Like most teenagers, I spent my high school years awaiting the day my acne would magically disappear. I always figured zits were something I would eventually outgrow. Well, here I am, all grown up with two kids of my own—and I’m still waiting to outgrow my acne.
It’s called adult acne. And according to Alan C. Logan, co-author of The Clear Skin Diet, I’m not the only one suffering from it. “Incredibly, one out of two adult women have at least some degree of acne,” says Logan.
Why We Break Out
On the surface, the cause of acne is very simple: clogged pores and oily skin. Breakouts begin when pores are clogged by dead skin cells and excess sebum, a natural oil secreted from the sebaceous glands in your skin.
Clogged pores first show up as blackheads. If pores remain clogged, they can breed bacteria and eventually cause an infection to develop. The infection shows up as your standard pimple: a small, red bump that usually progresses into a whitehead as the infection is expelled by the body. Sometimes the body reacts strongly to infected pores. At this point, inflammation will increase at the site of the infection, and painful cysts can develop.
Why Conventional Acne Products Fail
Where do we go when we notice a few pimples pop up? Straight to the drug store, of course. We go home with a few standard acne products and hope it will resolve the problem. If that fails (and it usually does), then it’s off to the dermatologist for a prescription cream and possibly even a round of antibiotics. This may be the standard treatment for acne, but the truth is that conventional treatments are far from effective. In fact, they may be making the problem even worse.
“Acne medications on the market today contain ingredients that actually cause acne to take strong hold,” says Julie Gabriel, a holistic nutritionist, author of The Green Beauty Guide, and founder of Petite Marie Organics (petitemarieorganics.com). “For example, benzoyl peroxide is a known skin irritant, but it is also a free-radical magnet. It attracts free radicals so that they are able to cause more damage and inflammation in your skin.”
Antibiotics may cause even more worrisome problems. “Oral antibiotics are arguably the worst choices for the treatment of acne,” says Logan. “Oral antibiotics are a far greater concern than other interventions, because not only is the evidence that oral antibiotics effectively treat acne very, very thin, but the long-term insult to the intestinal microflora is devastating. Then we also must face up to the reality of antibiotic resistance via long term use in those with acne.”
Stress: The Hidden Cause of Acne
One reason conventional acne treatments give poor results is because they fail to address the underlying issues. Did you know the simple act of being stressed can cause your skin to break out? Researchers at the University of Oslo found that mental distress (like depression and anxiety) is connected to the severity of acne. It was noted that stressful events can further aggravate the condition.
Gabriel says, “When we are stressed, our brain pumps up cortisol, a stress hormone that makes all glands in our bodies, including oil-producing glands in our skin, work double shifts. That’s why we tend to experience breakouts before or after stressful events such as weddings, exams, tests, interviews, or important dates.”
In addition, stress impacts our appetites and food cravings. “Stress also changes how we eat,” says Logan. “While a minority eat less, the majority turn to comfort foods as a means of self-medication in times of stress, the very high-glycemic foods that have been implicated in acne.”
So how do we deal with stress? We can’t always eliminate all the stress in our lives, but we can buffer the impact stress has on our bodies. Eat well, get plenty of rest, curl up with a good book, take a long bath, get a massage, watch your favorite sitcom, or spend some time relaxing outside. All of these things can help you recover from daily stressors.
If you do tend to indulge in more comfort food during stressful times, opt for natural versions of your favorite treats. Try fruit or naturally sweetened yogurt if you’re craving something sweet, or whole-grain crackers and homemade guacamole if you want something with a salty crunch. Avoid the highly refined junk foods if you can, as these are more likely to contribute to your acne woes.
Rediscover Radiant Skin: Exfoliation 101
Your body is on a constant cycle of replacing old, dead skin cells with newer, healthy ones. The trouble is, if dead skin isn’t sloughed away, you can’t see that beautiful, vibrant skin underneath! Gently exfoliating the skin on a regular basis will restore the natural radiance of your skin.
Exfoliation will also help unclog pores and reduce blackheads. By naturally cleansing the pores, you can prevent the cycle of blackheads, pimples, and cysts.
When you do exfoliate, it’s important not to be harsh. “Most people think that exfoliation means scrubbing your skin until it bleeds,” says Gabriel. “But you can gently exfoliate with clays, or you can rub your face with papaya that contains naturally exfoliating enzymes, or you can exfoliate with natural fruit acids. Just rub your face with a cotton wool disc saturated with lemon juice, or simply with a slice of lemon—it’s just as simple as that.”
Gabriel also recommends an herbal steam bath with chamomile or peppermint followed by a natural clay mask to gently cleanse pores and prevent breakouts. Salicylic acid can also be used to treat acne. It works in two ways: it calms inflammation and cleanses the skin of dead cells. However, if you use a concentration that is too strong, you may irritate your skin. Logan suggests a cleanser that contains 1 percent salicylic acid to treat both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne.
Stop the Breakouts
“If you have acne lesions, they will be far less visible after this mask,” says Gabriel. “Spinach is rich in antioxidants and vitamins A, C, and E to protect; vitamin K to shrink blood vessels; magnesium to soothe; copper, zinc, niacin, and omega-3 to rebuild; and fatty acids to nourish. Bananas add potassium, which helps de-puff the troubled areas. Ginger electrifies the skin cells, and mint helps revive glow and zap any nasty zits that ruin your mood.” It’s called “Troll Princess Mask” because while you’re waiting for it to dry, you will look like a troll princess.
Troll Princess Mask for Acne
- 10-15 fresh spinach leaves or a cube of frozen spinach
- 5-6 leaves of fresh mint or 1 tsp dried mint
- 1/2 inch fresh ginger or 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 ripe banana
- 1 egg
Blend ingredients together with a hand blender or food processor. Apply a generous layer to the skin. Leave on for about 20 minutes, then rinse with tepid water.
By Elizabeth Walling, a freelance health and nutrition writer who lives with her husband and two children in Alabama and blogs about natural health at livingthenourishedlife.com.