Teenager Acne: Why it Happens and How to Treat It

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

But it feels like the last drop. On top of everything you’re dealing with right now, your skin looks like a mess. Your confidence is under your feet. You just want to fall asleep in your room and wake up 5 years from now when this nightmare is over.

But just because teen acne is normal, it doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. A good skincare routine can treat teen acne and give you your clear skin back – and a confidence boost in the process.

Here’s how to treat teenager acne once and for all:

  • Step 1: Use A Gentle, pH-Balanced Cleanser
  • Step 2: Exfoliate With Salicylic Acid
  • Step 3: Use An Oil-Free Moisturiser
  • Step 4: Wear Sunscreen Every Day
  • Step 5: Spot Treat With Benzoyl Peroxide

What Causes Teen Acne?

Everyone can get acne. But there’s a reason if teens are more prone to it. Hormones (what else?!).

When you hit puberty, your body produces more androgens hormones. The excess triggers your sebaceous glands to pump out way more sebum than your skin naturally needs.

Normally, sebum flows through your pores straight into your skin, making it softer and smoother. Now there’s too much of it, the excess gets stuck in the pores, where it mixes with dead skin cells and other impurities. At this point, one of three things can happen:

  • Blackheads: The gunk stuck near the opening of the pores oxidises when in contact with air, turning black.
  • Whiteheads: The opening of your pores is so small, air can’t oxidise the gunk inside. Those impurities remain white.
  • Pimples: Excess oil production has helped P. Acnes, the bacteria that give you acne, proliferate (these nasty buggers like to feed on it!).

FYI, hormones are the main cause of teen acne, but not the only one. The usual culprits, like using comedogenic skincare products and eating a diet high in processed foods, play a part in it, too.

Will Teen Acne Go Away?

For most people, hormones stabilise as they grow up and get out of puberty, making teenager acne a distant memory. Sure, you may still get the odd pimple now and then, but the worst is over.

How To Treat Teenager Acne

Acne is acne, whether you get it in your teens or your 50s.

That means the main treatment is the same, too: a pore-unclogging, non- comedogenic skincare routine that gets rid of all the impurities lodged deep into your skin without giving more food to those nasty acne bacteria.

You’d think that’s a given, but it’s surprising how many products marketed for teen acne are loaded with comedogenic oils and butters that form more clogs instead of getting rid of them. To make matters worse, 90% of anti-acne products don’t include a single acne-fighter.

Lesson learned: don’t pay any attention to the promises a product makes you. Always double check the ingredient list.

So, what should you look for? What do you really need? Let’s find out:

Step 1: Use A Gentle, pH-Balanced Cleanser

Are you exfoliating with salicylic acid, spot treating with Benzoyl Peroxide, and moisturising with lotions low in oils… and still you’re breaking out like crazy?!

Your cleanser may be the culprit. Here’s the deal: while 99% of products are pH- balanced, cleansers often aren’t. Too many still have a pH of 7 or higher.

What does this mean? Your skin has a natural pH between 4.5 and 5.5. When you see a cleanser with a high pH, you’re disrupting your skin’s acid mantle, a protective acidic layer that keeps your skin moisturised and safe from environmental aggressors.

This matters. A lot. Bacteria can’t thrive in an acidic environment. But when you raise the ph up several notches, bacteria suddenly find the perfect environment to proliferate and thrive.

A 1995 study tested the impact of cleansing on acne-prone skin. Scientists asked patients with inflammatory acne lesions to use either soap or an acidic cleanser for three months. The results?

Only one month later, the group using soap had way more lesions than before. The group using an acidic cleanser had the opposite result: they had fewer lesions than before!

In other worse: high pH soaps make acne worse while acidic cleansers help clear acne up.

The solution? Switch to a gentle, low-pH cleanser that doesn’t feed acne. Unfortunately, most cleansers out there don’t disclose their pH. *sights* But my picks below all have the right skin-friendly pH.

HOW TO USE IT: Morning and night, it’s the first step of your skincare routine.

Best Picks:

  • Corsx low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($11.00): pH 5.5. Available at Sokoglam and YesStyle.
  • La Roche Posay Toleriane Dermo Cleanser ($23.99): pH 5.5. Available at Dermstore and Feel Unique.
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Perfectly Balanced Foaming Cleanser ($19.99): pH 6. Available at Dermstore, Feel Unique, Nordstrom, and Paula’s Choice
Step 2: Exfoliate With Salicylic Acid

If you have acne, you need salicylic acid. Not glycolic acid. Not lactic acid. Not scrubs, Clarisonic, or whatever. Salicylic acid. Only salicylic acid.

Why? Salicylic acid is the only exfoliant that can effectively treat whiteheads, blackheads and pimples. It does this by targeting three different causes of acne:

Don’t be tempted by glycolic acid & co. They only exfoliate skin, but don’t have the extra benefits Salicylic acid has.

HOW TO USE IT: Be careful here. Most salicylic acid exfoliants say you can exfoliate every day, if not twice a day. That’s way too much! Over-exfoliation can cause dryness. You don’t want to swap one problem for another. Instead, use it every other night, right after cleansing.

Best Picks:

Step 3: Use An Oil-Free Moisturiser

The last thing your skin needs is oil. Your hormones are so out of whack, they pump out way more sebum (your skin’s natural oil) than you need. Cue acne and feeling like crap.

But you still need to keep your skin soft and moisturised. That’s where oil-free moisturisers come in.

They use ingredients like Hyaluronic Acid, a moisture magnet that draws moisture from the air into your skin, and ceramides, natural components of your skin’s protective barrier that lock in moisture.

Result? Softer, smoother skin – acne-free.

While you’re at it, also avoid anything with Palmitate and Myristate in the name (like Isopropyl Palmitate and Myristyl Myristate) and butters (like shea butter). They’re famous for clogging pores and giving you acne.

HOW TO USE IT: If your sunscreen has moisturising properties, you can skip a moisturiser in the AM. If not, use it after cleanser and before sunscreen. At night, it’s the last step of your skincare routine.

P.S. It’s ok if your moisturiser contains a small amount of these ingredients. But they should NEVER be towards the top of the ingredient list.

Best Picks:

  • Boscia Green Tea Oil-Free Moisturiser ($38.00): Available at Dermstore, Nordstrom, Sephora, and Ulta
  • CeraVe PM Facial Moisturising Lotion ($15.99): Available at Asos, Dermstore, Feel Unique and Ulta
  • Paula’s Choice Clear Oil-Free Moisturizer ($29.00): Available at Paula’s Choice
Step 4: Wear Sunscreen Every Day

It’s no secret UV rays cause all kinds of damage. Wrinkles. Dark spots. Cancer. Inflammation…

Guess what acne is? An inflammatory disease! You can use the best teen acne treatments in the world, but if you don’t wear sunscreen, it’s all for nothing. You’ll keep inflaming your skin and getting acne.

I know, I know. You’re scared of getting pimples. So many sunscreens out there are so thick and greasy. But the right sunscreen won’t clog your pores.

The trick is to look for lightweight, oil-free formulas with a SPF of at least 30. When you find it, wear it every single day. UV rays are tricky. They get through clouds and windows and even get reflected on snow.

You’re not safe just because it’s raining or you’re at home.

HOW TO USE IT: It’s the last step of your morning routine. Apply it generously and touch it up as needed during the day.

Best Picks:

  • EltaMD UV Pure Broad-Spectrum SPF 47 ($25.00): Available at Dermstore and Walmart
  • La Roche Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 60 ($19.99): Available at Blue Mercury, Dermstore and Ulta
  • Paula’s Choice Super-Light Wrinkle Defense SPF 30 ($33.00): Available at Dermstore, Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
Step 5: Spot Treat With Benzoyl Peroxide

A good skincare routine prevents pimples. But what if one or two rears its ugly head anyway? This is where you need a spot treatment. You have two choices here:

  • Benzoyl Peroxide: It kills P.Acnes by generating free radicals (yep, the nasty molecules that speed up the aging process). Plus, it’s harsh on the skin. Use it on pimples ONLY.
  • Sulfur: It kills P.Acnes, dries out blemishes, and helps reduce excess oil. In my experience, it works faster than BP, but it’s harsh and drying. Again, use it on pimples only.

In my experience, Sulfur gets rid of pimples faster than Benzoyl Peroxide. But if it’s too drying for your skin, the latter is still a fantastic option.

HOW TO USE IT: Morning and night, after cleansing.

Best Picks:

  • Epionce Purifying Spot Gel ($38.00): available at at Dermstore
  • Indie Lee Blemish Lotion ($26.00): available at Blue Mercury, Dermstore and The Detox Market
  • La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Treatment ($36.95): Dermstore and Feel Unique
  • Paula’s Choice Clear Daily Skin Clearing Treatment With 5% benzoyl peroxide ($18.00): Dermstore and Paula’s Choice

Should You Use Retinoids To Treat Teen Acne?

I know what you’re thinking, “That’s it?! Where are retinoids, niacinamide, Vitamin C and all that jazz?”


Sorry to shout at you, but I feel really strongly about it. Acne aside, your skin is still soft and supple. It doesn’t have any wrinkles or dark spots. No other serious issue to deal with.

Don’t waste your money and time on stuff you don’t need because your fave influencer told you it’s amazing. Her job is to sell you stuff you don’t need!

Use only what you need when you need it. And for most teenagers out there, this routine is more than enough to tackle acne. But what if it isn’t?

When Salicylic Acid + Benzoyl Peroxide/Sulfur alone fail, that’s the time to bring in a retinoid. I recommend retinol. Its job is to speed up cellular turnover (i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliation process) to unclog pores faster.

The catch? Retinol is drying and irritating. Always start with a small dose and build your way up slowly.

HOW TO USE IT: Start with two nights a week and increase frequency to every other day. Never use it on the nights you exfoliate with salicylic acid.

Best Picks:

The Bottom Line

Teenager acne is almost inevitable, but it doesn’t have to ruin your life and destroy your confidence. The right skincare products can keep your acne under control and give you back clear, smoother skin until your hormones stabilise with age. Hang in there! Clear skin is closer than you think.

Are you dealing with teen acne? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read more on: acne

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