- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Acne - A Natural Approach
Stages of Acne
Acne (medical name acne vulgaris) is one of the most common skin problems, and is probably the most common in teenagers and young adults. Teenage boys and young men suffer from this problem more often. The good news is that it is usually not too difficult to reduce the problem without using harsh chemicals, painful skin peels or potentially dangerous drugs.
In acne, excess keratin builds up in the skin and partially or wholly blocks the channels around the hair follicles. (Keratin is the main protein in hair and nails, and also in the outermost layer of the skin.) This can lead to build-up of the natural oils produced by the sebaceous or oil glands in the skin, which normally reach the surface of the skin via the gap around each hair. This eventually leads to formation of blackheads or whiteheads, depending on how severe the blockage is.
This build-up can then lead to a lump forming around the blockage, which is basically what the spots found in very mild acne are. Unfortunately, sometimes something further takes place. A bacterium, Proprionobacterium acnes) uses the excess oil as a growth medium; the body’s own immune system then reacts to form inflammation, which is what one might call the second stage of acne. If this inflammation is severe enough, it can lead to scarring of the tissue around the spot.
The major cause of this whole cascade of problems is the increase in testosterone at puberty and into early adulthood, which for some little-understood reason leads to production of more keratin and sebum; sebum is the natural skin oils It isn’t all that well known, but production of testosterone increases in girls at puberty as well as in boys, although obviously not to the same extent; this is the reason why both sexes tend to acne at that time of life although boys get it more often.
As an aside, one of the symptoms of some fairly serious hormone imbalances is severe acne; an example is polycystic ovary syndrome. Therefore, although it’s a very lucky teenager that never gets spots, really severe acne merits professional medical attention. Also, severe acne can lead to permanently scarred skin, so that’s another good reason. Certain malabsorption problems can manifest partially as severe acne, too; a good example is the rather rare acrodermatitis enteropathica, which is a severe congenital problem with the absorption of zinc. This problem isn’t really acne at all, but looks a lot like it.
Some secondary stimuli that can worsen acne include excessive levels of intestinal toxins (caused by poor diet, usually, in acne sufferers) and certain drugs. Some skin preparations can worsen acne symptoms, particularly if they are harsh enough to cause inflammation in themselves. Regarding products put on the skin, another thing that can worsen acne is use of particularly large amounts of makeup, particularly if it is not properly removed. This is quite simply because the makeup directly blocks pores. This is even more important if the makeup is very greasy, which is uncommon these days; stage greasepaint is probably the worst but not often used.
OK, that’s what causes acne; now what can you do about it?
Acne is worsened by a number of habits, so the very first thing to do is to moderate those. The changes of habit are essentially dietary; the popular thought that junk food causes acne is essentially correct. First, large amounts of saturated fat in the diet can make acne worse; this is because more such a diet causes the natural oils of the skin to become thicker and more likely to solidify and clog the pores. Large amounts of refined carbohydrates (sugar, fizzy drinks, biscuits, hamburger buns, crisps etc.) also cause more saturated fat in the skin oils. So the dietary changes are basically the same as recommended for other reasons; less refined carbohydrates and junk food, also less red meat and more high-fibre foods such as brown rice, jacket potatoes, wholemeal bread, fruit and vegetables. A small addition that particularly helps acne sufferers is consumption of more oily fish, which contains omega-3 oils that make the skin oils more fluid.
Apart from the dietary changes, it is also a good idea to keep the skin clean and the skin bacteria under control. The use of soap for this is not ideal, because soap is highly alkaline and thus causes direct skin inflammation and also causes the skin to produce even more oil. Therefore, the best cleansing agents are probably pH-balanced washes that have an acid/alkali balance much closer to that of your skin. Regular exfoliation with mildly abrasive agents, which are widely sold as exfoliating creams, can help as well, by keeping the pores unblocked. It’s probably obvious, but such abrasive products should not be used on skin that is already severely affected by acne; they would make a real mess of your face!
It is also essential to make sure that makeup is thoroughly removed each night, and to wear as little as possible of it in the first place.
Certain supplements can be used to advantage; they include zinc, vitamin A, vitamin E, selenium and the B vitamins. Given the large number of nutrients involved, it might be more cost-effective and convenient to use a high-quality multivitamin/mineral, which will have all those nutrients in it. Another nutrient that can sometimes help is chromium, which helps your body deal with sugars better. A mild immune booster like cat’s claw can help the body deal with the bugs that cause the spots. And finally, because of the involvement of the digestive system in this problem, it might also be useful to use a probiotic (“friendly bacteria”) supplement of some sort.