The `secrets' of all-natural pimple protection


Section: Health & Beauty Aids
(shhh: not just for teens)

Picture this: You're fighting your way through traffic when you begin to feel a tingling sensation on your cheek. You brush the spot with the back of your hand thinking a stray hair must be tickling you, but the irritation is persistent. Finally, you inspect the suspicious spot in the rear view mirror and your worst fears are confirmed. A zit larger than an aircraft hanger has reared it's ugly head when you least expected it, and when you needed most to look your best. But, only teenagers get pimples, right? Well, no -- adults can suffer from ache flare-ups, too. The only difference in this scenario is that you're on your way to an important business meeting instead of the prom.

Most people consider acne to be a consequence of being a teenager, as though it were a rite of passage marking the ascent into adulthood. But, the "secret" truth is, as much as 20 percent of the adult population is affected by acne, the majority being women. Let's face it -- acne doesn't look attractive on anyone, of any age, and it can be socially immobilizing and disfiguring, as well. While teenagers can usually blame the hormonal roller coaster that ushers in puberty as a source of their skin troubles, adults are left wondering why they're in the same condition long after the ride is over. But, while hormonal activity is certainly an important factor in causing acne, there are other contributing sources that remain plentiful in the grownup world.

Acne 101
Acne formation is a 3-step process, regardless of age. First, the sebaceous glands surrounding the many hair follicles produce excess sebum, an oily substance geared to lubricate skin and hair and retain moisture. Then, dead skin cells become trapped in the sebum in the follicle canal, or comedo. Nearby cells that produce keratin, a fibrous protein that is an integral component of hair, nails, and outer skin, can also be stimulated into overproduction and can join forces with dead skin cells to form a blockage of the follicle canal. We recognize a blackhead as an open comedo, where the blockage is visible in the pore. A closed comedo, or white head, occurs when the blockage is complete. In either case, the follicle canal balloons, but, in the latter, it does not rupture. Finally, if the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes is present, the blocked follicle canal encourages its overgrowth, and it begins to break down sebum and cause inflammation. And there you have it -- a zit is born.

Acne triggers -- beyond hormones
Since male hormones dictate sebum and keratin production, and are particularly active during puberty, ache is generally accepted to be a hormone-dependent condition. But, elevated blood testosterone levels may not be the only culprit. Studies have shown that acne patients also evidence an increased activity of 5-alpha-reductase, an enzyme that converts testosterone into the concentrated form of dihydrotestosterone. This suggests that how an individual metabolizes testosterone may be another factor to consider in adult acne. Adults are also susceptible to other causes, such as environmental toxins found in the workplace, stress, poor diet, and certain medications, such as steroids and oral contraceptives. Older adults may experience pimples in addition to a form of adult acne known as rosacea, which is characterized by blotchiness and flushing.

Diet matters
Let's dispel some myths. Chocolate and french fries do not necessarily lead to the overproduction of sebum. It seems likely that these foods in particular have been labeled as pimple-producers because they're usually considered dietary staples by teens, but there is no scientific confirmation that they specifically cause acne. However, moderation of anything is always the rule, and it is wise to generally limit consumption of refined sugar and foods high in trans-fatty acid content, such as milk products, synthetically hydrogenated vegetable oils, and oxidized fatty acids (fried oils). A diet high in these substances and low in fiber and essential vitamins can result in intestinal toxemia. Since your skin is the greatest organ of elimination, the consequences of toxin overload may quickly become evident there. (Note: Kelp, a seaweed sold as a dietary supplement, and iodized foods, such as salt, have shown a direct link to acne and should be limited or avoided, if you have acne or are acne-prone.)

Several studies indicate that vitamin A reduces serum and keratin production and, therefore, their buildup in follicle comedos. Sufficient intake of vitamin A can be obtained by eating at least five servings each day of fresh fruits and vegetables. However, high-dose supplementation for the treatment of acne should be closely supervised by a qualified health care practitioner, since a toxic condition can develop. If it is possible for pregnancy to occur, vitamin A supplementation should be limited and administered by a physician.

Selenium is involved in the action of glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme that prevents inflammation of the hair follicle and that has been found to be lacking in many acne sufferers. Vitamin E is a partner in this mechanism and plays a critical role in the action of both selenium and vitamin A.

Another important nutrient in the treatment of acne is zinc. Zinc supports vitamin A function and contributes to tissue healing and regeneration. Zinc also interferes with the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone, a stimulator of sebum production.

Lactobacillus acidophilus, a "friendly" bacteria, is useful in treating acne in that it checks harmful intestinal bacteria, including yeasts such as Candida albicans. You can add acidophilus to your diet by consuming yogurt with live culture or by taking supplements in gel capsule form.

Give the "all-clear" to adult acne
If simply washing were enough to eliminate those annoying and embarrassing outbreaks, you probably wouldn't experience them. But, facial cleansing merely removes surface dirt and does little to unclog pores or neutralize bacteria. However, proper cleansing is an essential part of maintaining healthy skin. As with anything else, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it.

What you should know about acne treatments
Commercial acne treatments run the gamut in forms and possible side effects. Certain creams and lotions that contain zinc, sulphur, or benzoyl peroxide may reduce pimples, but they can also burn and leave skin dry and blotchy. Some oral medications offer help, but with significant risks. Antibiotics, for instance, do improve acne conditions, but they also interfere with the balance of healthy intestinal flora, making the problem cyclic. One oral medication prescribed for cystic acne, isotretinoin (Accutane), significantly reduces sebum production but is associated with serious birth defects. As the manufacturer cautions, malformation of the fetal brain, spine, skull, and heart are possible if used just before or during pregnancy. Other side effects include loss of bone density, arthritis, and depression. Fortunately, your health-food store will have a variety of quality brands of cleansers, toners, and topical creams that are gentle and effective against adult acne, but without these negative effects.

What are some of the ingredients found in these products and their benefits? Some of the most effective treatments contain tea tree oil, green tea extract, azelaic acid, ester-C, tocopherol (vitamin E), and a variety of herbal extracts. Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring acid that stabilizes keratin production and produces results comparable to that of Retin-A, benzoyl peroxide, or oral antibiotics, such as tetracycline. Tea tree oil has long been known to possess antifungal and antibacterial qualities. Green tea and topical vitamins C and E are potent antioxidants that help reduce infection and inflammation. Other ingredients include fruit acids (AHAs and BHAs) that act as gentle exfoliates.

Look for products that contain these healing ingredients, cleanse thoroughly and gently, and eat a balanced diet consisting of plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. It may take a few weeks to a few months, but soon you'll be feeling good in your skin again. And who knows --maybe you'll look even better than you did when you went to the prom.

Do's and Don'ts for Healthy Skin
don't scrub. Scrubbing with wash cloths or abrasive cleansers won't "wear" pimples down, but will exacerbate the problem.
Don't wash with harsh soaps. Instead, use natural botanical and vegetable oil-based soaps that cleanse gently without "stripping" the skin.
Don't overdo it. Washing your face too often will disturb your skin's pH balance, leading to more breakouts and adding dry, flaky skin to your troubles. Twice each day is usually sufficient.
Do use herbal extracts and supplements to encourage the renewal of healthy skin.
Do use pure, natural cosmetics on your skin, including natural foundation and other makeup essentials.
Gibson, JR. "Azelaic acid 20% cream (AZELEX) and the medical management of acne vulgaris." Dermatological Nursing 9(5):339-44, Oct 1997.

Leachman, SA, et. al. "Bone densities in patients receiving isotretinoin for cystic acne." Archives of Dermatology 135(8):961-5, Aug 1999.

Maddin, S. "A comparison of topical azelaic acid 20% cream and topical metronidazole 0.75% cream in the treatment of patients with papulopustular rosacea." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 40(6 Pt l):961-5, Jun 1999.

Murray, Michael T and Pizzorno, Joseph. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 2nd Edition. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998.


By Karyn Siegel-Maier

Karyn Siegel-Maier is a freelance writer who specializes in herbs, alternative medicine, and new-age issues. Karyn is a frequent contributor to national and regional magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and other publications. She is the author of The Naturally Clean Home: 121 Safe and Easy Herbal Formulas for Non-Toxic Cleansers (StoryBooks/Dec. 1999).

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