Acne is also called acne vulgaris (or pimples, to name a few) and it can appear as tender red bumps, small white nodules, blackheads and deep, painful pus-filled cysts that can lead to scarring. The face, back, chest and shoulders are the major problem spots and sufferers can experience embarrassment, poor self-esteem, anxiety and depression as a result of their appearance. (ref. 1,2)
According to studies, acne has been clinically diagnosed in children as young as four years old; and as many as 93% of students aged between sixteen and eighteen years can experience acne, with one in four of these students also having acne scars. However, acne is not just reserved for the young:
- approximately 13% of Australian adults experience some form of acne vulgaris (3,4)
- in the United States, approximately 85% of twelve- to 24-year-olds have acne (9)
Acne is inflammation of the skin’s oil glands. When you have acne, the glands grow unnaturally large and produce too much sebum, which appears oily. This oily layer then mixes with the skin’s natural bacteria and dead skin cells and this liquid becomes thicker, like pancake batter, which blocks the skin’s pores and leads to acne.
- Sebum is a mix of fats, proteins, cholesterol, salts and pheromones (FYI: pheromones are your sexual attraction hormones).
- Sebum is your skin’s best friend. It keeps the skin soft, prevents excessive waterloss and helps inhibit bacteria growth on the skin.
- Sebum coats the surface of your hair to prevent it from becoming dry and brittle.
Standard acne topical creams and cleansers treat the surface symptoms such as bacterial infection and excess sebum, but remember that these symptoms are never the cause of your acne; they have been triggered by something.
Types of acne + pimples
- Non-inflammatory acne:
Blackheads and whiteheads – caused by oils, dead skin cells and bacteria which block the pores and cause small bumps.
- Inflammatory acne:
Papules and pustules – irritated pores where the walls break and form bigger pimples called papules or pustules.
Nodules and cysts – irritated and blocked pores grow bigger and move deeper into your skin and cause pain. Nodules are hard.
Myth: Acne is not caused by diet.
Reality: Scientists have long suspected that diet plays a role in the appearance of acne. Research published in the Archives of Dermatology, detailed how acne can be affected by diet and scientists made the following points on diet and acne in several research papers:
- In modern societies where processed white flour, dairy and sugar-containing products are abundant more than 79% of teenagers suffer from acne. (4)
- And what’s surprising is that more than 40% of men and women over the age of 25 in Western cultures have acne. (5)
- Inuits who eat a traditional diet are acne-free, whereas Inuits who make the transition to modern diets develop acne similar to that in Western societies. (6)
- The native inhabitants of Okinawa, an isolated Japanese island in the South China Sea, eat traditional diets and don’t have any signs of acne. (4)
Acne + depression
Suffering from a serious skin condition can be depressing. It can cause social phobias, missed employment opportunities and, if not treated, in very severe cases it can lead to suicidal tendencies.
In the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, a study was conducted on 10,000 high school students in New Zealand and the results showed a strong link between severe skin problems and depression and thoughts of suicide.(7)
It is clear that people with acne need our support and giving them healthy treatment options may literally save lives. And if you have acne, don't worry there is plenty you can do about it (see our Acne treatment plan below).
Are acne drug treatments the answer?
Many people turn to drug therapies to treat their acne. However, treating acne with medications can not only be ineffective but also a potential health hazard with all sorts of side effects such as severe depression.
The drug Accutane (also known as Roaccutane, and with the generic name isotretinoin) is often prescribed for chronic acne; however the US Food and Drug Administration ranks it as one of the top ten drugs that can cause depression and lead to suicide attempts.(9)
As you can see drugs are clearly not the answer and they could be doing more harm than good.
Acne can be treated effectively with natural methods that are not only good for your entire body but also free of harmful side effects. Let’s assess what may be contributing to your acne problem.
Causes of acne
See if you relate to any of the following factors that can cause acne:
- poor diet
- vitamin deficiencies (including zinc, vitamin A, vitamin E and selenium)
- dairy product consumption
- almond milk and coconut milk (see next)
- hormonal changes (increased levels of testosterone, growth hormone and IGF-1)
- oral contraceptives
- steroid medications
- stress, trauma and emotional stress
- overuse of cosmetics
- irritation from tight clothing
- high levels of iodine in the body (pustule breakouts only)
- harsh cleansers and soaps (change your skin products and see if this helps)
What can aggravate acne?
- harsh cleansing of skin and using the wrong skin products
- scrubbing or exfoliating your skin
- touching your face with unclean hands (bacteria on hands).
- drinking almond milk (high omega-6 can make the skin oilier)
- drinking coconut milk (saturated fats can make the skin's oil glands produce excess oils)
How to control acne oil production
Acne is synonymous with excess sebum but you can literally control how much oil your skin produces when you ingest nutrients that alter your prostaglandins.
Prostaglandins are a lot like ‘project managers’ in the body — they transfer messages from your cells and they give these messages to your hormones so they can cause modifications in your body.
Your prostaglandins alter sebaceous gland secretions so they control how much oil is produced in the skin. Prostaglandins regulate hormones, inflammation, pain, temperature and fat metabolism.16 ‘Good’ prostaglandins eliminate inflammation and promote clear skin, while ‘bad’ prostaglandins can promote inflammation and excess oil production.
‘Good’ prostaglandins are made when you eat very specific healthy foods and have a balanced life, which includes relaxation and learning how to cope with daily stress. ‘Bad’ prostaglandins are manufactured by the body from foods containing saturated fats, fried foods (which have damaged fats or trans fats). Stress, anxiety and high GI foods (such as pastries and other white flour products) also trigger a reaction that causes the production of ‘bad’ prostaglandins.
Zinc is another nutrient vital for acne-free skin. Zinc helps to convert the fats found in nuts and seeds (omega-6) into good prostaglandins. Zinc is needed to manufacture (and release) many hormones, including the sex hormones, insulin and growth hormones. Oil gland activity is also regulated by zinc.
Zinc is vital for teenagers. During your teenage years you develop at a rapid rate and this requires lots of zinc. Growth spurts can lead to zinc deficiency, which is bad news as the skin is the first to suffer when your body doesn’t have enough of this mineral. This is because the skin is low on the body’s priority list when your zinc is depleted — what little zinc you have is used for more important jobs such as DNA replication and fertility.
See if you have any signs of zinc deficiency by taking the zinc deficiency questionnaire from The Healthy Skin Diet:
How to avoid acne scarring
You can avoid acne scarring if you are diligent and do the following:
- Avoid picking at your skin
- Refrain from squeezing pimples or be very careful and gentle when doing it - instead try the following:
- Apply topical solutions that contain salicylic acid, vitamin A and/or AHAs
- Take a zinc supplement
- Improve your diet (see next points)
Acne treatment plan from The Healthy Skin Diet:
Step one: Have a suitable skin-care routine
- Make sure your skin-care products are suitable for your skin.
- Swim in the ocean or use a Saltwater Face Bath (see page 140 of The Healthy Skin Diet).
Step two: Control your hormones
- Take a liver detoxification/cleansing supplement for two weeks (see Resources).
Step three: Control your oil production
- Avoid dairy products and decrease saturated fat intake (limit meat and butter, avoid pork and deli meats).
- Avoid fried foods, trans fats, most vegetable oils and margarine. Use avocado and extra-virgin olive oil instead (in moderation).
- Add lecithin granules to your diet so you digest and eliminate fats correctly.
- Take a zinc supplement (don’t have too much zinc as it can cause nausea – no more than 15mg per day for adults).
Step four: Improve your bowel health
- Ditch the white bread, white flour and white sugar and switch to wholegrains and rice malt syrup (which can be bought in health food stores and major supermarkets).
- Think green! Eat salads every day (with either lunch or dinner) and have more fresh, fibre-rich vegetables, especially the bright red and orange ones. Ensure you have five serves of veggies and two serves of fruit every day.
- Drink one to two bottles of filtered water per day (1.5 litre bottles).
Step five: Apply topical solutions that contain salicylic acid, vitamin A and/or AHAs
This article is an edited extract from The Healthy Skin Diet (Exisle Publishing).
Fischer, K. 2008, ‘Acne’, The Healthy Skin Diet, Chapter 11, Exisle Publishing, Australia.
- Purvis, D., et. al. 2006, ‘Acne, anxiety, depression and suicide in teenagers: a cross-sectional survey of New Zealand secondary school students,’ Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol. 42, no. 12.
- Kilkenny,et.al.1998,‘The prevalence of common skin conditions in Australian school children: acne vulgaris’, British Journal of Dermatology, vol. 139, no. 5, p 840.
- Plunkett, A et. al. 1999, ‘The frequency of non-malignant skin conditions in adults in central Victoria, Australia’, International Journal of Dermatology, vol. 38, no. 12, p 901.
- Cordain, L. et. Al. 2002, ‘Acne vulgaris, a disease of western civilisation’, Archives of Dermatology, vol. 138, no. 12, pp 1584-1590.
- Cordain. L. 2005, ‘Implications for the role of diet in acne’, Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, vol. 24, no. 2.
- Cordain, L., et al., 2005, ‘Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: health implications for the 21st century’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 81, pp 341–54.
- Cotterill, J.A. and Cunliffe,W.J. 1997, ‘Suicide in dermatological patients’, British Journal of Dermatology, vol. 137, no. 2, p 246.
- Wooltorton, E. 2003, ‘Accutane (isotretinoin) and psychiatric adverse effects’, Canadian Medical Association Journal, vol 168, no. 1, p 66.
- Enshaieh, S., et. al. 2007, ‘The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study’, Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, vol. 73, no 1, pp 22-5.