Pimples, zits, acne, blemishes, whiteheads, blackheads, large pores, whatever you want to call them, are a total nuisance, can be very painful and often embarassing. No grown adult wants to worry about acne, but through some combination of genetics and environment, here you are frustrated that what haunted you as a teenager hasn't given up its all-out assault on your skin! Here at Mommyhood101, we have scoured the scientific literature for evidence-based acne treatments, put most pharmaceutical and home remedies to the test, and have settled on just a few techniques that we believe are best for most skin and acne types. Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to get rid of acne, but we've definitely found some promising treatments.
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. You know, 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.
There had to be a better solution!
Natural Remedies that Didn't Work (for me): So 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 to Get Rid of Acne Naturally: OK, so I have to note that this is all based on personal experience, and the experiences of other moms who suffer from recurring acne, pimples, oily skin, and large pores. It probably won't work for everyone, but it is definitely worth trying. The concept is that by killing the one 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 we are targeting with our home remedy: 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. Using White Vinegar as a Daily Toner: White vinegar contains 5% acetic acid, which is the acid that provides its great disinfectant properties, and unfortunately also its unique odor! Acetic acid has a lot of possibly beneficial properties for treating acne. First, it can remove excess sebum (oil) from your skin, and help clear and shrink the upper part of your pores. Second, it is quite good at reducing swelling and inflammation when used as a compress. Third, it can help balance the pH of your skin, helping you achieve a slightly acidic pH level on your skin (around a 5 or so). Finally, when acetic acid comes in direct contact with p.acnes, there is an antimicrobial effect that kills the bacteria. Of course, this would require getting the acid deeper into your pores. So there are a lot of possible benefits of white vinegar, without the drawbacks that you see with apple cider vinegar (darker and larger pores).
How to Use White Vinegar as a Daily Toner: Start out with pure white vinegar with 5% acetic acid content (the Heinz distilled white vinegar is perfect). Basically all grocery stores will carry distilled white vinegar with 5% acetic acid content, and it's usually only a couple bucks for a bottle that should last a month or two. When you first try using white vinegar as a toner, you want to dilute it even more than the 5%. We suggest starting with a 1:1 vinegar to water ratio. For example, mix together 1 ounce of water and 1 ounce of vinegar in a small bowl. First, wash your face using only warm water and the wash cloth. Wash gently, and do not use any soaps. Avoid scrubbing your skin. Second, dry your face with a clean towel. Third, ring out the wash cloth you used to wash your face, and dip a small section of it into the bowl with vinegar solution. Using that section of the wash cloth, gently exfoliate your face, and keep dipping the wash cloth into the bowl to make sure you're getting enough of the solution onto your skin. After you've gently exfoliated your face with the solution, don't dry your skin, let the vinegar solution evaporate naturally. This will keep all of the toner on your face and let it penetrate your pores. Don't worry about the smell, it goes away in about 15 minutes as the solution evaporates on your skin. This entire process should only take a few minutes, and you will get used the odor after a few uses. After a week or so using the 1:1 vinegar to water solution, you can slowly work your way toward using a vinegar-only solution over the course of another couple weeks. An example is to use the 1:1 solution for a week, then a 1:0.5 solution for a week, then a 1:0 solution after another week. If you notice at any point that your skin is too sensitive for a more vinegar-heavy solution, and is getting too red and dry, switch back to the milder solution.
What to Expect: You will notice a few things when using white vinegar to control your acne. First, it will take a few weeks for you to notice the effects. When you do, you should notice smaller and less oily pores, and a dramatic reduction in the frequency and intensity of acne break-outs. Second, you will notice that immediately after using vinegar as a toner, your face may appear a bit blotchy and red. That should not only subside after a few minutes, but your inflammation in general should be much lower than before you started using this method. Third, you will notice that immediately after using vinegar as a toner, you might see small white specks on your skin, like little air pockets that might appear in some of your more troublesome areas. These are normal and are due to the acetic acid's mechanical effect on your skin (it has a mild peeling effect on dead skin cells), so leave them alone and they will go away in a few minutes.
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).
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 white vinegar 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, some good ones are here), and yoga. 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 white vinegar 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.
Final Thoughts: 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 (white vinegar, exercise, pre/probiotics), there is no guarantee that it will work for everyone. And personally, if you can only find the time or resources to do one of these, I suggest the white vinegar 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!