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Acne is one of the most common disorders in the western world where it is estimated to affect 50-95% of teenagers. Acne is typically thought of as a disease of adolescence, but it can persist into later life, especially in women, causing significant mental health issues (R, R1, R2).
This article takes an in-depth look at the science surrounding acne, as well as the steps you can take to get rid of it.
Why Does Acne Form?
Increased Oil Production
Increased levels of oil (sebum) production leads to blocked pores. This increase in sebum can be caused by a range of mechanisms, such as increased testosterone production, increased CRH, increased IGF-1, and lack of Vitamin-D (R, R1).
Overgrowth of Bad Bacteria
Blocked pores provide a perfect oxygen-free, fat-rich environment for P. acnes, the main acne-causing bacteria, to live (R).
Certain P. acnes bacteria might contain natural defense mechanisms that enable them to recognize attackers and destroy them before they infect the bacterial cell (R).
It is not the blocked pore that causes the red, angry looking zit. This is caused by the body’s inflammatory response to the bacterial infection, which involves CD4+ lymphocytes, macrophages and a variety of pro-inflammatory cytokines (R).
Increased Skin Cells
Skin cells mature as they move from deep within the skin to the skin’s surface. This process is called keratinization.
People with acne have abnormal keratinization that can cause a build up of old cells which become black heads and white heads (R).
Who is at Risk for Acne?
Twin studies have shown that genetic factors can play an important role for severe acne scarring (R).
Acne is less common in rural areas (R).
Acne happens earlier in girls but is more common in mid-teen boys (R).
Black children have more blackheads/whiteheads than white children, most likely due to earlier onset of puberty (R).
Tropical acne can occur when visiting an unfamiliar, hot, humid climate (R).
High stress lifestyles cause acne (R).
It has been noted that many non-westernized populations do not suffer from acne. This has led to the suggestion that acne is caused by the high glycemic diets of westerners’:
Dairy products, particularly milk, can worsen acne (R).
Smothering the skin with greasy skin products, clothing or excess sweat may worsen existing acne (R).
Use of anabolic steroids can cause severe acne (R).
Conventional Treatments to Acne
Conventional acne treatments typically take four to eight weeks before results are seen, and usually involve reducing oil production, speeding up skin cell turnover, fighting bacterial infection or a combination of all three.
Benzoyl Peroxide (BP)
BP is an over-the-counter topical cream applied over the entire affected area.
BP works by reducing the growth of P. acnes bacteria, but does not carry the risk of antibiotic resistance (R).
BP used alone has been shown to be as effective as oral antibiotics.
BP is as effective as topical antibiotics (R).
2.5-5% BP is just as effective, but less irritating, than higher concentrations (R).
BP can often cause irritation, drying, and occasionally allergic reactions. These issues are usually temporary and BP has been shown to be relatively safe (R).
An extra safe way of using BP is short contact therapy which uses a foam wash that is only applied to the skin for five minutes (R).
Usually applied daily, these creams help expel blackheads and whiteheads and have anti-inflammatory effects (by decreasing cytokines and nitric oxide) (R).
A large analysis of multiple acne studies found that adapalene 0.1% gel, a type of retinoid, is just as effective and less irritating than the common retinoid, tretinoin 0.025% gel (sold as Retin-A) (R).
Topical retinoids are a lot safer than oral isotretinoin discussed below, but I still consider them dangerous – especially seeing as women are told to take a contraceptive if using retinoids as to avoid birth defects.
One study found that the most effective topical antimicrobial treatment was a topical combination of benzoyl peroxide (5%) and Erythromycin (3%) (R).
Clindamycin is widely prescribed as a topical antibiotic, typically at doeses of 75-150mg twice a day.
Topical antibiotics should not be used in combination with oral antibiotics as this increases the risk of developing antibiotic resistant bacteria (R).
Topical benzoyl peroxide and benzoyl peroxide/erythromycin combinations are just as effective as oral antibiotics, like tetracycline and minocycline, and less irritating than benzoyl peroxide alone (R).
While many doctors don’t follow this rule, oral antibiotics are meant to be a treatment for severe acne that has been unresponsive to topical treatments (R).
Antibiotics help reduce the inflammation of the lesions but do not clear acne completely (R).
There is no evidence that oral antibiotics are more effective than topical antibiotics (but topical won’t destroy your gut bacteria) (R).
Tetracycline is the most commonly prescribed antibiotic for acne. The typical dose is 500mg twice a day continued until a significant decrease in acne lesions is seen (R).
It is conventionally recommended that courses of oral antibiotics do not exceed 6-8 weeks to prevent antibiotic resistance (R).
Tetracycline should not be given to pregnant women or children under 9 years of age as tooth discoloration in children is common.
The biggest danger of oral antibiotic use is damaged gut flora. A 2013 study found that during and after an antibiotic treatment the gut biome has a lower capacity to produce proteins, less ability to absorb iron or digest certain foods (R).
The study also demonstrated that bacteria that were in limited numbers at the start of the study grew to very large populations at the end of the study, signifying an overgrowth of opportunistic (likely bad) bacteria (R).
Oral Clindamycin therapy can cause a serious intestinal infection called pseudomembranous colitis caused by the bacteria, Clostridium difficile (R).
Antibiotics might damage mitochondria by increasing toxic reactive oxygen species and promoting protein imbalances. This might explain why people report feeling sluggish and rundown after a course of antibiotics (R, R1).
The health of your gut is very important. I think antibiotics should be reserved for emergencies or if all else fails and, definitely, should not be taken long term. If you have to take them, make sure you take a powerful probiotic along side them.
Oral Contraceptives (Women)
COCs (combination oral contraceptives) that contain estrogen and a progestogen (synthetic progesterone) are given as an acne treatment because estrogen suppresses your oil glands and lowers androgens like DHEA which can cause acne (R).
Progestogen-only contraceptives can actually make acne worse (R).
Oral Isotretinoin (Accutane)
Since oral isotretinoin was first approved for acne use in 1982, over 20 million people have used it.
Isotretinoin is probably the most effective acne treatment available with relapse rates after treatment much lower than other medications.
While isotretinoin was originally put forward as a treatment only for the most severe cases of cystic acne, a number of trials have shown that low-dose treatment can be effective for moderate acne (R, R1, R2, R3)
Isotretinoin is justified on the basis that it will work quickly, prevent scarring and lead to a rapid improvement in the patients life (R).
However, Isotretinoin is alarmingly toxic. So much so that pharmacists must provide a warning brochure from the FDA, called a Medguide, to all patients prescribed Accutane.
Personally, I would not advocate anyone take it regardless of how bad their acne is. I have some clients whose issues started or worsened after Accutane.
Isotretinoin might cause:
- serious birth defects. Women have to sign an agreement saying they will take contraceptives and not get pregnant while on the drug (R).
- hair loss (R).
- extremely dry skin and mucous membranes (R).
- increased risk of developing staph infections (R).
- slowed wound healing (R).
- dangerously high cholesterol (R).
- intense muscle pain – especially in the back (R).
- IBS (R).
- ulcerative colitis (R).
- depression and suicidal behavior. Although a 2007 paper did not find any evidence to support this anecdotal claim, there are a number of mechanisms by which isotretinoin might cause these issues (R).
- serious damage to parts of the brain related to learning and memory (R, R1).
- cell death in your oil glands (R, R1).
Alternative and Natural treatments For Acne
1) Sun/Light Therapy
Blue light has been shown to inactivate P. acnes bacteria. Daily self treatment using a blue light treatment for mild-to-moderate inflammatory acne reduced the number of acne lesions significantly (R).
Topical aminolevulinic acid, methylaminolevulinic acid, or other photosensitizing agents, applied before the laser treatment, improve the outcome of the treatment by decreasing oil gland activity (R).
Infrared light at 1450nm wavelength successfully helps treat acne, possibly by heating the oil gland and reducing its production of oil (R).
2) Fish Oil For Acne
If you don’t eat a lot of seafood you should take a high quality omega-3 supplement:
3) Probiotics For Acne
A large number of the treatments already mentioned attempt to treat acne by killing the bacterias that scientists have decided cause acne.
While temporarily effective, these treatments do not recognize that the bacteria on our skin are just like any other community in the world in a delicate balance. No species will overgrow if the rest of the community is in balance.
I think one of the best techniques to deal with “bad bacteria” is to ensure that the rest of the bacterial community is thriving. This should help prevent unwanted overgrowths. You can do this with probiotics.
A 2009 study found that topical application of a probiotic lotion (containing Enterococcus fecalis) for 8 weeks resulted in a 50% reduction in acne lesions (R).
A second study found a reduction in acne count, size and irritation with the application of Lactobacillus plantarum 5% extract (R).
Oral probiotics can improve acne via a number of mechanisms, including reduction of systemic inflammation and increasing nutrient absorption (R).
An Italian study found that patients given 250 mg of freeze-dried L. acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum in addition to their standard treatment, saw greater improvements in their acne than standard treatment alone.
Here are some great oral probiotics:
4) Heal Your Damaged Gut
By healing the gut lining you can stop leaky gut and decrease systemic inflammation.
For healing the gut, I recommend following a lectin avoidance diet.
5) Diet For Acne
It was found that non-westernized populations, like Kitivans of Papua New Guinea and the Ache hunter gatherers of Paraguay, do not suffer from acne. This led to the suggestion that acne is caused by a western diet rich in high glycemic carbs (R, R1).
An initial study on this theory proved that low glycemic diets improve acne (R).
People with acne should focus on low glycemic foods, as found in ancestral diets, in order to keep their androgens and IGF-1 levels as low as possible. They should avoid dairy products for the same reason (R, R1).
6) Reduce Stress Levels
High stress lifestyles can make acne worse (R).
As already mentioned, altered gut bacteria can cause acne. Acne sufferers should try to limit all types of stresses – e.g. confinement, crowding, academic examination – because they reduce levels of healthy gut bacteria (R).
7) Rosmary Oil
9) Honey For Acne
Honey is often used in the alternative health community as a natural face wash.
Honey is antibacterial – probably because its enzymes produce hydrogen peroxide which inhibits bacteria (R).
Manuka honey is especially effective against bacteria because of its high sugar content (dehydrates bacteria) and low ph (R).
Honey helps wounds heal faster and provide a protective barrier against further infection (R).
Medicinal grade honeys have been shown to be very effective against antibiotic resistant bacteria (R).
The antibacterial properties of honey can vary significantly, depending on where it was harvested (R).
A number of components isolated from the eucalyptus plant have inhibitory effects on microorganisms that cause acne (R).
You could try applying eucalyptus essential oil diluted in a carrier oil.
11) Tea Tree Oil
An Australian trial found that tea tree oil significantly reduced all forms of acne but was less effective than 5% benzoyl peroxide in reducing inflammation. Both treatments worked equally well for non-inflammatory acne (R).
12) Ocimum Oil & Aloe Vera
A Nigerian study showed that ocimum gratissimum (aka clove basil or wild basil) oil caused a greater reduction in acne lesions than 10% benzoyl peroxide (R).
While not that effective on it’s own, aloe vera gel significantly enhances the efficacy of Ocimum oil lotion. This combination was shown to be more effective than topical antibiotics (1% clindamycin) (R).
Patients with acne usually have low levels of zinc (R).
0.6 grams of oral zinc per day was found to improve mild to moderate acne (R).
Plant-based diets generally don’t get enough zinc. I use ~20mg daily. This is a good source:
14) Gugulipid (Guggul)
Avoid if allergic to guggul -Signs of allergy to guggul may include itching and shortness of breath. Also avoid if you are pregnant or have a history of thyroid disorders, eating or bleeding disorders (R).
15) Green Tea
Application of a 2% green tea lotion for six weeks was found to be effective at treating mild to moderate acne (R).
I find that green tea cleansers work well.
Berberine is a bitter substance that lowers oil production and has anti-inflammatory effects (R).
In lab studies, Berberine inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus coagulase, P. acne and Candida species, indicating that it might be a useful treatment for acne (R).
See here for full benefits of berberine and where to buy.
A study on 150 patients using a topical 14% gluconolactone solution showed a decrease in inflamed acne lesions. This result was comparable with 5% benzoyl peroxide, but with far fewer negative side effects (R).
18) Cannabis Seed Oil
Cannabis seed oil of Cannabis sativus is helpful for the treatment of acne. It relieves pain and itchiness while strengthening the skin’s barrier function and makes it more resistant to infections (R).
19) Onion extract
Onion extract contains allium cepa and allium sativum, both of which are promising for the treatment of bacterial and fungal-associated infections, including acne (R).
Fortunately, onion extracts can also help lessen the appearance of scars (R).
The extract of Echinacea kills P. acnes bacteria (R).
One study found that curcumin might be an effective way to inhibit P. acnes bacteria on the skin (R).
The study recommends using lauric acid (found in coconut oil) as a carrier. You could try coconut oil and curcumin powder for face masks.
Just 12 acupuncture sessions can significantly improve inflammatory acne (R).
One study found that acupuncture was very effective at enhancing skin recovery and was better at reducing the pro-inflammatory cytokine, IL-6, than oral isotretinoin (accutane) (R).
24) Purified Bee Venom (PBV)
Topical treatments containing PBV reduced the severity of acne ((R)).
One study found that PBV treatment decreased skin level of ATP by 57.5%, indicating a drop in bacterial activity (R).
25) Glycolic Acid
Glycolic acid has been shown to inhibit the growth of, and helps kill, the P. acnes bacteria (R).
All subjects of an asian study reported improvements in their acne with the use of glycolic acid application (15% daily and 35-50% every 4 weeks) (R).
Different types of acne take different lengths of time to respond to glycolic acid. One study using 70% glycolic acid peels showed that blackheads and whiteheads improved rapidly, moderate inflammatory acne took six peels to improve, and deep cystic acne required ten sessions (R).
Acid peels have the advantage of reducing post acne scarring (R).
70% GA peel performed every two weeks is more effective for atrophic acne scarring than 15% GA cream used daily (R).
26) Salicylic Acid
Application of 2% salicylic acid lotion, two times per day, was significantly better than placebo in treating mild to moderate acne (R).
One study demonstrated that a salicylic acid cleanser was more effective than 10% benzoyl peroxide and did not cause an initial worsening of the condition (R).
Salicylic acid might enhance the effectiveness of other topical therapies, like benzoyl peroxide.
27) Lauric acid
28) Linoleic acid
One study claimed that application of linoleic acid gel resulted in a 75% reduction in inflammatory acne lesions (R).
29) Azalaic Acid
Azalaic acid is antimicrobial and reduces pore blockages (R).
30) Saw Palmetto
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) may improve acne by balancing male hormones. Although, to date, there has been little scientific research for the use of saw palmetto for acne treatment or prevention, there is a long tradition for using it for such purposes
Saw palmetto is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding unless otherwise advised by a doctor.
Boswellia is an anti-inflammatory herb that has traditionally been used in acne therapy.
33) Maintain Your Natural Skin Barrier
People with acne often think that their skin condition is the result of lack of cleaning or “dirty” skin. They over-wash their skin and apply irritating topicals like the ones discussed above. This can worsen the condition by altering the skin’s natural barrier function, creating more inflammation and encouraging the formation of resistant bacteria (R).
Drying out the skin might also encourage the body to produce more oil leading to increased lesions (R).
Gentle cleansing or no cleansing at all may actually be more beneficial than conventional treatments (R).
34) Get Regular Sunlight Exposure
In a recent study, it was shown that inflammatory biomarkers found in skin cells, which are often raised in the case of acne, are lowered by treatment with Vitamin D (R).
35) Vitamin A
One study found that Vitamin A was highly effective at treating acne in doses of 300,000 IU for women and 400,000 to 500,000 IU units for men. At this dosage, toxicity was minimal and limited to skin and mucous membranes (R). I wouldn’t recommend taking vitamin A at this dosage.
36) Sweat Regularly
When we sweat our skin produces a natural antibiotic called dermcidin, which can destroy tuberculosis germs and other dangerous bugs – possibly those involved in the formation of acne (R).
Health Tools I Wish I Had When I Was Sick
At SelfHacked, it’s our goal to offer our readers all the tools possible to get optimally healthy. When I was struggling with chronic health issues I felt stuck because I didn’t have any tools to help me get better. I had to spend literally thousands of hours trying to read through studies on pubmed to figure out how the body worked and how to fix it.
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- SelfHacked Elimination Diet course – a video course that will help you figure out which diet works best for you
- Selfhacked Inflammation course – a video course on inflammation and how to bring it down
- Biohacking insomnia – an ebook on how to get great sleep
- Lectin Avoidance Cookbook – an e-cookbook for people with food sensitivities
- BrainGauge – a device that detects subtle brain changes and allows you to test what’s working for you
- SelfHacked VIP – an area where you can ask me (Joe) questions about health topics
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