Acne Antidote: Topical and Dietary Roadmap for Healthy SkinJul 31, 2023 08:30AM ● By Sheila Julson
Whether it’s a wedding day or job interview, nothing puts a damper on the moment like an outbreak of acne. It can be embarrassing and compromise self-confidence, but natural treatments and lifestyle modifications can keep those breakouts at bay.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, acne is the most common skin condition in the U.S., affecting up to 50 million Americans annually and roughly 85 percent of 12- to 24-year-olds. Dr. Julie Greenberg, a naturopathic doctor and founder of the Center for Integrative & Naturopathic Dermatology, in Los Angeles, notes that the prevalence of acne in this country leads people to wrongly conclude that it is a normal part of being human. “In fact, studies of indigenous cultures throughout the world do not find any acne in their populations. Acne is a disease of the Western lifestyle,” she asserts.
In essence, acne is an inflammatory skin condition that causes pimples, blackheads, whiteheads and redness. It is prompted by the overproduction of sebum, an oil produced by the sebaceous glands to lubricate hair follicles. Symptoms can be aggravated by an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast, excess hormonal activity or stress.
“The pathways that trigger acne are the same pathways that trigger inflammation. If you’re having acne on the skin, that generally means there are moderate to high levels of inflammation in the body, so that should be addressed,” says Saya Obayan, a board-certified integrative dermatologist at Skin Joy Dermatology, in Austin, Texas. She recommends keeping a food journal for six weeks to identify inflammatory foods that noticeably trigger an acne response and eliminating them from the diet. Many of the culprits are part of the Standard American Diet, including animal protein, wheat and sugar—foods that can increase sebum production, and thus generate acne.
Dr. Steven Daveluy, associate professor and program director for the Wayne State University School of Dermatology, in Dearborn, Michigan, notes that dairy spurs acne, as well. “Dairy contains an amino acid called leucine, which stimulates oil production and affects the skin cells to cause clogged pores. It also influences the insulin pathway, which can affect hormones,” he explains.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, hormonal acne develops when hormonal changes increase the amount of oil the skin produces. This scenario is particularly noticeable in teens going through puberty and both perimenopausal and menopausal women.
Greenberg approaches acne like she would any other inflammatory disease—by focusing on the gut microbiome. She recommends consuming at least 35 grams of fiber per day, eating a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, limiting meat consumption to four-ounce servings and eliminating or reducing alcohol, sugar and wheat to support microbiome health.
Obayan notes that stress aggravates any inflammatory disease, including acne. Meditation, exercise or regular walks can help calm the mind and lower stress. She also recommends herbs like ashwagandha to lower cortisol, a stress hormone that can trigger acne.
“The things we put on our skin can lead to clogged pores and trigger acne, including makeup and hair products. If you're getting acne in places where your hair typically touches your face, it could be from a hair product transferring onto the skin,” Daveluy notes. He stresses that makeup should be washed off before bedtime. On the other hand, over-scrubbing or washing the face too often can dry out the skin, which also leads to clogged pores and acne.
"While acne should be addressed from the inside-out, topical antibiotics can offer short-term relief and keep severe acne under control,” Obayan says. “Glycolic acid can help keep skin smooth and clear by exfoliating dead skin cells and unclogging pores. Tea tree oil has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, but it shouldn’t be used undiluted on the skin; it can be overly irritating.”
In addition, Obayan recommends topicals like retinol, a nontoxic vitamin A derivative that can help reduce acne, hyperpigmentation, dark spots, scarring, fine lines and wrinkles. Bakuchiol, an extract from the babchi plant, along with topical green tea polyphenols, licorice extract and neem oil, can all be helpful to reduce acne.
Resist the Urge to Pop Pimples
Mom was right when she warned to leave pimples alone. “People often think that it's helpful to manipulate your acne, but it can lead to more acne flaring, discoloration and even permanent scarring,” Daveluy advises. “Don’t believe anything on social media that isn't posted by a board-certified dermatologist. The rest of the skin info on social media is junk and could lead to damage to your skin.”
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings.