How to treat teenage acne: best products and advice for spot-prone skin


It’s 7am on a Monday morning, and my daughter is putting me on the spot. And I mean that quite literally. “Tell me how to get rid of THAT!” she demands, pointing at the pimple that’s sprouted on her nose overnight.

The embarrassing truth is, I don’t actually know. I’ve written about adult acne many times over the years, yet I’m in uncharted waters when it comes to good old-fashioned teenage zits. In fact, make that tweenage. My daughter is only 11, so I’m even more doubtful. Are pimple products at the chemists even suitable for such young skin?

It’s a topic I’ve been asked about repeatedly by mum mates who seem to mistake me for a dermatologist rather than a beauty director. While I might feel fairly confident suggesting products for their own skincare issues, the thought of dispensing advice for their spotty offspring is terrifying, frankly.

Here's everything you need to know about treating blemished teen and pre-teen skin
Here’s everything you need to know about treating blemished teen and pre-teen skin

So rather than just winging it, this seems like a good time to do what I’m always telling my daughter to do – some homework. Here’s what the real experts have to say…

What can teenagers do to help prevent breakouts?

Cleansing properly is essential for blemish-prone skin. “Excess oil is being produced and there is a build-up of dead cells and debris, so you want to help skin by washing twice a day and unclogging pores,” says Dr Zainab Laftah, La Roche-Posay consultant dermatologist. “If there are blackheads and whiteheads, bacteria living on the skin may use that opportunity to create inflammation which in turn causes pimples.”

Dr Osman Bashir Tahir (aka Dr OBT), aesthetics doctor and founder of Halcyon Aesthetics, says CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser, £9.50 here, is a good daily basic for all ages “It cleanses and removes oil without disrupting the skin’s protective barrier,” he says.

One key ingredient for blemish-prone skin is salicylic acid, which breaks up oil, unclogs pores and has an anti-inflammatory effect. “A cleanser with salicylic acid is fine to use even on pre-teens once or twice a day. I’d recommend something around the 0.6% range for the youngest skin, like Epionce Purifying Wash, £38 here,” says GetHarley skincare guru and cosmetic surgeon Dr Ash Soni. Dr OBT says The INKEY List Salicylic Acid Cleanser, £10.99 here, is a good high street option.

CeraVe / Epionce / The INKEY List
Invest in a cleanser targeted at blemish-prone skin

Should skin be squeaky clean?

The experts say you want to avoid over-cleansing the skin. “Washing more than twice a day can strip essential oils, so skin produces more oil, which can lead to more pimples,” says Dr OBT.

A good daily skin regime can make all the difference to keeping blemishes at bay
A good daily skin regime can make all the difference to keeping blemishes at bay

“If skin feels dry, especially when leaving anti-blemish products on, it’s likely the barrier function is being stripped,” adds Dr Zainab. “I often suggest alternating between salicylic acid and a more hydrating cream cleanser formulated for blemished skin. I also advise moisturising after cleansing – it’s important to keep skin hydrated so it’s more likely to tolerate anti-acne actives.” Dr Zainab recommends La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo, £12.75 here, a mattifying moisturiser formulated with blemish-clearing niacinamide and salicylic acid.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo hydrates, mattifies and treats blemishes in one

Should pimples be popped?

Restless little fingers won’t like this, but the answer is no, says Dr OBT. “Popping pimples can push infected material further into the skin, leading to more swelling and even scarring,” he warns.

Dr Ash adds, “If a pimple pops up, apply a spot gel to help clear it.” His clinic choice is Epionce Purifying Spot Gel, £38 here, and he recommends La Roche-Posay Effaclar Breakout Correcto, £9.37 here, Medik8 blemish SOS, £19 here, and Murad Blemish Corrector, £20 here, as effective high-street options.

Epionce / Murad / La Roche Posay
A good targeted spot treatment can help

What products can you use on kids with acne outbreaks?

Over-the-counter products are a good place to start, says Dr Zainab. “Besides salicylic acid, actives to consider are benzoyl peroxide as it is good at targeting both inflammation and clogged pores. Niacinamide is great for reducing inflammation and any marks left on the skin.”

Proper cleansing needs to be a daily basic, according to the experts
Proper cleansing needs to be a daily basic, according to the experts

Don’t attempt to introduce an eight-step regime though. “Kids won’t stick to it, and applying too many actives can cause irritation. So pick one well-formulated product that targets the majority of their skin problems.”

What about makeup can you use on spot-prone skin?

Since teens often find that cosmetics worsen outbreaks, Dr OBT advises picking ones with acne-friendly ingredients – look for words like noncomedogenic or nonacnegenic.

“I recommend Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions Liquid Makeup, £24.22 here, which is formulated with salicylic acid,” he says. “Beware makeup that includes mica, silica, and talc – these light-reflecting particles can cause irritation, potentially leading to breakouts.”

Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions Liquid Makeup
Dr OBT advises picking makeup with acne-friendly ingredients like Clinique’s Anti-Blemish Solutions Liquid Makeup

What else could be making the problem worse?

A dirty mobile phone. “Your face produces oil and sweat, which gets onto your phone. If you don’t clean it, during your next call you’re pushing it back into your skin, along with any bacteria that has grown,” says Dr OBT.

A dirty phone can spread blemish-causing bacteria
A dirty phone can spread blemish-causing bacteria

Grubby pillowcases. “ Wash them at least once a week to help skin stay clear,” says Dr Ash.

Glasses or sunglasses. “Clean them often to keep oil from clogging the pores around your eyes and nose,” says Dr OBT.

Hair products. “Apply anti-frizz products or pomades away from your forehead,” advises Dr OBT.

When should you seek expert advice for spots?

See a GP or skin expert if kids have moderate to severe acne, or if they develop nodules or cysts. “These need to be treated properly to avoid scarring,” says Dr OBT.

Want professional advice on your child’s skin and yours too? £50 buys a 50-minute “Mum & Me” video consultation with one of GetHarley’s elite specialists.

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