Many of us have battled acne at least once in our lives. Whether it was during our hormonally turbulent teens, overconsumptive 20s, or as our body chemistry shifts during and after pregnancy and in later years of life, at some point we’ve been faced with a decision about how to treat irritating and unsightly blemishes.
Anti-acne products are abundant in the marketplace, making it easy enough to jump to topical treatments as a cure-all without considering the forces at work within us that sit at the root of the breakout. The number of acne-fighting products also, unfortunately, makes it all too easy to forgo consideration about the consequences of many over-the-counter and conventional treatments.
For example, one of the most popular conventional treatments for acne is benzoyl peroxide, an antibacterial agent. While topical formulations are balanced to offer safe concentrations of this chemical compound, downsides include increased irritation of the skin leading to peeling and overdrying (often making it harder to conceal the blemish while it heals).
Any chemical — including organic and botanical ones — in too high of a concentration can irritate the skin. But the bigger concern over benzoyl peroxide is its carcinogenic effect. A study out of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy cites concerns that benzoyl peroxide can be a promoter of skin tumors due to reactive free radicals in the compound. (Not sure what a free radical is? Read this!)
When you choose to focus only on a topical approach to a skin issue, chances are incredibly high that you're only dealing with a very small portion of the problem. The connection between our gut (what we eat, how our body handles it, etc.) and our skin is undeniable, so why only treat what's on the surface? Sure, lotions and creams can serve as a temporary fix, but they won't solve anything in the long run.
Instead, try taking an integrated approach to skin care through diet and lifestyle, and then further enhancing it with beneficial, botanical ingredients. Not only are botanicals as effective as any conventional treatments, they're often more supportive and strengthening for your skin and overall health. Here are five great places to start:
1. Eat well. Move often.
The most sustainable way to control breakouts is through nutrition and exercise. Your endocrine system (which produces hormones) needs healthy fats, and in the right ratio. This means making sure you're getting enough omega-3 fatty acids from sources like oily fish, chia seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, and avocados. Since your body can't produce its own essential fatty acids, it's incredibly important to get plenty in your diet.
Regular exercise will also keep your lymphatic system circulating properly, allowing you to filter metabolic waste through your kidney and liver for proper detox and elimination.
2. Reduce surface bacteria.
Incorporate beneficial plant oils with antibacterial and antiseptic properties into your beauty routine. Lavender, thyme, witch hazel, and tea tree oil — also known as melaleuca oil — all fit the bill, as do more exotic plant extracts like kigelia, an African plant that’s been used medicinally for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and skin-firming properties, and babassu oil, which is high in lauric acid, making it anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory to boot. Find or create a blend so you don’t irritate your skin with too high a concentration of these potent extracts.
3. Balance oil production.
Hydration is the key to healthy skin. If your skin doesn’t have enough moisture, it reacts by producing excess oil (which is why face oils and serums are helpful for oily and acne-prone skin). Squalane is a particularly absorbable form of hydration, and it’s a lipid our skin produces naturally.
4. Reduce inflammation.
This is a twofold approach. First, reduce consumption of inflammatory foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed oils. Second, combat inflammation on the skin’s surface with products containing botanicals like black cumin seed oil, an anti-inflammatory that helps fade scars and dark spots; camelia sinensis or tea root extract (yes, as in drinking tea); rose, which soothes skin while strengthening collagen-elastin; calendula; chamomile; and lemongrass.
5. Promote cellular renewal.
Eliminate dead skin cells with the help of products containing natural salicylates such as willow bark. Willow bark contains natural and lower concentrations of salicylic acid than OTC and prescription topicals, thereby reducing your risk of skin peeling and thinning. You can also promote cell turnover with gentle alpha-hydroxy acids from hibiscus and low-strength glycolic acid.
Lastly, aloe vera gel can help acne-prone skin on multiple levels: It’s antibacterial, promotes cellular renewal, enhances the body’s production of hyaluronic acid (a natural lubricant that allows skin to hold moisture), contains glycoproteins that reduce inflammation, and has been shown to speed up skin’s natural healing process. It’s no wonder this plant has been used medicinally in cultures around the world for thousands of years.
Upon hearing this, a friend recently asked me, “Why haven’t people been using aloe vera on their skin daily?!” Why, indeed.
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