Acne is no fun. As someone who has dealt with mild to moderate acne in my teen years (thanks puberty) and now in my late twenties (thanks progesterone birth control), I can tell you that from personal experience. It's frustrating, embarrassing, confidence-robbing, and sometimes physically painful. Basically, ain't nobody got time for acne.
Before I get into the topical treatments that are really effective (and safe) for treating acne, let's talk about the bigger picture.
The potential reasons for breakouts are many, and more often than not, if you're experiencing persistent breakouts, you've got one or more of these factors at play:
- hormonal fluctuations - puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, menopause (yes, really), and hormonal birth control are all known to cause breakouts. Typically, progesterone-estrogen birth control is less likely to cause breakouts than progesterone-only options, but both come with a list of other side effects, of course.
- digestive issues - there is a strong connection between your skin and your gut, and in Ayurvedic & Western medicine terms, many diseases & imbalances make themselves known via the digestive system. Inflammation, constipation, and sluggish bowels can make themselves known on the skin through a variety of problems, one of which might be acne. The biggest digestive cause of acne is usually inflammation in the digestive tract, which could be anything from acid reflux to gastric ulcers to ulcerative colitis.
- poor diet - although most mainstream dermatologists will tell you that your diet doesn't have an effect on your skin, most estheticians, complementary medicine practitioners, and holistic dermatologists will beg to differ. I mean, did you just read the bullet on digestive issues? We all have unique bellies that have challenges with specific foods more than others. That doesn't mean that everyone has the same triggers for breakouts, though common triggers include foods like dairy and processed sugar.
- poor skincare routines - over or under-exfoliating, over or under-washing, overdrying, under-moisturizing and under-hydrating, and picking are just a few of the habits that can cause acne. We won't be focusing as much on these routines in this post, but be on the lookout in the future for a post specifically about this!
- weak or imbalanced organ systems - again, this isn't something with which a mainstream dermatologist will agree, whereas aestheticians and complementary healthcare practitioners are on board (especially Ayurvedic & Chinese medicine practitioners). The regions of the face can be mapped to the systems of the body, and if you tend to have breakouts in the same regions of the face, it's likely a sign that you have a continuing imbalance in the corresponding organ system. Often times, customized Ayurvedic or Chinese herbs can help balance the body and in turn, reduce or eliminate breakouts.
Some of the most powerful treatments for acne are taken internally because they work on the systemic causes of acne. That's why many dermatologists will want to put you on oral antibiotics! And while these drugs might help initially with your breakouts, they are actually killing both the good and the bad bacteria on your face. Basically, oral antibiotics aren't a great long-term solution for breakouts. The most sustainable internal "treatments" are (1) customized Ayurvedic or Chinese herbs designed to treat your imbalances as needed, and (2) balancing your unique digestive system with proper diet and routines. This usually means emphasizing foods that are easy for you to digest, nutrient-dense, and fresh. That's not to say you can't ever have a dietary splurge now and again - it's all about balance in the bigger picture.
Okay, so now that we've gotten the bigger picture, let's get into the nitty-gritty of topical treatments. Although internal and systemic treatments for acne tend to be powerful, there are definitely topical treatments that can work wonders, especially if your acne is mild to moderate. I'm going to tell you a little bit about the most common types of mainstream ingredients, highlighting which ones are safest (marked by a *) and which are best used by a knowledgeable and experienced aesthetician on a limited basis.
- Alphahydroxy Acids (AHAs) - Chances are, you've heard of this class of active ingredients in acne products. AHAs are chemical exfoliators that work by dissolving the upper layer of dead skin cells to fade hyperpigmentation and prevent breakouts and clogged pores from popping up. AHAs are water soluble. There are some AHAs with the EWG safest rating, and others are in the moderate risk category. Here are a few examples:
- Glycolic acid (EWG 4) - the main concern with glycolic acid is that it can be a skin irritant, causing redness and inflammation. It is a relatively small molecular AHA, which means it can penetrate more deeply into the layers of your skin. Chances are, if you've got normal to dry skin, this probably isn't the best choice for a daily use product, unless the concentration is low or you're not using it daily. This is one of those ingredients that I think is best wielded by a skilled aesthetician during your facial appointment when in the initial stages of trying to get acne under control. If you're in the Richmond area, I highly recommend the ladies of Luna Aesthetics & Spa.
- Lactic acid (EWG 4) - lactic acid is a larger molecular AHA, which means it can't penetrate as deeply as glycolic acid, and therefore tends to be gentler. Again, the main EWG concern is with skin irritation. I feel more comfortable giving the A-OK on products with lactic acid than with glycolic, but again you always need to be mindful of the concentration and how often you're using it.
- *Mandelic acid (EWG 1) - mandelic acid is also a larger molecular AHA so it can't penetrate as deeply and is gentler on the skin. It's earned the EWG safest rating because it is less likely to cause irritation than both glycolic and lactic acids. Overall, mandelic acid is the safest AHA.
- Betahydroxy Acids (BHAs) - This is another super popular chemical classification for acne fighting products. BHAs are also chemical exfoliators, but they are better catered to oilier skin types - they tend to be stronger than AHAs. Not only do they exfoliate the top layer of skin, but they also make their way into your sebaceous (oil) glands and dissolve the mixture of oil & dead skin cells that can lead to acne and clogged pores. BHAs are oil soluble. The main BHA used in skincare is salicylic acid.
- Salicylic acid (EWG 4) - Although salicylic acid can be found in nature (it's in willow bark!), it's not super gentle. The main EWG concern is with skin irritation and enhanced penetration effects. Since salicylic gets deeper into the skin than AHAs (more specifically, it gets into the oil glands), it's more likely to cause irritation. And if you've got some not-so-great ingredients in a product that contains salicylic, those less-than-ideal ingredients are being absorbed deeper into your skin than they might otherwise. Unless your skin is incredibly oily, using a salicylic acid product on a daily basis is not the best idea. This is one of those ingredients that I think is best wielded by a skilled aesthetician during your facial appointment when in the initial stages of trying to get acne under control. Salicylic works as a great gut-punch to the acne before you can get to the KO, but again, unless your skin is very oily, you should be careful. If you're in the Richmond area, I highly recommend the ladies of Luna Aesthetics & Spa.
- Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs) - These acids are newly popular to the acne-fighting mainstream. PHAs are similar to AHAs in that they break down the dead cells on the skin's surface. However, PHAs are much larger than both AHAs and BHAs in chemical structure, meaning they can't penetrate as deeply and are therefore the gentlest of the HAs - which is why both examples here earned the EWG safest rating. PHAs are also humectants, meaning they attract and bind water to the outer layers of skin.
- *Lactobionic acid (EWG 1) - in addition to fighting acne without irritation, lactobionic is also known for keeping skin plump and hydrated & reducing fine lines and wrinkles.
- *Gluconolactone (EWG 1) - just like lactobionic acid, gluconolactate fights acne without irritation, and is also known for keeping skin plump and hydrated & reducing fine lines and wrinkles.
- Dicarboxylic Acids - these acids are gentler than their AHA and BHA counterparts, and are known for their not only their antibacterial acne-fighting powers but also for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The main dicarboxylic acid used in skincare is azelaic acid.
- *Azelaic acid (EWG 1) - This newcomer to the acne-fighting world, azelaic was originally formulated to treat rosacea because it is a strong anti-inflammatory. By happy accident, researchers found that azelaic also has strong antibacterial and antioxidant properties as well, making it a great ingredient for fighting acne. We use 15% azelaic acid in our Clear Skin Potion.
Now let's get into some of the lesser-known ingredients that could make a big impact on your acne.
- Probiotic ingredients - Just like your gut has its own microbiome, or collection of bacteria (both "good" and "bad"), so does your skin! Adding more "good bacteria" to your skin will help gently fight the acne-causing bacteria without irritation, and will overall make your skin happier and healthier.
- lactobacillus ferment. - found in yogurt, this "good" bacteria is fermented and actually serves double duty as one of our preservatives and is found in our Clear Skin Potion!
- lactobacillus and cocos nucifera extract - this compound includes the "good" yogurt bacteria fermented along with an extract from the fatty acids of coconut. It's another one of our multitasking preservatives found in our Clear Skin Potion!
- saccharomyces ferment. - saccharomyces itself is a fungi used in the fermentation of wine and beer, and even to help rise bread (since yeast is a strand of saccharomyces). Octogenarian sake brewers in Japan found that the hand they used to stir their rice wine looked dramatically younger, firmer, and brighter than their non-stirring hand. That was saccharomyces at work! In addition to promoting a firm, plump, and youthful glow, saccharomyces also works to fight acne-causing bacteria. You'll find it in our Clear Skin Potion!
- Essential oils - I've got to preface this with a very important message. NEVER, EVER APPLY UNDILUTED ESSENTIAL OILS DIRECTLY TO THE SKIN. Essential oils should only be used when properly diluted in a suitable carrier oil. For your face, good carrier oils include: jojoba oil or hemp seed oil. Phew, now that's off my chest, let's get into some essential oils especially good for acne:
- tea tree - the astringent and antibacterial properties of tea tree make it a popular choice in acne treatment products. However, it's not always well-tolerated by everyone. I chose to leave this guy out of our Clear Skin Potion because it can be a little too harsh for sensitive skin, and I wanted to create a formula that would be well-tolerated.
- juniper berry - this astringent and antibacterial essential oil fights acne as effectively as tea tree without the same risk of irritation. You'll find it in our Clear Skin Potion.
- geranium - this is one of the best tolerated essential oils overall, and it is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, soothing for even the most sensitive skin. Of course it's in our Clear Skin Potion.
- lavender - this anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant is also a great soother for the redness and irritation that comes with acne. You'll notice it's in our Clear Skin Potion.
- frankincense - this anti-inflammatory and antioxidant oil is also an excellent choice for promoting skin healing and reducing hyperpigmentation. It's featured in our Clear Skin Potion.
- lemongrass - this aromatic oil pairs well with juniper berry for its astringent properties without drying out skin. We just use a few drops of this lil guy in a full batch of our Clear Skin Potion.
- Antioxidants - these types of ingredients help with cellular turnover and slow the signs of skin aging. They are also helpful in promoting skin healing. Many of the ingredients I've already mentioned are also antioxidants! One popular antioxidant is Vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
- Vitamin C - boosts the skin's natural production of collagen, speeds cellular turnover, promotes skin healing, reduces signs of skin aging like fine lines and wrinkles, sun spots, and more. You'll find Vitamin C in our Clear Skin Potion to serve as both an antioxidant and a super safe pH adjuster.
Before I sign off, I'd love to share some of the praise I've gotten for our Clear Skin Potion...
"This baby is a game changer! Azelaic acid is the main ingredient in Finacea which is a topical medication for Rosacea. The Clear Skin Potion is packed with azelaic acid without all of the toxic additives. I have had so many clients wanting to switch off of their topical prescriptions because of this product and that's not something I see often" - Chelsea Martin (Head of Aesthetics Program at Lotus School of Integrated Professions; Master Aesthetician, Founder, and Owner at Luna Aesthetics & Spa)
"This product feels great on my skin immediately after use! I wash, tone, use this product, then moisturize and my skin (which is pretty sensitive) feels smooth and calm. It also helps to even out my complexion and prepare my skin for makeup, of which I need only a little bit since I've been using the Clear Skin Potion for the last few months!" - Lauren
"As soon as i started using this product i instantly saw results and started getting so many compliments on my skin. I know the change in my skin is due to the addition of Clear Skin Potion because it is the only thing i changed in my routine. The smell is divine." - Emily
"Your skin products have done more for my skin than any prescription medications I've been taking for YEARS. And my face isn't dry! Thank you so much." - Ali
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Until next time,