Curing the College Acne Blues

Why your skin can break out in college -- and what you can do about it.

Medically Reviewed by Karyn Grossman, MD on July 15, 2012
5 min read

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."

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.

Neutrogena Healthy Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF 50 ($12.99) and Olay Complete Defense Daily UV Moisturizer SPF 30 ($14.99) are "light feeling... and have good coverage," says Levine. Eucerin Everyday Protection Face Lotion SPF 30 ($8.99) "is a little thicker but offers very good protection," she adds. And she likes EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46 ($29) because it "contains niacinamide, good for acne-prone skin."

Exfoliate If your skin likes to hoard dead skin cells -- a dull complexion is a telltale sign -- an exfoliating scrub can slough them off. Fruit or nut scrubs can be too abrasive, so choose a product with microbeads that don't feel rough against your skin. Clinique Exfoliating Scrub ($18.50) and Neutrogena Deep Clean Gentle Scrub ($6.29) are both effective and won't scrape your skin, says Friedman.

Body Skin Care

For good hygiene, all you really need is a daily shower or bath and a bar of soap. Believe it or not, on most days you only need to soap up your underarms and groin, says Friedman.

"Your skin is in a constant state of turnover, pushing off old skin cells, which are then replaced by newer ones," he says. "Overwashing with soap can limit your skin's ability to stay hydrated and protect you from bacteria. You can usually get away with using soap on your arms, body, and legs every other day and just use water in between. Areas more prone to sweating and oil production do require daily cleansing with soap."

Dove Body Wash ($8.99) is Levine's favorite. "It's very moisturizing," she says. If your skin is extremely dry, Friedman suggests soap-free Cetaphil RestoraDerm Skin Restoring Body Wash ($14.99).

As soon as you step out of the tub or shower, pat your skin lightly with a towel and apply a moisturizer, says Friedman. Look for occlusive agents like dimethicone, petrolatum, paraffin, and lanolin that block water from being lost when the skin is exposed to dry air, he says. You also want your moisturizer to contain humectants that hydrate by pulling water from the outside into your skin.

While the weather is still warm, try a light formulation with sunscreen, such as Yes to Carrots Hydrating Body Lotion with SPF 30 ($14.99). As soon as the cold hits, switch to CeraVe SA Renewing Lotion ($15.99), which blocks moisture loss and repairs the skin barrier, says Friedman. That makes it a good choice for the winter months, when low humidity and blasting heaters lead to parched skin.

Avoiding Acne

Here's what can worsen acne breakouts and how you can reduce the risk of bad flare-ups.

Processed food. "Sugary, starchy, highly processed foods all cause blood sugar to spike, and that leads your body to produce more insulin, insulin growth factor, and androgen," says dermatologist Jody Levine, MD. "We now know that it's these hormonal surges that lead to excess sebum or oil production and then to acne." Solution: Chart your skin eruptions. If you notice yourself breaking out after eating, say, dairy, eliminate it from your diet and see what happens.

Stress. Whatever the cause of stress, it weakens your immune system and amps up your body's inflammatory response. The result: an eruption of pimples, or worse, rosacea, eczema, or any other skin condition you may have. Solution: Counteract the stress, make sure you're eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, or head to the gym.

The opinions expressed in this section are of the experts and are not the opinions of WebMD. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.

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