What is Acne?
Acne is a common skin disorder that is the result of skin pores that become clogged with oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. It is characterized by pimples and other types of blemishes that are primarily found on the face, chest, and back.
The official name for most acne is acne vulgaris, which is the most common of all skin diseases. Statistically, more than 80% of all individuals between the ages of 12-25 will have at least one outbreak of acne, affecting almost 17 million Americans. Acne usually begins during puberty, and is a very common problem for adolescents. However, it can strike anyone at any age, from newborns to the elderly. There is a higher incidence during the teen years, and more females experience acne during times of hormonal changes, such as menstruation or pregnancy. Acne is not generally a major medical condition, but it can cause aesthetic problems which for many, especially teens, can be emotionally and socially difficult. Without intervention, acne can also lead to permanent scarring.
What Causes Acne?
Acne is typically caused by either too much oil (sebum), abnormal shedding of dead skin cell, and/or the accumulation of bacteria in affected areas. The sebaceous glands are located just below the skin, and are responsible for producing sebum. This oily substance is used by the body to lubricate and moisturize your hair and skin. Your hair follicles are connected to the sebaceous gland system, and are known as the sebaceous follicles. Sebum normally travels out the follicles, through the pores, and onto the skin. But when too much sebum is produced, it can combine with dead skin cells to block the pores, causing the sebum to back up. The result is acne.
Most acne is found in the areas of your body that have the largest number of sebaceous glands: the face, chest, back, neck, and shoulders. Locations can vary depending on age and gender. Teens often get acne on the forehead, nose, and chin. It is more common in young adults around the outer parts of the face. Adult women often discover acne around their mouths and chin. Elderly folks may see it appear on the upper cheeks and around the eyes. Acne generally exhibits itself in several common forms:
- Pimples These blemishes are the result of inflamed or infected hair follicles that burst and release sebum, white blood cells, dead skin cells, and bacteria into the surrounding skin tissues. Pimples appear as raised red spots, often with a white center. When they are on the skin’s surface, they are called papules. When found deeper they are called pustules.
- Whiteheads and Blackheads: Sometimes white blood cells and dead skin cells will combine with sebum to obstruct the skin pore. This results in a plug called a comedo. When comedos block pores they form whiteheads when the follicle bulges just under the skin, and blackheads when they are open to the skin surface and become darkened.
- Cysts are closed sacs that form deep lumps under the skin at the root of the hair follicles. Nodules are another form of acne that form as hard swellings deeper under the skin.
It is not known for certain what causes the sebaceous glands to overproduce and cause acne. However, there are some known risk factors that are associated with acne:
- Age: Teenagers are the most likely age group to develop acne. This is due to the hormonal changes they are going through during puberty. Increased production of androgens (male hormones) in both boys and girls is thought to stimulate the production of excess sebum.
- Gender: Quick quiz: Who experiences more acne, girls or boys? If you answered boys, you are correct. Boys have acne more often than girls, and it is usually more severe for them as well. This is probably due to the fact that boys produce more androgens (see above) than girls.
- Hormonal Changes: Acne often attacks women during pregnancy and menopause, and two to seven days before their menstrual period.
- Heredity: If your family of origin has a history of acne, your chances for getting it are increased.
- Diet: While foods do not cause acne, some may aggravate the condition and cause flare-ups in certain people. These foods vary from person to person, but some common triggers for many folks are greasy foods, chocolate, and alcohol. Iodine can also be a problem for people with acne. Certain foods that are high in iodine should be avoided, such as: broccoli, white onions, asparagus, kelp, beef liver, and too much iodized salt.
- Stress: Stressful situations have been linked to outbreaks of acne. This may be due to the release of certain stress hormones under such conditions.
- Medications: Some pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medicines contribute to acne. Examples include: oral contraceptives (due to messing with your hormones), antibiotics, tranquilizers, antidepressants, and some steroidal drugs.
- Environment: Polluted air, perspiring in hot weather, and exposure to oil or grease (perhaps in an industrial atmosphere) can also increase your risk of acne.
- Skin Care: Good hygiene is important, but too much of a good thing can be harmful as well. Don’t make the mistake of using harsh or abrasive soaps, which can bring on acne. It is important to understand that acne is not caused by dirt, and cannot be washed away.
- Cosmetics: Stay away from oil-based cosmetics, which can worsen acne or cause a flare-up. Many hair sprays can do the same. (They’re bad for you to breathe too).
- Abrasives: Some things can be abrasive to the skin and cause an acne break out. Examples include clothing that is too tight, purses or backpacks, helmets, and telephones held against the face. (See, mom was right. Talking on the phone too much is bad for us, even more so with a cell phone). Even holding your face in your hands or sleeping on one side of your face is discouraged.
- Sun Exposure: Some folks have to watch how much sun they get in order to avoid acne. This is especially true if you are taking certain acne medications.
What Treatments Are Available for Acne?
There are a slew of products available for treating acne. Fighting pimples and skin blemishes is a huge multi-million dollar industry, especially in the teenage market. The drug companies and Madison Avenue are all too quick to hawk the latest remedy. But many of these “treatments” have serious side effects and some are even downright dangerous. Let’s take a look at several of the most popular ones.
It shouldn’t be surprising that most of the solutions offered by the mainstream medical establishment feature drugs and surgery. Some common medications include:
- Oral Contraceptives: These dangerous drugs are marketed to young women with special websites lauding their acne fighting benefits. The perfect drug. Not only can you kill off your zits, but you can have carefree sex as well! Who could ask for more? What they fail to tell you is that there are some very hazardous side effects associated with these medications. Some include: nausea, vomiting, headache, breast tenderness, dry eyes, changes in body weight, depression, risk of blood clots, hypertension, impaired liver function, and breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Talk about a foolish short-term solution with deadly long-term consequences. Drugs such as these should be illegal. But not with Big Pharm in the picture.
- Antibiotics: In order to be effective, these meds must be taken for several months. I don’t even like to use these for 10 days, much less months. Tetracycline, one of the more commonly prescribed antibiotics for acne has an impressive list of side effects. Besides encouraging the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, they include: Candida, visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, pancreatitis, entercolitis, and systematic lupus erythematosus (a potentially fatal inflammatory disorder).
- Isotretinoin: This gem of a drug is so hazardous that even the FDA will not allow it to be dispensed to women of child bearing age without them being under a strict federally approved monitoring system. It is a synthetic form of Vitamin A, and has been associated with severe birth defects. Isotretinoin is very dangerous for women who are pregnant, or for women who become pregnant within several weeks after finishing the treatment. Some of its other side effects include: exfoiliative cheilitis (an inflammatory disease of the lips that causes painful cracked and swollen lips that are very susceptible to infections), blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids), central nervous system disorders, and increased risk of teen suicide, a charge that the manufacturer vehemently denies. Originally designed for only the worst cases of acne that would not respond to other treatments, there is also evidence that isotretinoin is often irresponsibly prescribed (as if anything with these side effects could be responsibly prescribed!).
There are surgeries available for treating acne as well, and as with any surgery, I would take a close look at the risks vs. benefits, get a second or third opinion before going under the knife, and make sure you know what you are getting into. Here are some of the choices:
- Peeling: This involves removal of superficial scars through freezing the skin cells or the use of chemicals to kill them before they are peeled off. Neither one sounds like something I want done to my body.
- Dermabrasion: In this procedure, usually recommended for deeper acne scarring, top layers of skin are removed using a high-speed wire brush. Sounds like something you’d get done to your car in a body shop.
- Laser resurfacing: Officially known as “nonpurpuric pulsed dry laser therapy,” this involves layers of skin being removed using intense beams of light. One of the problems with this very expensive surgery is that it just may not work very well. A recent study done through the University of Michigan medical school determined that not a single subject, of the 40 studied, were helped at all by this procedure.
Keep in mind that these are cosmetic surgeries that often are not covered by insurance. Also, many patients who tend to easily form scar tissue may come out with a worse complexion than when they went in. It all sounds pretty experimental to me. As the old saying goes, “Buyer Beware.”
Natural Remedies for Acne
The best way to prevent acne is to eat a balanced, whole food diet that avoids any foods that act as a trigger for your acne. Look to especially eliminate any foods that may have added hormones, such as commercial meat and dairy products. And there are alternative and herbal treatments that work very well and are much safer than conventional medicines.
Did You Know? Tea tree oil applied to blemishes has proved to work better than the harsh benzoyl peroxide that is often prescribed, and without such harmful side effects. Studies show it takes longer to get results, but in the long run is an excellent natural alternative.
Loretta Lanphier, NP, CN, HHP, CH is a Naturopathic Practitioner, Clinical Nutritionist, Holistic Health Practitioner and Clinical Herbalist in Houston, TX and Founder / CEO of Oasis Advanced Wellness. Under her leadership, Oasis Advanced Wellness is known and respected as one of the leading companies in providing safe, non-toxic, hi-tech natural health and wellness solutions along with cutting-edge health programs. Dr. Lanphier is the author of five health and wellness e-books including Optimum Health Strategies…Doing What Works. Lanphier is Editor and contributor to the worldwide Free E-newsletter Advanced Health & Wellness