Every teenager’s nightmare, acne (acne vulgaris) manifests as white heads, blackheads, papules, pustules and deep cysts predominantly on the face or upper back and chest. Not exclusive to the younger generation either, acne originates in the ‘pilosebaceous units’ in the skin, each unit consisting of a sebaceous gland, hair follicle, follicular canal and keratinocytes (cells which line the follicle). The sebaceous gland manufactures an oily substance called ‘sebum’ that empties onto the skin surface through the opening of the follicle – a pore. The sebum lubricates the hair and skin and helps the skin retain moisture.
Acne occurs when the hair, sebum and keratinocytes block the skin pore, and the sebum builds up beneath the surface and causes a ‘white head’. If the sebum is exposed to air but still stuck in the pore it becomes a ‘blackhead’. The mixture of sebum and cells allows bacteria to grow which in turn attracts white blood cells that cause inflammation. When the wall of the plugged follicle breaks down, it spills everything (ie sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria) into nearby skin leading to pimples.
Why it happens
Current thinking suggests that the causes of acne may include:
Hormones – The male sex hormone ‘androgen’ increases the size of sebaceous glands, sebum secretion and keratin production. Androgens increase in both sexes during puberty. Other hormonal changes may relate to starting or stopping the contraceptive pill or may occur just before a menstrual period (premenstrual). Acne that begins outside puberty may indicate a disorder of the endocrine system.
Genetics – There is a school of belief that says if other members of an individual’s family had acne as teenagers, there is a chance that there will be an inherited tendency towards the condition.
Poor liver function – From a naturopath’s perspective, acne is related to food sensitivities and a build-up of toxins due to poor elimination from the liver. Therefore many naturopathic treatments for acne focus on strengthening liver function and reducing or eliminating ingredients that aggravate your acne. The liver purifies the blood removing toxins and hormones that aggravate acne. It is also recognised that there are several factors that may make acne worse and should therefore be avoided:
- Squeezing pimples – which forces sebum into the surrounding normal skin, causing redness and swelling
- Harsh scrubbing or rubbing of skin – which irritates the skin
- Certain cosmetics that are comedogenic (promote acne).
- Some medications – such as steroids and lithium
- Emotional stress and nervous tension – a recent study found that acne severity correlated with increasing emotional stress.
What natural therapies can help?
Vitamin A – is important for maintenance of epithelial tissue, which covers the external surface of your body – your skin.
Zinc – helps heal acne blemishes, reduces inflammation and may help reduce sebum production. If you are zinc deficient, your vitamin A levels may not be too crash hot either. Zinc is required in the liver for synthesis of retinol binding protein and without adequate zinc, vitamin A also suffers.
Probiotics – normal flora also helps absorb nutrients. Naturopaths believe if the digestive system isn’t in balance this can lead to food sensitivities and decrease your body’s ability to heal.
B group vitamins – help support the nervous system, skin and aid proper digestion.
Marigold (calendula officinalis) and Ginkgo biloba – Both herbs are anti-inflammatory. Calendula promotes wound healing and ginkgo is a powerful antioxidant.
Echinacea – stimulates the immune system and has antibacterial properties.
Chaste Tree – hormone balancing and helps decrease premenstrual acne.
Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) – antiseptic and astringent properties, applied neat to the pimple to help draw out it out.
Milk thistle, burdock and yellow dock – help supports liver function and elimination of toxins.
Did you know?
- Exercising regularly can help reduce stress and increase blood circulation and oxygen penetration to the skin.
- Drinking two litres of water daily helps nourish the skin and remove wastes.
- You may be surprised to learn that scientists are yet to confirm the influence of diet on acne. In fact to date there is no evidence that chocolate and greasy foods effect the development or course of acne in most people. However, acne sufferers should note that while diet may not be the ‘cause’ of the acne, a change to a healthy diet can lead to faster healing and resistance. It may be best to start a food diary and note if your acne gets worse after eating certain foods. If you suffer from any food sensitivities or allergies, avoid those particular foods.
- The myth exists that acne is caused by poor hygiene. Generally a person with acne tends to wash their skin more frequently so as to wash away the excess oil. In fact over washing can dry the skin out and make the condition worse. A pH balanced cleansing bar or wash is a good start, used only twice a day. Look for a cleanser that is not alcohol based. Tea tree oil cleansers help soothe the skin while fighting the acne. Also shampoo hair regularly, especially if it is oily and try to avoid hairspray and gel touching the skin. Look for moisturisers, and sunscreens that are labelled ‘non-comedogenic’.
- Avoid products containing the following: alcohol, lanolin, sodium lauryl sulphate, sodium laureth sulphate, propylene glycol, isopropyl myristate, caprylates, mineral oils and some wax products such as bees wax should be avoided.Go Vita stocks a range of organic skin care products that are suitable for acne prone skin. Scrubs help to clear dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, and they cleanse the pores. Ideally the scrub should be mild, harsh scrubs will irritate and stimulate the skin so that cross infection may occur. Avoid vigorous scrubbing, which may worsen acne. Anti-spot topical products based on anti-inflammatory herbs and healing vitamins E are useful or neat tea tree oil direct on the spot.