous. However, it can be frustrating and embarrassing, especially when it’s severe. In certain cases, acne breakouts can even become physically painful.
Acne develops when a combination of sebum and dead skin cells cause your hair follicles, or pores, to become blocked.
Pores are small, canal-shaped openings in the surface of your skin. Each pore contains a hair follicle and a sebaceous gland — a type of gland that’s responsible for keeping your skin moist and protected.
To understand how acne develops, it’s important to go over the basics of how your skin keeps itself fresh and healthy.
As you may know, your skin is constantly exposed to damage — whether it’s UV radiation from exposure to the sun, cuts and scratches that result from impacts with harsh surfaces or just dryness caused by wind and harsh temperatures.
To keep itself healthy and repair this damage, your skin is constantly renewing and repairing itself. As your skin cells become worn and old, they die, with newer skin cells replacing them through a process called skin cell turnover.
As well as repairing itself through the production of new cells, your skin protects itself against damage by producing a substance called sebum.
Sebum is a natural oil that’s produced by your sebaceous glands. It’s made up of waxes, fatty acids, sugars and other chemicals created by your body. Sebum’s role is to ensure your skin stays adequately hydrated by limiting the amount of water that evaporates and disappears.
There’s also some scientific evidence that sebum may help to protect your skin against certain types of fungi and bacteria.
In short, sebum works as a type of a barrier that keeps your skin hydrated and healthy. When your sebaceous glands don’t create enough sebum, your skin can become dry, cracked, flaky and itchy.
While the skin cell turnover cycle and sebum are both essential for healthy skin, they can have some side effects.
For example, dead skin cells — a byproduct of your body’s skin cell turnover cycle — can build up on the surface of your skin over time. When these skin cells mix with sebum, they can clog your pores and cause acne to develop.
If you’re prone to acne, you may have noticed that your skin develops different types of acne lesions, such as whiteheads, blackheads and red, inflamed acne.
The specific type of acne you develop depends on how your pores are blocked. When a pore becomes completely blocked by sebum and dead skin cells, it can form into a whitehead — an acne lesion that’s either white or similar in color to your natural skin tone.
When a pore is blocked by sebum and dead skin cells, it can also form into a blackhead. The distinctive dark color of a blackhead is caused by a chemical reaction that occurs when dead skin cells and sebum are exposed to oxygen in the air.
Whiteheads and blackheads can be annoying and embarrassing, but they usually aren’t red or painful. However, some types of acne can become infected and inflamed, resulting in irritation, tenderness and pain when they’re touched.
When bacteria is trapped inside a pore that’s blocked by sebum and dead skin cells, it can form into a red, inflamed pimple. When an inflamed pimple forms deep inside the skin, it can become a painful, pus-filled form of acne that’s referred to as cystic acne.
For most people, acne usually begins to develop during their pre-teen and teen years. Just like other changes in your body that happen during your teens, teenage acne is typically caused by increasing levels of sex hormones that can affect your skin.
According to UC Davis Health, acne usually starts to develop around the age of 11 for girls, with boys usually starting to develop acne a couple years later.
Your skin’s production of sebum is associated with certain hormones. In particular, the androgen hormone testosterone, which is present in women as well as men, plays a key role in controlling the amount of sebum your skin’s sebaceous glands secrete.
As you enter your teens, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus signals to your body that it’s time to produce more sex hormones, including the hormones estrogen and testosterone.
This rapid increase in hormone production can cause your sebaceous glands to secrete more sebum, resulting in oilier skin and an increased risk of developing whiteheads, blackheads and pimples.
We’ve explained more about how hormones can affect your skin and cause acne in our guide to hormonal acne.
Acne, whether during your teens or later in life, is almost always treatable. A variety of effective, safe treatments are available for teenage acne, many of which can help you to get rid of pimples and reduce the severity of acne breakouts.
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for acne. Instead, your healthcare provider may suggest a variety of treatments based on the severity of your acne.
Most of the time, mild acne can be treated using topical medications. These are usually sold as creams, gels or face washes that you apply directly to acne-prone skin. Non-prescription topical treatments for acne include one or several of the following ingredients:
If you develop severe, painful or persistent acne during your teens, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. Numerous prescription medications are available that can help you to bring acne under control and prevent future breakouts. These include:
Whether you’re prescribed a topical medication for acne such as tretinoin or clindamycin, or an oral medication such as isotretinoin, it’s important to be patient once you begin treatment.
Even the most effective acne treatments can take several weeks to start working. After you start using medication to treat acne, make sure you give the medication an adequate amount of time before you begin to assess your results.
If you don’t experience improvements after a few weeks, contact your healthcare provider. If you have particularly persistent or difficult acne, you may need to adjust your dosage or switch to a different type of medication to bring your acne under control.
There’s more to acne than just sebum, skin cells and hormones. Your habits, from how often you wash your face to whether or not you touch your pimples, can have a real impact on your risk of dealing with acne breakouts.
If you’re prone to acne and want to reduce your risk of dealing with pimples, try the following preventative tips:
If you’re currently in your teens, it’s common and normal to deal with the occasional pimple or acne breakout.
While mild acne can often be treated using the over-the-counter products listed above, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider if you have severe or persistent acne. It’s especially important to seek out expert advice if your acne is inflamed, painful or cystic (meaning it contains pus).
Although acne can be frustrating and embarrassing, it is treatable. With the right combination of medication, good skincare habits and enough time, it’s almost always possible to get your acne under control and enjoy clear, pimple-free skin.
Worried about acne? You’re definitely not alone. Acne is extremely common, affecting women of all ages and backgrounds.
If you’re looking for more information on treating acne, our guides to common skincare mistakes and getting rid of acne fast provide more science-backed tips on what you can do to avoid acne breakouts and keep your skin clear, smooth and acne-free.