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.