What you need to know about acne
If scientists can decipher the human genome, you’d think they could find a way to
eradicate acne. No such luck. It’s up to you to deal with the outbreaks that can
damage your pride of appearance long after teenage angst is past. When a pimple
rears its ugly black, white, or red head, over-the-counter products can help. But so
can simple remedies from Mother Nature’s medicine chest.
Your skin is producing too much sebum—the thick, oily substance that acts as a
natural lubricant—and the excess is blocking your pores. There are two kinds
of acne. The most common form, acne vulgaris, shows up on your face, chest,
shoulders, or back as blackheads, whiteheads, or red blemishes. Cystic acne
appears as painful cysts or firm, painless lumps. Fluctuating hormones caused by
puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, perimenopause, or birth-control pills often
increase the production of sebum, which can trigger an outbreak of either type.
Other culprits include emotional stress, clothing that rubs against the skin, and
some drugs, such as steroids. Genetics may also play a role.
Zap Zits Now
- The first avenue of assault is an over-the-counter cream or gel formulated
with benzoyl peroxide. It works by mildly irritating the skin, which encourages
dying skin cells to flake off. This helps reopen clogged pores. Benzoyl peroxide
also kills the bacteria that infect clogged pores.
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic acid, slough off the
outermost layer of skin, which helps keep pores clear and unclogged. Opt for a
cream, lotion, or gel that contains 8% glycolic acid.
- At the first hint of a pimple, wrap an ice cube in a piece of plastic wrap and
hold it to the area at least twice a day—every hour, if you can, but for no longer
than five minutes each time. The cold will reduce the redness and ease the
- Pop an aspirin or two. Taking one or two 325-milligram tablets four times a
day can help calm an acne outbreak by reducing inflammation. (Check with your
doctor before taking aspirin regularly.)
Try Alternative Acne Treatments
- Three times a day, dab a drop of tea-tree oil on blemishes to discourage
infection and speed healing. Research has found that 5% tea-tree oil is as effective
against acne as a 5% benzoyl peroxide solution.
- For acne that flares at that time of the month, drink one to two cups of
chasteberry tea a day. Some studies show that this herb helps regulate female
hormones. Give the herb two or three months to work. And don’t drink copious
amounts of the tea to hasten the results—it may make your skin look worse.
- Dab vinegar or lemon juice on pimples. All vinegars contain acids that can
help flush out pores—so does lemon juice.
- An old folk remedy for healing pimples is to use a mixture of spice and
honey on them. Combine 1 teaspoon powdered nutmeg and 1 teaspoon honey,
and apply it to the pimple. Leave on for 20 minutes, then wash off. There’s no
proof that this helps, but honey does have antiseptic properties.
- Apply aloe vera. One study found that 90 percent of skin sores were
completely healed with aloe vera within five days.
- Think zinc. People with acne tend to have lower than normal zinc levels.
Zinc supplements produce visible improvement in about a third of people who
take them. You’ll need high doses, though—between 200 and 600 milligrams
daily—so take it only under your doctor’s supervision.
The Power of Prevention
- If you keep skin free of dirt and excess oil—the thinking goes—perhaps your
pores will never get clogged. But overcleansing can cause acne by making your
sebaceous glands produce more oil. Forgo granulated cleansers. And avoid
washcloths; they are abrasive and can accumulate bacteria if you reuse them.
Instead, use a disposable cleansing cloth.
- Make a skin-cleansing solution to help clear up blackheads. Add one
teaspoon of Epsom salt and three drops of iodine to one-half cup of water and
bring to a boil. Let cool. Dip in a clean cotton pad and use it to clean the pores.
- Men: Rinse your razor in alcohol after you use it so any bacteria it harbors
won’t transfer itself to your face.
To Squeeze or Not to Squeeze
If you absolutely, positively must squeeze your blemishes, here’s the
dermatologist-approved method—and it’s only valid for whiteheads. Clean
the area well. Light a match and hold the tip of a needle in the flame for
three seconds. Then gently nick the surface of the pimple. Use a cotton swab
to drain it, then clean it with hydrogen peroxide, if you wish. But don’t
squeeze or pick—you’ll make it worse. To “squeeze” a blackhead, use a
blackhead extractor, available in drugstores. Soften the blemish with a hotwater
compress for 10 minutes before you use it, and wash your hands
beforehand to reduce the chances of infection.
Should I call the doctor?
Getting a pimple now and then is no big deal. But a visit to a dermatologist is in
order if your blemishes don’t respond to over-the-counter treatments within
three months or your skin becomes severely inflamed, with painful, fluid-filled
lumps and a reddish or purplish cast. You’ll want a doctor to take a look at
your skin if it’s always red and flushed, even if acne isn’t present; you may have
the beginnings of rosacea, a skin condition characterized by persistent redness,
pimples, and enlarged blood vessels.