At its core, acne is an inflammatory condition. Bacteria cause trouble by triggering a cascade of inflammatory chemicals and cellular activity in the skin. The result of this inflammatory frenzy is increased blood flow (causing redness) and an influx of helper white blood cells called phagocytes, which attempt to wall off and contain the offending bacteria, leading to a pus collection, either under the skin or at the surface (aka a zit) The message? You can’t put low-quality fuel in the machine and expect stellar performance—it’s not fair to your poor little body. Here are the biggest offenders:
This is the big bad wolf of inflammation. Try to get your sugar from real, unprocessed foods like fruit, complete with the fiber that is meant to accompany it. Cravings? Try a square of dark chocolate or one drop of fennel essential oil on your tongue or in your tea.
Chinese medicine has long considered dairy to be the most congesting, inflammatory food group, increasing mucus production and hindering digestion. Switch to easy-to-make almond milk, and stick with goat and sheep cheese if you need a cheese fix—they’re easier to digest.
Wheat and gluten:
Genetic modifications in the wheat crop have started a gluten-intolerance epidemic. People with true celiac are rare and truly can’t have ANY gluten (not even the gluten in soy sauce or some skin care products). But many of us are just "gluten intolerant," meaning that gluten causes bloating, gas, and tummy aches, as well as general inflammation in the body. Opt for naturally gluten-free, protein-rich grains like quinoa and millet instead.
Omega-6 fatty acids:
Present in soybean oil, corn oil, and safflower oil, omega-6 fatty acids are present in huge quantities in the modern Western diet and become inflammatory when not balanced by comparable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. The good news? You can correct the imbalance by adding things like walnuts, wild rice, edamame, flax, and sustainably caught fish like salmon to your diet, as well as decreasing processed and fried foods.
Red wine has some antioxidant effect due to high concentrations of resveratrol, as well as a mild blood-thinning effect. Other alcohols have fewer documented health benefits, and no form of alcohol is beneficial in excess—it becomes irritating to the liver, pancreas, and other gastrointestinal organs. Anywhere from abstinence to about 7 to 10 drinks per week is the target zone. Enough about diet—the point is that even if you're a clean eater, you probably have room to improve.
When we’re stressed, our bodies produce more cortisol and testosterone, both of which can cause increased sebum production and breakouts. Additionally, we often care for ourselves less attentively when we’re stressed, sleeping less, taking less time for our health routines, resulting in acne, dark circles under the eyes, irritability, decreased hydration—sound familiar? So, how do you manage your stress? There will always be pressure and worry and not enough time and an endless to-do list. Step back, breathe, and find your own way to keep stress in check.
Aside from the amazing fact that you create your own happy chemicals when you exercise, sweating is generally good for your skin. Through sweating, we balance our electrolytes and increase blood flow to the skin temporarily, warming it and allowing clogged pores to release. Try to exercise with clean skin rather than wearing makeup, and always follow with by a gentle, cool-water rinse.
If we examined our hands, washcloths, towels, headbands, and pillowcases for bacteria, we would be shocked. And yes, while some bacteria is imperative, not all are created equal. Here’s how you can help:
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Don’t touch your face unless you are performing your skin care routine.
- Use clean linens, from bathroom to bedroom.
- Clean your phone/iPad/keyboard regularly with a natural, antibacterial wipe.
- Wash your face thoroughly before bed every single night.
Skin care routine:
As a skin care formulator, I have moved away from acne solutions involving harsh cleansers and drying topical medications. Pulling too much oil from the skin will cause it to up-regulate sebum production, resulting in MORE acne rather than less. Once a pimple appears, drying it mercilessly leaves redness, flakes, and scars—who wants that? Instead, we want to clean the skin and nourish it rather than stripping it. Here are a few tips:
- Oil cleansing is lovely, but should be limited to once or twice a week, or it can pull too much oil from the skin and cause increased sebum production and breakouts.
- Use a gentle face wash or handmade soap like this acne cult-fave for your regular cleansing. Fewer chemicals and ingredients are less likely to aggravate your skin.
- Proper exfoliation will keep the epidermis healthy and help prevent blackheads. But overexfoliation can leave the skin irritated and compromised—susceptible to bacterial invasion and acne flares.
- Raw Manuka honey masks can settle inflammation and have added antibacterial activity—twice a week is adequate.
- Don’t be afraid to use an oil serum! Used on damp skin just after washing, the right blend of oils can help the skin regulate its own sebum production more effectively. If you break out from an oil serum, it is probably not the right blend for you. (Remember that almost everyone breaks out when switching skin care products, so give it at least a week.)
- NO PICKING!!! Honestly, ask yourself how often it makes things better, and how often you regret it.