If you've noticed your teen's menstrual cycle has suddenly brought pimples to the party, they may have a lot of questions about what's going on with their body. Let's talk about hormonal breakouts, acne symptoms, and everything else that may be resulting in teen menstrual acne.
First things first - acne is nothing to be ashamed of! Acne is extremely common, and plenty of pre-teens, teens and even adults deal with acne at some point in their lives. In fact, around 85% of people between ages 12 to 24 experience some form of acne. So even when it might feel like they're the only person in the world dealing with pimples, they should know that they are not alone.
While comforting, knowing you're not alone may not be particularly helpful if you’re trying to figure out how to deal with acne. Let's dive into the informational side of period acne and different ways to treat it that might be helpful for your teen.
What Is Period Acne, Or Acne in General? It All Starts With the Sebaceous Glands
First, let’s talk about how the skin works. All over your body, there are sebaceous glands in the pores of the skin. When someone hits puberty, the increase of hormones affects these glands. We're particularly talking about androgens: sex hormones which help kick start puberty and help with the body’s development. An excess of these hormones can cause oil glands to become overactive, resulting in them getting bigger. When all this happens, they often start to produce too much oil– also known as “sebum.”
What Causes Acne/Period Acne?
As you might have guessed, when too much sebum is produced, the skin can begin to look oily. That excess oil can end up clogging pores and follicles, often trapping acne causing bacteria along with it. This leads to acne.
The Quick and Easy Acne Dictionary of Acne Breakouts
There are dozens of different kinds of pimples, zits, and spots out there, so we’ve compiled a handy guide to help you and your teen identify what type of acne they're dealing with and how to clear it up.
Blackhead: Blackheads happen when pores clog but stay open. They look like little black dots on the skin, and aren’t inflamed or red like whiteheads. When the pores clog, they turn black due to oxidation. Blackheads are NOT dirt. It’s just all of the clogged bacteria and skin cells reacting with air. Your teen can help combat blackheads with pore strips, exfoliators, and AHA and BHA cleansers.
Cyst: Cysts are often large, pus-filled pimples that form deep under the skin. They happen when blockage and inflammation occur and produce large bumps. They can be caused by food and diet, stress, and hormones. These also tend to be quite painful. If your child is dealing with a lot of cystic acne or has severe acne, you may want them to see a skin specialist, dermatologist, or doctor about the right treatment options.
Whitehead: If one of the blocked pores becomes inflamed or infected, your teen has a classic pimple on their hands! These are raised red spots, usually with a white centre. Whiteheads are typically raised and closed. They’re also super common, and can pop up anywhere from the face or chest, to the back. Your teen can treat whiteheads by drying them out with ordinary over-the-counter drugstore remedies such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or, if looking for a more natural approach, with tea tree oil.
What is Hormonal Acne?
Now that you understand your teen's acne symptoms, you may have already begun to connect why the menstrual cycle can lead to an increase in acne/cause period acne. It always comes back to hormones–and not just androgens. Hormonal fluctuations and changes around your teen's period can be responsible for everything from mood swings to sore breasts to period poops and, of course, hormonal acne.
But how do hormones cause acne, and what’s the difference between period acne and just a regular outbreak? Essentially, if someone is not pregnant, the estrogen and progesterone levels in the body drop about a week before the period starts. This triggers those oil glands we talked about, and they make even more sebum, which leads to clogged pores and hormonal acne.
A tell-tale sign of period acne is that hormonal acne tends to appear around the chin and jawline. Hormonal acne doesn’t just come around during puberty. Adult acne and acne in teens continues to occur for many people during their menstrual cycle throughout their lives.
Now that you know the "what" and "why" behind period acne, let's chat about how to prevent period acne, and the different ways to treat a breakout when it occurs.
Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid: These are two of the most common hormonal acne treatments. You can find Salicylic Acid just about anywhere— in body washes, face washes and moisturizers. These promote healthy skin and help to get rid of dead skin cells that can lead to whiteheads and blackheads. Benzoyl Peroxide is a little stronger, and is great to use as a spot treatment. It can make the skin feel quite dry, so using these products one or two times a day is usually the max. Make sure your teen also moisturizes to avoid drying out their skin.
Sunscreen: Your teen might be hesitant to add even more stuff to their face if they're breaking out, but sunscreen is an absolute must in keeping the skin healthy. Wearing a gentle facial sunscreen daily can help protect the skin barrier from harmful UV rays (which actually cause and worsen acne), help with uneven skin and redness, and even prevent future breakouts.
Wash your face: Gently washing the face with warm water and a gentle cleanser that's non-abrasive is a super important skincare step in their routine. Twice a day is the magic number, any more and they can risk drying out the skin's surface. Afterwards, pat gently with a clean towel.
Stay hydrated: Grab that reusable water bottle! A 2015 study found that drinking lots of water helps to not only keep the skin hydrated, but also slows down the build of dead skin cells.
Try not to pick: For some of us, this might sound nearly impossible. Have your teen try out pimple patches if they're a pimple popper. They’ll help absorb the pimple gunk and keep it covered so they're less likely to really go at it in the mirror. If your teen does pop their pimples (we all do), they can apply something topical like Polysporin to help with scarring.
Antibiotics: If your teen is someone who has acne often, as opposed to the occasional breakout, they may have something called acne prone skin. As everyone's skin is different, you may wish to have them speak with a doctor to learn about the best acne treatments for them. A dermatologist may recommend antibiotics or other treatments.
Your teen may be following all the "right" steps and still get acne. What gives? It's important to note that premenstrual acne/acne in general is not an indicator that someone is unhygienic or doesn't eat healthy foods. Some folks are just more prone to acne than others for a wide variety of reasons, and that is okay. Everyone is different.
Everybody Gets Zits
Almost every celebrity or influencer on the internet see seems to have beautiful, sparkling, smooth and naturally glowing skin. Remind your teen that Instagram is curated and it's not always real. It’s really, really easy to get caught up and feel self-conscious about breakouts, but they are normal and happen to everyone (including their fave celebs and influencers).
Pimples are wrapped up in the experience of being human; of growing, of changing, and going through life. They happen to everyone! The more we keep this in mind, the more we all collectively work towards normalizing a very, well, normal thing happening to the body and end the stigmatization of a natural bodily function. Sounds like something else we talk about here, doesn't it? Yup, I'm talking about the menstrual cycle. To manage that also very normal bodily function, check out our period underwear for teens.
There are so many amazing creators online sharing more authentic pictures of themselves, working to normalize acne and the fact that many, many people experience it, people like Sofia Grahn, Izzie Rodgers, and Shiny who remind all of us that, well, it’s just acne, and we are all so much more than that.
Remind your teen to be gentle on themselves and their monthly breakouts! They should do whatever makes them feel most comfortable in their skin. We guarantee whatever they choose will be beautiful, because it's authentically them.