Just when a guy or girl is discovering the charms of the opposite sex, experiencing the urge to be independent, opening up to find a whole new social life–pop–he or she looks in the mirror and finds a face closely resembling a small pizza with extra pepperoni.
Almost every teenager gets a pimple now and then, but acne is more than just the occasional blemish. It’s physically uncomfortable, at times even painful, somewhat embarrassing–and it can turn the teen years into an era right up there with the Inquisition. Acne affects 80 percent of all teenagers. Knowing the facts can help you better understand your friends who suffer from acne or help you approach your own with a little more hope.
Acne isn’t the result of being dirty, eating junk food, or using too much makeup. And it isn’t just a “teen thing” that will always clear up by itself. Acne is a skin disease, but it’s not contagious. Although it usually begins in adolescence, it has both physical and psychological effects that can last a lifetime.
Where Does it Come From?
Acne is very obvious. It means blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples that can make adolescent skin look like raw hamburger. While the face–doesn’t it just figure?–is the most common site, acne can also spring up on the chest, neck, shoulders, back–any area where there are many oil glands. According to dermatologist Joseph Bark, here’s the series of events that makes the “zits” appear.
1. As you make your way into adolescence, hormonal changes are happening all over your body. One of them is increased amounts of the hormone androgen.
2. The androgen sends a message to your oil glands (technically known as sebaceous glands) to produce more of the fatty substance called sebum. This is normally discharged through your pores to lubricate the skin.
3. That causes oily skin, which in some teens isn’t a problem beyond a shiny nose. But in teens who have acne, the oil gland openings cause problems. Instead of flaking off and emptying out the oil gland openings as normal oil glands do, the epidermal cells of the glands stick together and form immovable clumps that plug them up.
4. The excess sebum being produced also backs up in the oil glands, along with skin pigments. The whole thing results in a mass of whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples.
* A whitehead (the medical term is closed comedo) is a hard round cyst filled with dry sebum. It happens when the backup we talked about causes an eruption of the pore in the second layer of skin (the dermis).
* A blackhead (an open comedo) happens when the oil and dead cells accumulate within the skin follicle, creating upward pressure that causes a hole at the top of the follicle, in the outer skin layer (the epidermis). The dark, cheeselike substance inside becomes visible at the skin’s surface, hence the name “blackhead.” The dark color doesn’t come from dirt but from the skin pigment melanin.
* A pimple makes its appearance if substances in the blackhead buildup become infected. Pus forms, and the bump becomes inflamed and red.
Why acne occurs in some teens and not all may be a factor of heredity. We do know that it’s no more common in girls than in boys.
What Can You Do?
Keep in mind that although there is as yet no cure for acne, it can be controlled.
* Remember that mild cases usually clear up by themselves with time.
* Keep your skin clean and keep your hair clean and away from your face. Surface dirt doesn’t cause acne, but it can contribute to its spread.
* If you’re shaving, do so lightly so you don’t nick bumps. Soften your beard well before going after it with a sharp blade.
* If you use makeup, choose the nonoily variety and always remove it before you go to bed.
* Avoid picking at or squeezing blackheads, whiteheads, or pimples. The pressure can rupture the surrounding membrane and spread the infection further. Besides, squeezing won’t get rid of blackheads because, according to Dr. Bark, by the time you can see them, they’ve been present in the skin up to two months.
Teens who suffer from severe cases of acne that are interfering with their overall well-being should seek the care of a doctor. Again, acne can’t be cured yet, but there are treatments that can help clear up the symptoms and keep them under control.
Vitamin A acid cream (Retin-A, retinoic acid, and tretinoin). Available only by prescription. Retin-A loosens the attachments between the epidermal cells so that the “plugs” that cause pimples can’t form. Retin-A is not straight vitamin A but a modification of it with the addition of certain substances that change its chemical action. It’s a drug, not a vitamin; in fact, vitamin A taken orally is completely ineffective in treating acne, and an overdose can be toxic. Retin-A comes in various strengths, from the low-strength cream to the higher-strength gels and liquids, and is always applied in a thin layer. At first, the drug will bring pre-existing acne bumps to the surface of the skin-so the whole thing appears to get worse before it gets better. Because that process can take from two to 12 weeks, your physician may prescribe an antibiotic that will help prevent infection during that period.
A new advancement is in the works. It is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A that can be taken in pill form to reduce the amount of sebum produced in those with acne.
Severe acne can leave physical scars. Cosmetic surgery may help some of those persons.
Keep in mind that information about acne changes constantly and that treatment always depends on the individual.
Keep a Clear Head
If you have acne, here are some suggestions you might find helpful.
1. Get the best care you can. You have skin disease–see a doctor! You wouldn’t sit around and suffer with a broken arm or a case of pneumonia, would you?
2. Study yourself as objectively as you can in the mirror. What are your physical features that outshine your ravaged skin? Do you have great hair? Do everything you can to make it look its best. Got a pretty decent body? Tone it up and wear clothes that show it off. Whether it’s your dazzling blue eyes or those perfectly straight teeth, play up the physically positive.
3. Think of yourself as a person with great hair–or a great sense of humor or a compassionate nature. Other people focus on what you’re focusing on. If you’re obviously self-conscious about your complexion, they’ll zero in on it. If you’re too busy flashing your smile, they’ll forget your pimples, too.
4. Teens with acne don’t go from 13 to 19 without a social life. Plenty of kids with acne date, hold school offices, star in drama club productions. If you have a friend whose acne doesn’t cramp her style, ask her how she does it. She’ll probably tell you her skin condition isn’t who she is. Who she is, is outgoing, fun, smart–and she’s out there going for it.
5. If someone’s openly cruel to you about your skin, you have a right to feel hurt. You have a right to tell him you don’t appreciate his lack of sensitivity. You have a right to find other friends. You also have a right to hope he wakes up tomorrow morning with a huge pimple on the end of his nose, but don’t waste your time on that. You have better things to do!
6. This, too, shall pass. Whether with medication or time, your skin will clear up. That doesn’t make all things better right now, but cling to it in that moment when yet another pimple has popped to the surface.