Acne is a pesky and embarrassing affliction that we often associate with adolescence. But it also affects adults — approximately one-third of acne sufferers are over 25, according to the Acne and Rosacea Society of Canada (ARSC) — and it can be socially inhibiting.
“There’s a tendency to see acne persisting more in women than men in adulthood, in part due to the hormonal fluctuations that women experience,” Dr. Jason Rivers, president of ARSC and medical director of Pacific Derm in Vancouver, tells Global News. “It’s a myth that it only affects teens.”
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In fact, there are a lot of myths surrounding acne — not the least of which is its numerous purported at-home remedies.
“A lot of the acne home treatments are anecdotal and aren’t rooted in scientific evidence,” Rivers says. “At the most, what they do is act as an astringent that dries the skin, which could have some effect on reducing bacteria and clearing up lesions. But there’s no scientific proof behind them.”
He looked at some of the most popular acne home remedies to determine their effectiveness by examining the scientific evidence to back up their claims, whether they actually work and if they can cause harm.
This is perhaps the oldest hack in the anti-acne book. Unfortunately, it’s more myth than medicine.
“There’s very little evidence that it does anything. It can be drying because it’s a paste, and pastes cause drying by virtue of their nature. This could help with extracting some oils from the spot, but the fluoride doesn’t have any effect on the acne itself,” he says.
It’s not likely to cause harm, but it could irritate your skin.
Tea tree oil
This essential oil is used to treat a host of topical issues, including an antiseptic treatment for cuts and scrapes, burns and insect bites, and as it turns out, it can also help with acne.
“There is some evidence that it may be beneficial in treating mild acne,” Rivers says.
A small study conducted by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Australia found that the antimicrobial properties of tea tree oil were effective in treating cases of mild to moderate acne. In a randomized trial, 124 patients were given a five-per-cent tea tree oil gel and a five-per-cent benzoyl peroxide lotion (the most common over-the-counter acne fighting chemical) to treat pimples. The results showed that both were effective in reducing the number of inflamed and non-inflamed pimples, although the tea tree oil treatment worked slower.
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It’s not likely to have any side effects, although people with sensitive skin are advised to use it sparingly as it can cause an allergic reaction. It should also only be used topically and never ingested.
Studies have proven that oral zinc is effective in treating moderate to severe acne (even more than mild to moderate afflictions), however, Rivers cautions, the side effects can be serious.
He says that high doses, from 400 to 600 milligrams per day, can cause vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.
“Lemon is a popular home remedy for bleaching skin, but there’s little evidence that it does much to lighten it,” Rivers says. As far as an acne treatment is concerned, “the acid in the fruit is fairly weak, and can work to mildly exfoliate the skin but whether it’s doing anything for the acne itself is unlikely.”
In addition to being ineffective, it could cause stinging, and when combined with sunlight exposure, could actually cause hyperpigmentation in a “streaky fashion.”
Rivers goes on to say that any form of stronger acid, like apple cider vinegar, could cause burning.
“People with darker skin are more concerned with the post-inflammatory pigmentation produced by acne and are more likely to use an acid to lighten the area. But if you apply too much, it can irritate and aggravate the situation.”
How to effectively treat acne
There’s no way to totally prevent breakouts, unfortunately, but Rivers does provide some guidelines for treating acne-prone skin.
It should come as little surprise that it starts with a good skincare regimen that includes a gentle cleanser and an oil-free moisturizer.
“People are often very aggressive when they clean their skin, but by rubbing it excessively you’ll only make acne worse because it will lead to more inflammation and cause a disruption of the local environment,” he says.
With moisturizer, look for a non-comedogenic product that’s water-based (the first ingredient should be water), and stay away from anything that’s overly fragranced because that could irritate skin. Exfoliating is also an important step, especially for people who have more comedones (white heads), as it will help to open the pores, but never exfoliate skin more than once or twice weekly.
Treat mild acne with over-the-counter spot treatments that use benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, which are both proven to be effective in treating acne. And never try to pick or squeeze pimples.
“The main goal is to prevent scarring,” Rivers says. “We have a lot of laser devices and intradermal fillers that can fix scarring today, but the psychological effects of scarring can be very damaging. The main goal is to prevent it from happening.”