Once upon a time, way back in the days of poodle skirts and the Fonz, doctors and parents had little useful advice for teens struggling with acne. Fast-forward to the 21st century -- and be glad you did! Even though 80 percent of teens today struggle with their skin (not to mention 54 percent of women over age 25), dozens of new skin-clearing compounds offer effective ways to say good riddance to blackheads, whiteheads and bumps.
It's about time. Acne's effects are far more than skin deep. The embarrassment, shame, sagging self-esteem and social isolation can be life-altering -- and even life-ending. We're not exaggerating. Acne doubles depression risk, and teen girls with acne are twice as likely to be depressed as guys.
In a disturbing new study, Swedish researchers found a pattern of tragic suicide attempts in teens with acne. Even though all had taken a powerful skin-clearing medication (isotretinoin, aka Accutane), the connection wasn't the drug; it was acne itself. A third of the suicidal teens had made their first attempt months before starting the medication, and many made attempts up to six months after stopping it. The motivator may have been painful, long-denied feelings about their appearance, or disappointment that their life hadn't improved as fast as their skin had. When acne stalks teens into adulthood, grim moods follow.
The take-home message? If a teen you love is struggling with acne, take it seriously. While acne's a medical condition, not a personal failing or a sign of poor hygiene, less than half of high school students see it that way.
Understand the skin they're in. Clogged pores and infected pimples are signs of a storm brewing under the surface. Puberty and saturated fat (which teens eat too much of) boost production of sebum, thick oil that can mix with dead skin cells to block pores. Enter Propionibacterium acnes, the pimple-raising bacterium that thrives on this sludge.
Give pimples a one-two punch. Start with bacteria-stomping, clog-busting benzoyl peroxide. It cleared up blemishes slightly better than even prescription antibiotics did, in one study. Allow two to three weeks. If that isn't enough, add a second drugstore product containing salicylic, glycolic or lactic acid; these go after dead skin cells and calm inflammation. Give the duo another two to three weeks. Meanwhile, try to keep kids from squeezing and popping zits at home, which causes more pimples, invites infection and can leave scars.
Not enough? See a dermatologist. This doc can create a personalized acne-zapping plan that may include prescription drugs, laser therapy, chemical peels and safe treatment of blackheads and cysts.
Healthy up the family diet. While there's some wimpy and some strong evidence that eating "bad" foods causes breakouts, there's no question that healthy foods (avoidance of simple sugars, added syrups, any grain that's not 100 percent whole grain and trans and saturated fats) help prevent and clear up skin and keep it that way. But food is not "let's make a deal"; you have to avoid all of those five food felons. Go for oodles of fruits and vegetables, 100 percent whole grains and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, trout, walnuts, avocadoes, and canola and olive oils) -- these heart- and brain-healthy fats happen to be skin-healthy too. Ninety percent of people with acne who followed a low-sugar diet full of these healthy foods were able to reduce their skin meds, in one study. And on a remote Pacific island with access to few food felons and almost no dairy, acne is nonexistent.
Stock up on pore-friendly skin products. Acne-prone skin can be more vulnerable to sun damage (yes, in winter as well as summer), but oily sunscreens can block pores. Choose a non-clogging type. Teen girls who wear blush or foundation need oil-free, noncomedogenic makeup.
Do mental health checks. While teen moods fly up and down faster than airfares, if your child has acne or is taking any new medication, pay extra attention to moodiness, and not just for a few days. The Swedish researchers say depression and suicide risk can linger for a year after acne clears up. If you notice troubling mood changes, call your doctor right away.
Stress relaxation. College students break out more around exam time, one of many signs that inflammatory stress hormones are a key contributor to acne. Teach your kids a simple stress-reduction technique, like deep breathing, meditation or just taking a walk. Learning to de-fuse tension when you're young has lifelong benefits. Just ask any grown-up.
The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, are authors of "YOU: On a Diet." Want more? Watch "The Dr. Oz Show." To submit questions, visit RealAge.com.