Q: I try to keep my skin as clean as possible, but I still suffer acne breakouts all the time. Is this just part of "growing up," or is there something I can to do stop it? I've read that a lot of the products on the market aren't good for my skin, so I don't want to make it worse!
-Fran G., Ogunquit, Maine
Contrary to popular belief, acne is not caused by poor hygiene, although poor hygiene can make it worse. It's actually caused by an overproduction of sebum by the sebaceous glands in your skin. This excess sebum tends to clog pores, which then accumulate dead skin cells and bacteria. These clogged pores are visible on the surface of the skin as whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples.
Acne can manifest at almost any age, but it tends to be particularly troublesome during adolescence. I've seen my own daughter take exceptionally good care of her genetically predisposed acne, and she helped me create this useful roster of natural skincare pointers for teens.
1) First and foremost, be gentle with your skincare. Combining loads of harsh chemicals and intense treatments will only further irritate your skin. Begin with a gentle cleanser that contains no drying ingredients. It's also very important to moisturize your skin no matter how oily it is; your skin, like the rest of your body, needs to stay hydrated to be healthy. Products that dry out your skin will only cause further problems.
2) One of the simplest acne prevention tips is to be aware of what's touching your face. Try to stop yourself from touching or picking at your skin, or resting or rubbing your face on anything. Changing your pillowcase twice a week helps minimize facial exposure to excess oils. It can be ok to pop pimples if you use sanitary tools and minimal squeezing or pinching of your face, but popping can cause scarring or make pimples worse. If you are a picker, consider using hydrocolloid bandages to protect the pimple from straying hands. The suction created by these thin, clear, non-medicated bandages may also suction out a pimple that is close to the surface.
3) Eat clean. The better you eat, the better you look and feel. If you suspect that certain foods cause you to break out, it may be worthwhile to try and pinpoint and eliminate them from your diet. The most common acne-promoting foods are sugar and dairy products. This doesn't mean organic Greek yogurt isn't good for you, but dairy products-especially poor-quality dairy (think processed cheese)-are culprits in problem skin for some.
It should be noted that there isn't a clear correlation between diet and skin clarity. Plenty of people eat poorly and still have beautiful skin. There are also people who don't take care of their skin at all and have nice skin, so obviously the same foods and habits affect people in different ways. Nevertheless, especially as we age, the quality of our diet has a huge impact on our health and beauty. Try cutting dairy and sugar out of your diet for six weeks. It's likely you will be pleased with the results.
4) Over-the-counter treatments that contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can be great as long as they're used in moderation. No treatment should be excessively drying or cause your skin to feel tight, flaky, or itchy. Clay masks are effective in bringing pimples to a head and drawing dirt out of pores.
5) Although it seems counterintuitive, oil therapy can sometimes work wonders on a broken-out face. Try a blend of equal parts olive oil and castor oil gently dabbed and wiped over the face with a cotton ball. It's a gentle way to clean your face and remove both dirt and makeup. Hemp seed and safflower oils are great for acne-prone skin. Tea tree oil can be a good spot treatment if diluted in carrier oils such as hemp, safflower, or olive. Neem oil can also help with acne, as a cleanser or spot treatment that won't dry out your skin.
6) Acne remedies include a Chinese herbal formula called AcnEase (acnease.com); inositol, 4 grams daily, to help balance hormones and thus reduce skin outbreaks; and indole-3-carbinol (or try DIM, a natural precursor of indole-3-carbinol), which helps block the androgen receptor. This generally produces a quick response in all cases of teenage acne. Take 600 mg daily until improvement; reduce the amount to 300-400 mg daily thereafter.
Saw Palmetto (which can be combined with nettle root and Pygeum for greater effect) works well to clear testosterone and help reduce pimple formation. Burdock root (Arctium lappa) is a classic herbal remedy for numerous skin ailments. It's called "Gobo root" in Japan, and was known to be a beauty secret of Geisha girls. Lastly, vitamin A-10,000 IUs daily-is safe and helpful for many skin problems.