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Acne

9-18 years

Acne is a common skin condition that often starts in puberty. It can affect adults too. Acne develops when skin pores get blocked, which causes pimples, blackheads, whiteheads or cysts.

Causes of acne

Acne is the name for a skin condition that develops when skin pores get blocked by dead skin cells and an oily substance called sebum.

Sebum is made in the sebaceous glands, which are in skin pores on the face, neck, chest, upper back and upper arms. In adolescence, hormonal changes cause the sebaceous glands to get bigger, increase in number and make more sebum.

If there’s too much sebum, it can clog up the skin pores, along with normal dead skin cells. Bacteria can get trapped and grow in the pores, which can cause redness and swelling. This is the start of acne.

People with oily skin can be more prone to acne. Oil-based cosmetics and hair oil and grease can make acne worse.

Acne tends to worsen during stressful periods.

Though acne is most common in teenagers, adults can get acne even into their 40s.

Acne signs and symptoms

Acne can range from a small pimple to a large painful cyst:

  • Pimple: this is a small red bump, sometimes filled with pus.
  • Whitehead: this is when the bump is clear or white and just contains sebum.
  • Blackhead: this is a small black bump, caused by the build-up of oil and dead skin.
  • Cyst: this is a small pocket under the skin filled with fluid, pus or other substances.

Treatments for acne

Mild acne
If your child has mild acne, there are several things your child can do at home to improve his skin:

  • Wash his face no more than two times a day using a gentle skin cleanser.
  • Be gentle when face-washing. Hard scrubbing can make the acne worse. Some skin cleansers can dry out the skin so it’s a good idea to apply an oil-free or water-based moisturiser after washing.
  • Try to leave the acne alone. Squeezing or picking pimples can lead to more infection and make the acne more severe. It also causes more swelling and redness and can cause scarring.

Your child can also try over-the-counter acne treatments like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or tea tree oil.

If your child’s acne hasn’t improved after three months, she should see a GP.

Moderate or severe acne
About 5% of people develop what’s called severe acne or ‘cystic acne’. If your child’s acne is moderate or severe, your child will still need to wash his face and moisturise regularly. It’s also best to avoid make-up.

If your child has painful cysts, scarring or is worried about how the acne looks, she should see a GP or dermatologist. The GP or dermatologist might suggest:  

  • acne treatments like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide in stronger doses
  • antibiotic tablets to help control skin inflammation
  • isotretinoin tablets taken for approximately 20 weeks. These tablets can have side effects, so talk with your doctor about whether they’re right for your child.

For girls, the oral contraceptive pill can reduce the effect of acne-causing hormones called androgens. The pill also has side effects, so it’s a good idea to talk about these with your doctor.

If your child notices his acne gets worse when he eats certain foods, it’s a good idea to avoid those foods.

Acne prevention

To prevent acne, it’s best to use water-based skin and hair products and products labeled ‘non-comedogenic’. This means they won’t clog pores.

A well-balanced, low-GI diet can help children and teenagers with acne. Low-GI foods include wholegrain bread, fruit, vegies, legumes, milk, yoghurt and oats.

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Last updated or reviewed
26-04-2018

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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