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Curing the College Acne Blues

Why your skin can break out in college -- and what you can do about it.
By Shelley Levitt
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Karyn Grossman, MD

College may be good for the mind, but it can be tough on your skin. Maxine Hillman, a 21-year-old junior, can attest to this. She had struggled with acne since the fourth grade, but with the help of a dermatologist, she finally got it under control in her teens. That is, until her first year at the University of California, San Diego. Pizza, breadsticks, and ice cream, a heavy course load as a linguistics and Latin double major, and a shift in sleep patterns ("I was napping more than I did in preschool") all led to what she calls "a monumental skin freak-out."

"The college years are a prime time for breaking out, even for people who went through the bulk of their teen years without acne," says Jody Levine, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "Your skin reflects your overall health, and the disruptions in diet, exercise, and sleep, plus stress, can all lead to acne flare-ups."

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For Hillman and other young adults battling breakouts, sticking to a simple skin care routine is the best defense. Here's what our experts recommend.

Facial Skin Care

Cleanse Before bedtime, wash your skin with a cleansing bar or lotion formulated for the face, such as Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser ($5.49), Levine says. If you have dry skin, says Adam Friedman, MD, director of dermatologic research at New York City's Montefiore Medical Center, choose a mild non-soap cleanser like Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser ($8.49) to avoid stripping away the oils your skin needs. Don't skip this daily step! Going to sleep with the day's accumulation of grime, dead skin cells, and makeup clogging your pores can lead to acne bacteria growth, says Friedman.

In the morning, just splash lukewarm water over your face. "Overwashing will dry out your skin and rinse away those good oils and fats that protect skin from the nastiness in the world, like dirt and bacteria," Friedman says.

For acne-prone skin, choose a cleanser with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. These ingredients kill the bacteria that cause acne and remove excess skin cells that can clog pores.

Hydrate and Protect Every morning, year-round, smooth on a lotion with a sun protection factor (SPF). "Damaging rays come through clouds and even glass," says Levine. "When you make using sunscreen every morning part of your routine, it becomes a habit so you don't have to think about it."

While your skin is still damp, apply a broad-spectrum, moisturizing sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher. You want a broad-spectrum product because it protects against both UVA radiation (the aging rays) and UVB (the burning rays) as well as skin cancer. Make sure the label says "noncomedogenic," which means it won't clog pores.

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