Pregnancy Acne: Causes and Natural Treatments
Pimples, zits, acne, blemishes, whiteheads, blackheads, large pores, whatever you want to call them, are a total nuisance, can be very painful, and are often embarassing.
With all the challenges of pregnancy, no grown adult wants to also worry about acne suddently making its first reappearance since teenage years.
But just like those teenage years, pregnancy brings on a sudden surge of hormones. Progesterone is one of the biggest culprits, causing your skin to secrete more oil than usual. That oil is called sebum and it can clog your pores with bacteria, causing breakouts.
Breakouts during pregnancy usually start around weeks 6-8 of pregnancy, but some moms experience it sooner and some later. Sometimes it can last through an entire pregnancy, and sometimes it resolves itself after a few weeks or months. Hormonal acne during pregnancy is made worse by the fact that you're also likely retaining water, not sleeping as well as usual, stressed out, and your eating habits are changes.
No matter what the cause, pimples can prove a minor annoyance or a major frustration and embarrassment. And treatment is complicated by the fact that pregnant women want to avoid most medications (talk to your doctor) and are hesitant to use some over-the-counter acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide or salicytic acid.
My Personal Experience with Acne: When I was a teenager I had my first experience with painful cysts that would suddenly emerge at seemingly the worst possible times: before a social gathering, before a class presentation, or before a big date. Stress hormones would wreak havoc on my skin, and I tried many of the most popular acne treatments of the time. These included long-term oral antibiotics (tetracycline), topical Retin-A microgel, topical clindamycin, benzoyl peroxide spot treatment, and salicylic acid. All the usual suspects.
Everything seemed to work for a little while, getting rid of acne or reducing its frequency, maybe for a few months. And the side effects were often pretty bad: dry flaking skin, redness and itching, increased susceptibility to sunburns, and tummy aches (for the oral antibiotics). Not that I had tons of acne all over my face, but maybe a painful cyst would crop up a few times a week and seemingly take forever to go away. I refused to use the harsher treatments like Accutane (isotretinoin), given its link to strong side effects and birth defects.
As a young adult things were relatively under control without any particular treatment. I would use the usual over-the-counter face washes and toners intended to treat mild acne, and my face would alternate between oily and dry on a daily basis. I would only use non-comedogenic (not pore clogging) moisturizers, and be careful about washing my hands well before applying them to my face. In my twenties things weren't so bad, and I kept up consistent routines and was able to stay off of the harsher treatments like benzoyl peroxide and Retin-A.
Then pregnancy and babies came, and my hormones were thrown into a frenzy only rivaled by my teenage years. By now, shoudn't western medicine have progressed to the point where acne is no longer an issue? Isn't there an easy way to get rid of acne without ruining the appearance of your skin? Unfortunately not much has changed. As a scientist, I would read all of the current dermatology literature related to the prevention and treatment of acne, and was consistently disappointed with the progress. So I went back onto some prescription medications, including Retin-A microgel. My pores seemed larger and more oily than ever, and though the frequency of my pimples and cysts had decreased, they were not completely eliminated.
Natural Remedies that Didn't Work (for me)
I tried some natural remedies for acne treatment. I tried tea tree oil, caster oil, lavender oil, apple cider vinegar, and some other funky expensive oils I could only find at Whole Foods and other natural retailers. I also tried some of the masks that were well-reviewed on Amazon, like the Aztec Indian Healing Clay, which did a great job temporarily shrinking pores and evening-out some redness, but my skin seemed to compensate by producing more oil than usual and the pimples didn't seem affected by it. Some things worked for a while, and some seemed to only make things worse. The oils, such as tea tree and castor oil, seemed to reduce the frequency of pimples on my face, but also seemed to make my skin appear more oily than usual, and my pores were so big I could drive a bus into them. With apple cider vinegar (with the Mother, like this one), the frequency of pimples decreased for a few months but this effect was offset by large dark pores that appeared to be absorbing the darkness of the apple cider vinegar.
How I Got Rid of Pregnancy Acne Naturally
I have to note that this is all based on personal experience, and the experiences of other moms who suffer from recurring acne, zits, pimples, oily skin, and large pores. It probably won't work for everyone, but it is definitely worth trying. The concept is that by reducing oil build-up and killing the bacteria responsible for acne in the first place (a pesky bacteria called Propionibacterium Acnes, or p.acnes), you might be able to reduce the frequency and intensity of acne flare-ups.
First, a little primer on how p.acnes causes pimples. This bacteria resides deep in your pores where there is minimal oxygen. Its primary fuel source is the oils (sebum) that are naturally produced by your pores (sebaceous glands). There are over a hundred identified strains of p.acnes, and some are much more consistently linked to pimples than others. So now you realize that there is this pesky p.acnes bacteria that we need to get rid of, and maybe we can also reduce the availability of its sebum fuel source so that it will die off naturally. That's what I targeted with my home treatment of pregnancy pimples: the bacteria itself, and its fuel source. In other words, we want both antimicrobial and sebum-reducing properties of any natural acne treatment.
Now, below are our three recommendations on how to get rid of acne naturally. I want to emphasize that this is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but my hope is that many of you find the same success I have with this method. I also want to emphasize that painful and red pimples are often a sign of cystic acne, and I have found great success in using ice cubes to directly treat the inflammation and redness. Basically, place an ice cube on the trouble spot at the first time you notice that there is some pain and redness starting under the skin; I usually do about 10 minutes of this, alternating 1 minute on and 1 minute off. Do this at night-time before bed and you should notice dramatically reduce swelling the next day.
1. Witch Hazel as a Daily Toner: Witch hazel is not some sort of obscure tonic pulled from cauldrons of witches in Salem. It's a natural plant extract that comes from a flowering shrub called winterbloom that you can find in America and Japan. When applied to the skin, witch hazel has a few main effects. First, it is great at stripping nasty oil and bacteria from the skin and pores, and in this way works very well as a toner. Second, it has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce redness and swelling of the skin. Finally, it has antioxidant and astringent properties that can help reduce nasty bacteria and balance the pH of your skin.
Witch hazel used to get a bad rap in the dermatology and cosmetics industry because most witch hazel toners would contain ethanol (alcohol) and excessively dry your skin. But formulas have changed and the very popular Thayer brand does not contain any alcohol. There is also an alcohol-free version of the popular Dickinson's witch hazel that you can sometimes find at your local drugstore.
How to Use Witch Hazel as a Daily Toner: Start out by testing witch hazel as a spot-treatment, applying a small amount of it to specific problem areas of your skin. This will help you test the waters, making sure that your skin doesn't have an inflammatory response to witch hazel. You might notice that your skin is a bit redder for the first few minutes after applying it, but that the inflammation reduces dramatically after about 15 minutes.
Once you've spot-tested witch hazel, you can use it more liberally on your entire face. I do this by putting a bit of it onto a washcloth and rubbing it gently around my face. But you can also find convenient witch hazel pads to help you apply it evenly, but that tends to be a bit more expensive.
Because it has a toning and tightening effect, you'll want to use it evenly around your face to get a nice consistent effect. After about 2-3 weeks of daily (I use it morning and night), you should notice an improvement of the frequency and severity of pregnancy pimples, and an overall reduction of redness and inflammation.
2. Aerobic Exercise to Induce Sweating. Remember above where we talked about reducing the amount of sebum (oil) in your pores? One way to do that is through aerobic exercise that gets your body sweating. Sweat has natural antimicrobial properties when it is produced by sweat glands on your face, because it contains Dermcidin. Dermcidin is a peptide naturally produced by your body, with a broad spectrum of antibiotic/antimicrobial properties. The more you sweat, the more dermcidin can fight against p.acnes from deep within your pores. We suggest brief work-outs every couple days, maybe about 20 minutes of exercise. The important part is that your heart rate is elevated to the point that your core body temperature is rising and sweat is being produced. Even better if you can exercise in a hot place, like outside on a warm day, or otherwise get your body sweating in a short period of time (for example by wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt during exercise). Before you begin an exercise regimen during pregnancy, you must get permission and guidance from your doctor to make sure any plan is safe for you and your growing baby.
My strategy with aerobic exercise is to complete a brief work-out for about 20-30 minutes at moderate intensity, and then after showering, doing the witch hazel toning technique described above. That way, you've gotten the benefits of increased dermcidin production deep in your pores, and also the relatively superficial (i.e., upper portions of your pores) topical treatment of remaining sebum, and returning the skin to an ideal pH level. Great exercises include running, cycling, aerobic exercises (like on a DVD), and yoga. Not only will exercise induce sweating and help clear your pores, but it is also excellent at reducing stress levels and stress responses. Of course, before beginning any exercise routine, consult with your physician.
3. Probiotics and Prebiotics for Gut Health. This is another good option that helps treat the skin from the inside out. Prebiotics and probiotics have been implicated in a ton of health-related benefits, including brain fitness (via the gut-brain axis), gut health, acne reduction (via the gut-brain-skin axis), stress and anxiety reduction, and more. While we are a strong believer that probiotics and prebiotics carry many benefits for general health, we believe that the witch hazel toner is the better and more direct approach to treating the bacteria that causes acne. But prebiotics and probiotics are easy to take, gentle on the stomach, and can only benefit your lifestyle, health, and mental health in a variety of ways. You can get your fill of these good bacteria by eating a daily yogurt, preferably one that is natural and does not contain a ton of added sugar (below 15g is best). Some good options are Activia, Stonyfield Organic, and the 365 Organic line of yogurts.
I also want to point out that I've found tremendous success using an L-Lysine supplement (like the one by Quantum Health), but that is not recommended for use during pregnancy. If you're still having issues with pimples after pregnancy and breastfeeding, you might want to check it out.
Final Thoughts: Pregnancy acne can be a frustrating and sometimes debilitating condition that can lower your confidence and keep you from daily activities. While I personally have found great success with the above treatments (witch hazel, exercise, pre/probiotics, and L-Lysine), there is no guarantee that these will work for everyone. And personally, if you can only find the time or resources to do one of these, I suggest the witch hazel treatment. I have been using this regimen for about a year now, and I am thrilled with the results. I can only hope that all the other moms, dads, and others out there suffering from acne find the same success I did!