The Angst of Teenage Acne

By Yvette van Schie

Acne in our teens seems to be the luck of the draw. Some sail through these years with clear skin, whilst others battle their skins for up to a decade.

I used to believe that treating acne effectively was all about quality skincare, eating a healthy diet and drinking lots of water. I would tell my clients to keep their hair clean and out of their faces, eat well, drink water and change their pillowcases daily.

With many clients, the skin would clear up within less than a month. They would come in once a month for a facial to maintain the skin – usually one week before menstruating when the skin is at its worst – and everything would be fine.

With others, no matter what I did there would be no change at all in the skin. Many mothers would then take their teenager to the doctor who would prescribe them antibiotics or Roaccutane. This would clear the skin in the short term, but I would then find myself treating the same teens, now in their early twenties, for scarring and sensitive, raw skin.

It was not until my daughter reached puberty that I found myself desperately trying to learn why some teenagers’ skins cleared up quickly, while others did not. Because my daughter was one of the ‘did not’s’!

Therapists to grown up children who were once grotty teenagers will read the following and laugh, with or at me, as many may have been where I have before, and now see it all as a not-so-fond memory. But if you have not had children yet or yours are still too young, do not be too fast to say “My child will never be like that!” I did. And I believed it!

Throughout my youth and early adulthood, I was obsessively clean and tidy, to the point it drove my mother crazy. When I fell pregnant (at 24), I remember her telling me she hoped I would have a child who would change my obsessively clean and ordered world for a real one. Well, her wish came true – I gave birth to one of the grubbiest, messiest children to ever walk the planet!

When my daughter’s skin began to break out at 14, I added spot treatments to her skincare range and started her on supplements to treat her skin. I made her drink a litre of water before she went to school and another when she came home, just so that I knew she had drunk it. I was still able to wash her hair for her, and she wore her it out of her face.

At 16 it all changed. The hair came down onto the face, the lying about the water – or arguing about drinking it (which often took more time than actually drinking it) started. She had access to McDonald’s, potato wedges and KFC after school when hanging out with friends. Soft drinks and ice creams were also a must from the school canteen.

And the pimples turned to acne. I tried to control her diet at home as much a possible, with fresh fruit and vegetables and no fat, to counteract the diet she was consuming outside the home.

I nagged about changing pillowcases – to absolutely no avail. We had shifted into grub mode. I used all of the products I brought home on her, plus those that friends recommended. I even gave in and we went to the doctor, and started antibiotics and retin-A cream. It all worked to a degree, but could not clear up the skin completely. She smelled, and her hair was greasy. The hairdresser recommended deep-cleansing shampoo, and I started washing her hair again, once a week, so that I knew that it would be washed at least weekly.

This behaviour climaxed during her HSC year, where she was “too stressed” to worry about taking tablets and washing hair, let alone drinking water!

To add to the problem, she had a ingrown toenail which she was also too busy to deal with. Mind you, this ingrown toenail had been a ongoing problem for as long as the acne, but this year the infection grew so bad that antibiotics were needed. One after another script was written for her, meanwhile her skin was getting worse and worse.

Things eventually came to a head when her end of school formal was fast approaching – the only thing that ended up kick-starting her into taking some serious action. Whilst on study leave before her HSC she started on MORE antibiotics and retin-A cream. Then, she started complaining daily that she felt sick and woozy, blaming it on the stress. I started to question how much of it was stress and put her on probiotics; I knew that the amount of antibiotics she’d been taking must have not only killed off the unwanted bacteria, but all the good ones in the intestinal tract, causing an intestinal overgrowth of the yeast candida albicans.

So, she started on probiotics, cut out all dairy and sugar and implemented an intense hygiene and treatment program. It did not clear it all up – but I was able to cover what was left reasonably well with makeup on the actual day of the formal.

My daughter is now 18 and, thanks to friends, she now works for them in – you will never guess it – a health food store! She now drinks water, asks me for facials, washes her hair regularly, take tablets and surprise, surprise – her skin is clearing up! We still do not change our pillowcases and sheets except under duress – but she does smell nice for a change!

So what I am getting at? There will always be mothers who come in with similar children, who are spending a lot of money on them, with you, to no avail. Stand back and take a holistic look at what could be causing their skin complaints, and advise the parent how to treat it. More importantly – tell the teenager how to treat it! Children never listen to their parents, so as a therapist, you can step in to the breach – especially if you are younger and closer to the their age. They will be much more likely to listen to you when you give them some serious words of advice.

The following steps have been taken by my daughter and have turned her skin around in less than a month, although she still has a way to go. But unfortunately all good treatments that do not result in long-term negative side effects tend to take time.

The first thing that made a huge difference to her overall confidence, and the appearance of her skin, was the general grooming of her face. I shaped her eyebrows and tinted her eyelashes – the latter because she never takes her mascara off properly and ends up with panda bear eyes, which instantly make anyone look dirty and unkempt. If your teen has hair on her upper lip, remove it. They will instantly look cleaner.

Besides the obvious products we all know to recommend, suggest to your client that they have a weekly AHA treatment or enzyme peel. Be careful not to strip or overstimulate their skin – just work it enough to clear it up at a steady speed. You do not want all of the underlying infection to erupt at the same time, causing them to panic and cease treatment.

Really stress to them the importance of using a mask once or twice weekly; many teenagers do not cleanse their skins thoroughly as it cuts into their social time. Tell them that they can apply it while getting their daily dose of required TV viewing.

If they will not let their mother wash their hair, recommend they have it washed professionally every week – it makes a massive difference to how clear the skin stays when the hair is really clean. Try and explain how it affects the skin when worn in their face! A lot of the time you will be talking to yourself, but you never know when they will actually listen…

Another obvious thing that you will need to explain, is that chipped nail polish and chipped nails are great breading places for bacteria – scratch your face – and then that is where the bacteria goes!

Reiterate to them (for their parent’s sake) the importance of washing – twice daily, with soap! And the importance of a deodorant. We have all had at least one experience of the client who did not seem to understand the importance of hygiene, haven’t we?

It is worthwhile printing a list of food that is healthy for their skin – and that which is not. The list should read along the following lines:

• Fresh fruit and vegetables – as much as you like. Things such as salads, fruit salads with yoghurt, steamed vegetables with olive oil, lean meat, and pastas with tomato-based sauces – no cream!

• Avoid dairy foods, especially butter, milk, cream and ice cream. Butter can be easily replaced with any number of equally-good tasting spreads on the market and milk with soymilk. Yoghurt is pre-digested and contains acidophilus which is important for the body, so encourage it.

• No sugar – replace with honey; no artificial sweeteners or soft drinks. You can have one or two sugar-free and preservative-free juices but freshly- squeezed vegetable and fruit juices are best.

• Drink two litres of clear water. Some people do not understand the difference between flavoured water and clear.

• Avoid all processed, fatty foods – especially fast food. Where possible eat organic foods to avoid all chemicals.

Fatty, dairy and starchy foods place pressure on the liver. A teenage liver is already overloaded by excessive hormones so does not need the added strain. Dairy, starches and sugars will cause an overgrowth of candida albicans in the intestinal tract. This chronic yeast infection may make acne worse and must be treated when present. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, poor memory, vague, spaced-out feeling, muscle aches, bloating, pmt, cramps, irritability, indigestion and burping. If they have a history of antibiotics, and/or a high sugar diet, or are regularly constipated, you really need to look at this as a cause.

To help your teenager stick to this regimen, recommend that they keep it up for at least six days of the week, allowing themselves a day off on the seventh. Again, some will do it and others won’t, but at least you have provided them the tools they need for when they are ready to take responsibility for their skin.

The following supplements I found to be very helpful when controlling acne for many young sufferers, as well as my daughters:

• All antioxidants – A, C and E help the skin heal and repair itself.

• Zinc – helps wound healing and maintains a healthy immune system. Is the most prescribed mineral in the fight against acne and all other skin complaints.

• Silica has been proven successful in repairing the connective tissue, helping with scarring and healing the skin.

• Flaxseed oil or capsules containing omegas 3, 6 and 9 EFAs (essential fatty acids). These help maintain the structural integrity of cell membranes and are beneficial to cell structure. A deficiency in the essential fatty acids can lead to dryness, scaling and redness of the skin.

• Selenium or garlic works as a natural antibiotic, killing the bacteria in the skin (while fighting colds and other infections).

• Chlorella nourishes the body and helps it to detoxify naturally, in a way unsurpassed by any other supplement. This is a really important supplement when you suspect that a client has candida.

• Dandelion is a valuable alkaliser to the body; it assists in the reduction of acidity, oxygenates, purifies and builds blood and cleanses and regenerate cells. It assists liver, spleen, gall and pancreatic function, and makes it easier to digest fats and oils. Dandelion has been found to stimulate mucus membranes, sooth the digestive tract, absorb toxins from the bowel, help friendly flora to thrive and inhibit unfriendly bacteria.

• Probiotics –more often known as Acidophilus, although there are many more strains of this family, are the important bacteria needed in the intestinal tract – these ‘friendly bacteria’ fight off candida. They are often recommended when purchasing antibiotics.

The hardest thing to overcome with teens is their I-know-it-all attitude and that they do not always want to do what is good for them, only what is fun for them. By giving them the tools to know what to do, and constantly guiding them in the right direction, you greatly increase the chances of them clearing their skins up – with no scars to show for it!

For 23 years Yvette van Schie has worked in the Beauty Industry in varying roles. She is presently researching and writing two books on skincare and freelances as a makeup artist, hairstylist and stylist.

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