Acne is hell – if you’ve suffered it seriously then you know that’s no exaggeration.
Starting around age 13-14 I had acne on my face, chest and back, and a lot of it. This lasted for about 4-5 years and only really stopped being a problem at 20-21.
I tried every type of treatment, from over-the-counter medication, to “natural” treatments, to homeopathic remedies, and finally prescription medication. Nothing worked until I was put on accutane, the strongest acne medication available.
(I also tried putting toothpaste on my face – didn’t work either.)
Acne affects how you feel about yourself in pretty much every way, and unfortunately often hits us as teenagers when we’re right in the middle of forming our identities. Acne is an incredibly difficult and painful drain on confidence, energy, and overall quality of life.
And while my acne was never the worst possible case (far from it), I know what it feels like:
- Having the way you feel about yourself and your life completely determined by what your face looks like
- Secretly hoping/wishing that one day you’ll wake up and your skin will somehow magically be clear
- Spending hours in front of the mirror popping pimples
- Not wanting to leave the house in the morning because of the way your face looks
- Wanting to avoid being noticed and “fly under the radar” as much as possible
- Having any confidence completely disappear every time you look in the mirror
- Wanting to distract yourself and somehow ‘forget’ you have acne
- Feeling self conscious when you talk to other people, even friends or family, and not being able to look them in the eyes
- Having a conversation with someone, and seeing them looking at the pimples on your face rather than looking you in the eyes
- Hoping that the next treatment you try will be the one that ‘works’ and finally solves the problem for good – but also knowing that a miracle cure probably doesn’t exist
Every day for years after completing the accutane treatment I was grateful just to have reasonably “normal” looking skin. I’m still grateful now because I remember just how bad life can be when you have acne.
And while it may be easy for people who’ve never had acne to say “it’s not that big of a deal” – countless individual stories and a bunch of research (also see here, here, here, and here) demonstrate that acne is actually a pretty serious issue in the way that it affects mental health.
The bottom line is – acne is something we could all do without.
And although – depending on your individual situation – you may not be able to get rid of acne completely, there are certainly things you can do to improve your skin. My goal with this post is to help you do just that.
This is Part 1 of a series on how to get rid of acne and here’s what’s included:
- Explanation of what acne is with the causes and classifications
- Discussion of over-the-counter medication, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid
- Discussion of ‘natural’ treatments and homeopathic medicine
- The best non-prescription acne treatment on the market (acne.org’s 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide)
And here are parts 2 and 3:
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and this information is all based on my personal opinion and experience – it is not medical advice.
What is acne? (Causes and classification)
Acne occurs when hair follicles become blocked by something called sebum. Sebum is an oily or waxy substance that is naturally occurring in mammals, for the purpose of lubricating and waterproofing the skin and hair. It is produced by sebaceous glands in the skin.
Hormonal changes in the body (due to puberty, for example) can increase the amount of sebum production, and hair follicles become blocked due to excess sebum. This causes blackheads, whiteheads and other types of acne.
Acne can also be caused by an excess of a protein called keratin. Normally, cells inside the hair follicle die and are forced out of the body by the growing hair. However, when there is excess keratin (which is called hyperkeratinization), these cells remain inside the follicle and block the sebaceous gland, leading to acne.
Both of the above causes of acne are genetic – it is estimated that 80% of acne is caused by genetics. Particularly if you’re a teenager, it’s likely that your acne is genetic/hormonal and not caused by lifestyle choices.
However there are some lifestyle changes that can improve your skin and do actually make a difference – discussed in How to Get Rid of Acne Part 3.
Acne is usually classified as mild, moderate or severe. From Wikipedia:
Mild acne is classically defined as open (blackheads) and closed comedones (whiteheads) limited to the face with occasional inflammatory lesions. Acne may be considered to be of moderate severity when a higher number of inflammatory papules and pustules occur on the face compared to mild cases of acne and acne lesions also occur on the trunk of the body. Lastly, severe acne is said to occur when nodules and cysts are the characteristic facial lesions and involvement of the trunk is extensive.
Generally you need at least “moderate” levels of acne to warrant prescription medication. My acne was “moderate-severe”.
Acne treatments also come in two types: topical and oral. A topical treatment is a cream or gel that you apply externally to your skin, while an oral treatment is a pill or liquid that you swallow.
Over the counter (OTC)/drugstore acne medication
My first attempt to deal with acne – like many people’s – was to try the different acne products you can find over-the-counter in the drug or grocery store. These are all topical treatments like scrubs, creams, or cleansing pads.
OTC acne products fall into two categories:
– Things you should try and might work for you
– Things that are not worth trying at all
There are two compounds in OTC medication that are clinically proven to treat acne – these are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. If a product does not contain one of these two compounds then simply don’t bother with it at all.
Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial agent that kills acne bacteria inside your pores, while salicylic acid helps to unclog the pores. Neither of these have an internal effect (on sebum production, for example) like certain prescription medications do.
If you have mild or mild-moderate acne, an OTC treatment containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid may be enough to get rid of your acne.
But if you have moderate to severe acne, the typical drugstore medication probably won’t be strong enough.
However, OTC medication can still be your “first line of defence” before you move on to harder stuff. OTC treatments are inexpensive and probably at least worth a try.
(If you’re impatient and/or you have really bad acne, just go straight to your doctor and ask about prescription medication. This isn’t a bad idea either.)
Just remember, any product that contains neither benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid is not worth your time or money.
What about alternative medicine, natural treatments, homeopathy or “holistic medicine”?
If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you know I am pretty open minded about spirituality, consciousness and alternative ways of looking at reality/the world. I also realize that the pharmaceutical industry is full of problems and that medication—especially in North America—is often wildly over-prescribed.
At the same time, modern medicine is obviously incredibly valuable to us. If you are given a flu vaccine, for example, you won’t get the flu—end of story. A blood transfusion can save your life, antibiotics generally do their job, and so on.
So when it comes to a field in medicine that is very well researched and where certain things are proven to work (acne medication is one of these fields) – I think it’s generally a good idea to stick with what works.
I tried several ‘alternative’ ‘natural’ or homeopathic treatments for acne, and none of them had any effect. I wouldn’t recommend these to anybody.
The homeopathic remedy I tried was a bottle of small white pills and at the time I didn’t realize that homeopathy is basically nonsense. Not surprisingly this “medication” did nothing – I would not recommend homeopathy to anyone looking to treat their acne.
I also tried using tea tree oil to get rid of my acne. This was ineffective and I would not recommend it either. Some people suggest using honey or apple cider vinegar – I didn’t try these so I don’t know.
‘Natural’ treatments, in my opinion, are similar to OTC medication in that if you have mild or mild-moderate acne, they might work for you. But the more severe your acne is, the less likely they are to work.
If you find an alternative acne treatment that works for you – great. But the likelihood of these working is so low that I don’t think they are worth trying at all.
My recommendation again is to use a benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid based treatment. If that doesn’t work, go see a doctor.
If you are really set on using a ‘natural’ treatment, then I would suggest three things. 1) work on improving your diet, 2) reduce stress levels, and 3) start drinking green juice. See part 3 of this series for details and more lifestyle changes that can help improve your skin.
How to get rid of acne with the best non-prescription medication on the market
Acne.org’s 2.5% benzoyl peroxide is the best non-prescription acne treatment I have found, online or anywhere else.
Depending on frequency and how much you use, an 8 ounce bottle will last you from 6 months to a year or even longer. It is extremely affordable.
Simply apply it to affected areas before you go to sleep at night. Acne.org recommends using this benzoyl peroxide as part of their “regimen”, which also includes a cleanser and a moisturizer.
I have never followed the full regimen and only ever used the benzoyl peroxide, in my experience it works just fine on its own. I still use it almost every night before I go to bed.
This is my #1 non-prescription recommendation to get rid of your acne. A couple things to note:
- Using this might make your skin drier
- I have found that the more of this product I apply, the better it works. This is up to a certain point obviously, but don’t be afraid to use a lot.
- If you use this at night and it gets on your pillow case or sheets, it can discolour them – I’ve had it turn my sheets orange before. Not a huge deal but something to consider. I think it’s more likely to happen if you use a lot (I do).
- 2.5% benzoyl peroxide has been shown to be just as effective as 5% or 10%. So don’t worry about the effectiveness of the lower strength version.
This is the end of part 1 – I hope it proves helpful.
To sum up:
- The only worthwhile OTC acne treatments contain either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid
- An OTC product may treat your acne if it is mild-moderate, but for more severe cases it probably won’t be strong enough
- Homeopathic medicine is junk, and ‘natural’ treatments probably aren’t much better
- My #1 non-prescription acne treatment recommendation is acne.org’s 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, which you can get from Amazon or the acne.org website
Read the follow-up posts: