Living Well: 5 Secrets for Caring for Teen Skin

March 27, 2013

5 Secrets for Avoiding the Teen Acne Phase

Written by Deborah Harju. Photos by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Note from the Editors: In January, Deborah Harju was interviewed in a Living With Kids home tour. Deborah is an esthetician and she casually wrote, “I hope my kids will one day appreciate that they could go through their teenage years without the dreaded acne phase.” Well. The Design Mom inboxes lit up! Readers wanted to know more. Can you really avoid the acne phase? So we asked Deborah to share her secrets. Lucky us!

Adolescence is a pretty tough transition period for any child. Unpredictable hormonal changes on the inside! Crazy physical changes on the outside! And us parents? We are learning to adjust our parenting techniques right along with them.


Amidst all these changes, one of the toughest things teens deal with is acne. Oh ACNE! At the peak of their self-doubt, our poor kids get this dumped on them. As a parent, we may feel powerless when it comes to our child’s acne but the truth is, we don’t have to just sit back and let acne run its course.

Although acne can be genetic (children are more likely to suffer acne if a parent suffered from it), there are still many things we can do as parents to keep it manageable. Although I have personal experience with my preteen, I have treated adolescent acne as an esthetician for over 12 years and have found that these tips can be effective in navigating these troublesome years.

NOTE: These tips alone will not address the concerns of cystic acne, which is acne defined by very painful cysts or fluid-filled lumps beneath the skin. I would refer any client with cystic acne to a doctor, (preferably a dermatologist), who can prescribe oral antibiotics. If your acne is severe, an esthetician alone will not be enough. These tips can be effective in managing all other types of acne — even adult onset acne.

Secret #1: Cleanliness. It’s not shocking to say that most teens are not the most hygienic humans. But this is the most crucial time in their life to be just that! Oil glands in overdrive combined with activities like gym class and after school activities (team sports, skate boarding, dancing in their bedroom) create a face full of oil, dirt, and sweat. I cannot stress enough the need to cleanse their face AT LEAST twice a day.

When? I recommend in the morning when they wake up, and then again at the end of the day before bed. Encourage them to brush their teeth before washing their face, this will avoid bacteria from the mouth area from migrating down to your chin. An extra (third) cleansing would be after a midday sports game or other sweaty activity.

How? You want to pick a cleanser that will lather well — usually a gel or foaming facial cleanser — to help take the oil and makeup off.

- For sensitive skin my own kids (age 11 and under) use the Dove White bar soap, but soaps in general tend to be harsh on the face, so beware of soap.

- Use only warm water on the face, because hot or cold water is too shocking to the pores.

Showering daily is also vital to keep the oil from their hair from migrating down onto their face. Justin Bieber’s original look? Not so great for breakouts on the forehead. To cut down on time, keep a bottle of your facial cleanser in the shower so that you can wash your face while showering.

Secret #2: Stop Touching. Hands are our germiest body part. They are crawling with bacteria and dirt. And kids love to touch their face. They like to scratch at bumps, pick at things, or even just innocently lay their cheek in the palm of their hand. Urge your children from a young age to never touch their face.

Also, NO PICKING! Most acne scars occur because teens take matters into their own hands and pick at their pimples, usually drawing blood and creating scabs and holes which take weeks or even months just to heal.

Secret #3: Eat wisely. If you look carefully at any pimple, large or small, you will notice that it is inflamed and red. Certain foods cause inflammation in our body and feed the inflammation of acne. How does a teen’s diet of soda, hot dogs, pizza and onion rings fare for skin? Not good.

Stay away from refined sugars, processed foods such as meats with nitrates and excessive amounts of dairy. These foods feed inflammation and redness. Fresh is best? Definitely. Our skin is the largest organ of our body and we need to feed it wisely.

Secret #4: Identify and treat blackheads early. The reality is that even if your child heeds all these tips, they will still get blackheads. It’s just a part of life. But if you can treat the blackheads before they have a chance to turn into pimples, you are ahead of the game!

Manual extraction is really the only way to remove blackheads. And, I know I’m biased, but regular visits to an esthetician are the very best way to handle extractions and maintain blackhead free skin. If you cannot get to a local esthetician for extractions, the reality is your teen will attempt to take out the blackheads themself. If this is the case, I would recommend always preparing your face for extractions first.

How? Start by washing your face in the shower, letting the steam soften the pores for about 10 minutes, then use a gentle facial scrub — no salt or sugar, those are for the body and are too abrasive for the face.

- After you’ve rinsed the facial scrub off and toweled dry, wrap Kleenex or tissue paper around your pointer fingers, keep wrapping until you no longer feel your nails through the tissue. Never ever squeeze your face with bare hands, this is how you can mark and scar your face — the more padding between your nails and your face the better.

- You’ll need good lighting and a close mirror to see the blackheads. Look for small dark or black dots, sometimes raised sometimes not, usually in the T-Zone area of the face. Never attempt to squeeze something you cannot see (the side of your cheek for example).

- Gently squeeze your pointer fingers around the blackhead, pushing down and together at the same time. A small wormlike shape should come out from the pore. Use clean tissue to brush the blackhead off your face.

- If nothing comes after a few attempts, do not keep squeezing! And do not squeeze beyond the blackhead itself, there is no reason to draw blood, this will only cause the pore more stress and create inflammation.

- Once you’ve extracted any blackheads you will want to rewash your face to make sure you remove any leftover bacteria hiding in the pores.

Secret #5: Get educated about your skin (or your teen’s skin) and skin care products. Instead of just reading a product recommendation from someone or seeing a magazine editor recommend it, learn about your particular skin and why it does what it does, so that you can navigate the products and brands out there as an educated consumer versus someone blindly grabbing for something out of desperation.

Just because the Dove White Bar works for my 11 year old, in a year or two, it may not and we may need to move to something else. So I would hate for someone to read this and think that particular soap is going to cure their child’s acne.

Sigh. I could write for days about products alone. The whole drugstore versus department store versus professional products is a discussion in itself. I could also go on about toners and pH and how they relate to cleansers. But I’m afraid this article would be 3 times as long. Hah! Perhaps another post is in order. : )

I hope these insider tips and information can help navigate this time in your and your child’s life. Thanks so much for having me!

P.S. — Like secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nicole March 27, 2013 at 8:13 am

this is so interesting! i would LOVE to hear more from deborah! clear skin is, i believe, one of the most coveted features, don’t you think?


2 Stella March 27, 2013 at 9:13 am

I would also love to hear more from Deborah! I’ve always wondered about different products and whether it’s worth it to shell out for more expensive products.


3 Renard Moreau March 27, 2013 at 9:23 am

[ Smiles ] I wish that I had this kind of information when I was a teenager.

Lovely article!


4 Sunny Day March 27, 2013 at 9:38 am

Most people don’t talk about it, but dairy is a huge element of skin problems – from acne to wrinkles… You could try cutting it ou for 2 months and see how their skin respond…


5 Heidi March 27, 2013 at 9:57 am

I agree! I had terrible acne with my first pregnancy, and after I cut out dairy, my skin cleared up.


6 Design Mom March 27, 2013 at 9:58 am

Dairy has been on my mind, too! Deborah included minimizing your dairy in her section on eating right. And Mara from A Blog About Love has seen dramatic results with her skin — and her mood — by eliminating dairy.

She writes about it here and here.

I think trying to be dairy free in France, especially in Normandy, would be almost impossible. Hah! I think dairy is part of almost every meal we have.


7 Val March 27, 2013 at 11:06 am

I think that going dairy free in your part of France might not even be necessary! Many of the issues that arise from dairy use are because of the way it’s produced and prepared here in the US. If I understand your posts correctly, you get your milk fresh, and I’ll bet it’s from grass-fed cows. All the reading I’ve done suggests that this is the kind of dairy we should be consuming (albeit in moderate amounts).

That said, I am also completely dairy-free (because I’m severely lactose intolerant), and my skin has never looked better! Thanks for linking to Mara’s posts… I enjoyed reading her experience, and like her, I’ve found that being completely dairy-free improves my mood immensely :)


8 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag March 27, 2013 at 3:07 pm

The second I eat dairy, it shows up on my skin. I just cannot ingest/digest it. I consume it, I break out. When I stay away, I’m clear. And I’m 43! But if I drink milk for more than 2 days, BOOM.


9 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag March 27, 2013 at 3:08 pm

And if my daughter develops acne as a teen, we will become a totally dairy free household. Sorry dairy loving husband! :)

10 Lucy Mitchell March 27, 2013 at 9:51 am

When I read that living with kids article that sentence about acne jumped out at me! My eldest is eleven and it seems like every time I talk to him he says “why are you looking at my nose like that?” Its because I am wondering if he will inherit my (not great) skin! Good tips, thanks.


11 Lauren March 27, 2013 at 10:29 am

These are some really good tips and ones that I certainly try to follow! I feel like I’ve learned so much about caring for my skin as an adult that I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager. The biggest surprise to me has been that my skin responds so much better to natural cleansers like vinegar and castor oil than it ever did to store bought face wash. I was so thrilled with this all natural regimen that I wrote a blog post to share it here:
I need to write an updated post soon, because this winter I have used only coconut oil as a facial moisturizer and it has been amazing!


12 jesse' February 11, 2014 at 11:11 am

“I RECOMEND DOVE SOAP” ….I also have OATS for breakfast and that seemed to help a lot too it took away the size of my pimples the redness and at times my acne completely goes away . I AM 16.


13 Felicia March 27, 2013 at 10:37 am

Great article Deborah! I can personally attest to the fact that eating a diet high in living foods and cutting out most processed foods has changed my skin dramatically. What you put into your body will definitely help. Can’t wait to see the next article… ;) xFelicia


14 Nicole March 27, 2013 at 10:55 am

So helpful – more please!!!!!


15 Amy3 March 27, 2013 at 11:34 am

Agreed! Definitely more!


16 Becca March 27, 2013 at 11:57 am

I’d love more too!


17 Becky March 28, 2013 at 11:28 am



18 Karen F March 28, 2013 at 1:15 pm

yes, more!


19 Megan M. March 27, 2013 at 11:51 am

I had gorgeous skin as a teenager. The occasional pimple, sure, but for the most part, beautiful. Ever since my first pregnancy though, ouch. Acne hit me hard and it is constant. Sometimes even painful.

I have tried everything to clear it up! I really need to change my diet, for a lot of reasons. I’m interested to read the posts about cutting out dairy. I use milk a lot in cooking and we have cheese on everything.


20 Rachel March 27, 2013 at 12:31 pm

This is awesome info – even for a 24-year-old like me! I’ve recently started getting acne again and it’s been driving me insane. I’m definitely going to take a few tips from this post.


21 Tanya March 27, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Love this post. So practical even for us adults with no kids.
I so wished someone had told me this stuff when I was a teenager, would have saved me from so much grief. Thanks Deb for the post and thanks Gabby for including this on your amazing blog.


22 Lena March 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm

In terms of products, you should always check Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database to find out about the ingredients in the products that are out there. Cosmetic products (body products) are not regulated like you’d expect them to be and you might be shocked at the types of toxic carcinogens that are in products that are packaged to look natural and healthy.


23 Katie B. of March 27, 2013 at 1:47 pm

My brother had horrible cystic acne when he was a teen. His dermatologist was adamant: no conventional dairy products, due to the hormones given to cows which then show up in their milk. Organics weren’t big back then, but we lived in a hippie-centered area in California so we were able to get freshly pasteurized milk from a local farmer. It turned his skin around within a month!


24 Leslie March 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Great article – thank you!!


25 Chrissy March 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Thank you for coming back, Deborah! We moms of teens with more-to-come need to pick your brain and are grateful for your wisdom. Come back!


26 Erinn March 27, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Because of my long battle with acne from about age 12 until even now at 37, I’ve tried everything over the years. For several years I was prescribed antibiotics and all it did was kill all the good bacteria in my gut which caused me years of other problems. So I would caution anyone who decides to take their teenager to a dermatologist, because even after all these years, that is still their answer…antibiotics. It took me years of my own research and trial and error to find out that yes, US dairy was a cause, gluten, other food sensitivities AND some of the products that I was putting on my skin to clear it up, which would work for a couple of weeks and then make it worse. Look for products formulated without parabens, any type of petroleum derivatives like mineral oil, formaldehyde preservatives, animal products or by products, PABA. Pure diet, pure products. It’s really simple.


27 Thea March 27, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Bravo! I’m going to be sure to show this article to my daughter!


28 sp March 27, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Soaking a cotton pad with tea tree oil and jojoba oil helps get rid of spots for me. I recommend that people wash their faces when they come home from school/work or shower straight away. All of that dirt, oil, pollution sits on the face for longer than necessary if you shower/wash before bed. I also use 100% aloe vera gel (without alcohol) on my skin twice a week. I let it soak on my skin for several hours and then wash it away with water.


29 Aryn March 27, 2013 at 9:28 pm

I would love to read more!


30 Deborah March 28, 2013 at 8:56 am

I’m so glad that this article was helpful to so many of you! And I hope it gives you some good tips to pass along to your children as well.



31 Christy September 25, 2013 at 1:41 pm

I see this is an old post so you probably won’t see this…but, what about persistent blackheads that you cannot simply squeeze out. I even bought one of the specialty blackhead removal tools and they simply will not budge, and they will not turn into a regular pimple. They have been there for months. My daughter is 11. Is she too young to go to an esthetician? I don’t want to go with internal medications if at all possible. We hace tried the Philosophy Clear Day kit and the Dermalogica kit as well. It helps the acne but not the blackheads. Thanks.


32 Christy September 25, 2013 at 1:43 pm

ps…if it makes a difference (or not), she went through puberty early so picture an 11 year old with a 16 year old’s skin issues.


33 Deborah May 31, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Hi Christy, I pop in here every so often, so I did see your comment!! I have clients as young as 11 so it is not too young. In fact, that’s what I would recommend. An esthetician can prep her face properly with exfoliants and steam, open the pores and do extractions properly. I never ever recommend any “tools” for extractions as those can damage the skin and cause scarring. If the esthetician can remove them, great! If not, it may take a little coaxing. Using a light scrub, cleaning the area twice daily at least, and then another trip for a second facial might bring the result.

Being as this was from months and months ago, I’m hoping you were able to find resolution! Keep me posted!


34 Shari October 13, 2014 at 6:24 am

Did she ever get the 11 ur old resolved? That’s my issue too


35 Regina January 4, 2015 at 10:12 am

thanks so much for this post…I’m super late in finding this but nonetheless, great info!


36 gina March 17, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Oh, I didn’t have a tween or a teen when this was written; neither my husband or I had problem skin but, I ‘m looking for clues to talk about my my teen age son — I think in addition to general hormones, it’s his sports schedule and not jumping in the shower immediately because they’re you’re cute, strong and healthy at 14, this isn’t high priority! :-) but, you raised a couple points that I hadn’t thought of! SUPER! But, since it’s a boy, I feel like skin care might actually be very different… great post and I really like the related posts that you’ve shared, too!


37 Robin Sparks September 17, 2016 at 10:33 pm

As what my friend told me there is a difference between the skin of a teenager to the skin of an adult, she have recommended the use of Solvaderm as it suits the need of a teeneger’s skin, Great post! I would totally recommend these methods to my younger sister


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