The Glow Guide to Hormones & Your Skin: The Teen Years

Your skin is many things, but consistent isn’t one of them. Everything from the weather to your sleep habits (or lack thereof) can have an impact on its condition. One major player that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is your hormones. Starting in your teenage years and well into middle age, your hormone levels fluctuate and can cause a host of complexion changes along the way. While men also have issues with hormone changes, they are not as wide-ranging and do not have the same impact on the skin as fluctuations for women do.  

In this new series, we’ll explore the effects hormones have on women’s skin at every age, plus what you can do to manage those swings and keep your skin sane. Because puberty, periods, and menopause are bad enough without adding skin troubles on top of them.


As anyone who’s experienced puberty knows all too well, the hormones of teenagers are, uh, intense. So are their effects on teenage skin. As the body’s biggest organ, the average teenager’s skin undergoes major changes thanks to the surge of hormones flooding the bloodstream. Whether they’re dealing with occasional breakouts or a more intense form involving cysts and nodules, the majority of teens — 85 percent! — ages 15 to 19 experience acne.

When it comes to teenage acne, it’s always about hormones, says Jessie Cheung, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Willowbrook, Ill. “No matter what,” she says, “that’s the bottom line.” 

Here’s why a previously untroubled complexion can become dappled with blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts. When someone hits puberty, a rush of male hormones called androgens is released, a process that increases sebum production. That’s usually a surefire recipe for acne. “The sebum clogs the hair follicle, and acne bacteria get happy by eating the oil,” Dr. Cheung says. 

“When it comes to teenage acne, it’s always about hormones.”

JESSiE CHEUNG, MD

By the way, even though androgens are “male” hormones, females also have them — just at different levels. “Because boys have more testosterone than girls, they’re more prone to acne [as teenagers],” Dr. Cheung says. Both genders struggle with breakouts, she says, noting that each person has a different sensitivity to hormonal fluctuations. “It’s a genetic predisposition,” she says. Of the many things teenagers blame their parents for, this one may be the most valid.

Hormones are gonna rage no matter what (as they should!) but managing acne comes down to two tactics. First, a gentle skin-care regimen, tailored for young skin, is non-negotiable. Secondly, stress reduction is imperative and incredibly useful for, you know, surviving high school. More on both below.

The cornerstone of a skin-care regimen: gentle cleansing

Years ago, the idea was to attack acne into submission through harsh tonics and lotions, but dermatologists now believe in a gentler approach that’s even more effective. It all starts with washing your face each morning and evening. This is the simplest way to keep dirt, oil, and makeup from clogging pores. “Most teenagers do fine with gentle exfoliating washes,” says Dr. Cheung. Our Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser is an ideal choice, as its formula contains alpha-hydroxy acid to remove dead skin buildup—all without stripping skin of the oils and moisture it needs. Or try an over-the-counter antibacterial cleanser to eliminate acne-causing bacteria. “These washes can be a little bit more drying,” Dr. Cheung says, “but they do help.”

Acne-specific actives: a way to banish breakouts

For recurrent breakouts, topical treatments can produce significant improvements — if you use them consistently. While they’re often thought of as a fix for existing blemishes, they’re actually more effective when used for prevention. Salicylic acid is a winning choice, thanks to its ability to keep pores clear. Benzoyl peroxide is another perennially popular treatment; it destroys acne bacteria but can have the unfortunate side effect of drying skin out. (It’s also likely to bleach towels and sheets that come in contact with skin.) 

Forms of vitamin A like retinoids and retinol, however, may be the smartest long-term choice. Dr. Cheung points out that adapalene, a topical retinoid used to treat moderate acne, is now available without a prescription. “It’s a third-generation retinoid, so it unclogs pores and reduces inflammation,” she says. And with consistent use, retinoids and/or retinol can help skin develop fewer signs of aging — which may not be a concern at age 16, but at 40, you’ll be thanking your teenage self.

Keep in mind that when you are using these types of acne-clearing treatments and powerful actives, you are also potentially drying out your skin and damaging your natural moisture barrier. That’s why it’s so important to also include a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer into your routine. Yes, that might seem suspect if you have the traditionally oily skin that comes with the teen years, but hear us out: When you don’t moisturize, your skin actually will produce more oil to makeup for the lack of hydration. And, as we’ve already learned, excess oil is one of the underlying causes of breakouts. So, do your skin a favor and make sure you have a moisturizing lotion in your regular rotation.

Holistic approaches: 

Hormones are a necessary part of being a human. But when certain hormones such as cortisol spike, the imbalance can invite breakouts. The silver lining to that cloud? A few lifestyle shifts can help keep your hormones humming along even-steven and make SAT prep less anxiety-inducing. 

Take stress, for instance. “In my office, we talk about reducing stress, because stress affects hormones, too,” Dr. Cheung says. She suggests calming practice such as yoga or meditation, which can help take the bite out of high-stress moments. 

Or consider the role of food. Recent research suggests a connection between drinking milk and developing acne. “Very often, some people’s bodies are more sensitive to dairy, and that can trigger acne,” Dr. Cheung says. If you’re among the dairy-sensitive population, reducing or eliminating dairy may help keep hormones happy. Sugar, too, presents concerns for hormonally temperamental skin, Dr. Cheung adds. So if you’re looking to reduce inflammation and minimize breakouts, it’s best to choose an herbal tea over a PSL.

Your skin and your body are going through some big changes, but with the right skin-care routine you can manage those issues and come through puberty (mostly) unscathed. You’re on your own with the social minefield that is high school.

We’re sure you’ve got questions, so ask away! Tell us in the comments what issues you’re facing or what else it is you want to know.

And, check out our other guides to learn what hormones are doing to your skin at every age:

The Glow Guide To Hormones & Your Skin: The Twenties

The Glow Guide To Hormones & Your Skin: The Thirties

The Glow Guide To Hormones & Your Skin: The Forties

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