I’m taking a break from sharing recipes today to talk about something near and not so dear to my heart: Acne. It’s a subject I mentioned in my intro post, and one I’ve been wanting to delve into a little deeper. It’s an affliction that has caused me much grief and self-loathing over the years; an annoying little gray cloud that hovered over me during most of my young adult life. I shudder now to think of the amount of money I wasted on treatment after ineffective treatment, not to mention all the time I wasted worrying about my skin. Anyone who says “It’s just pimples, get over it,” has obviously never had to deal with chronic acne. If you are reading this because you’re feeling down about your skin, I’m here for ya, sister (or bro). Trust me, I’ve been there. I know how painful it is to deal with, both emotionally and physically, and the frustration of yet another zit when you wake up and look in the mirror. I understand the discouragement of trying countless creams, cleansers, lotions, even prescription medications and still finding no relief. I also know how even when you do manage to clear up some spots, you’re left with scars and pigmentation that are as unsightly as the bumps themselves. I’ve done the marathon internet searches and I’ve read reviews of skin care products for hours trying to find the “answer.” I dealt with acne on and off for nearly 15 years, and I’ve learned quite a few things along the way. While I don’t have perfect skin all the time (I still get an occasional little pimple or two), my overall complexion is clear and I feel free from that annoying little gray cloud. I no longer get the painful, deep cystic type acne that used to plague me, and my skin no longer looks or feels inflamed. Although I realize everyone is different, and that acne manifests in different ways and for different reasons in each person, I’d like to share some ideas that really worked for me.
If there’s two things I can stress to you, they would be a) to take a holistic approach and b) to be consistent and patient. Ok, maybe that’s three things. When I say holistic, I mean that for me, personally, I had to make some changes in several areas of my health. I truly believe that changing my diet, exercise habits, and how I deal with stress had the biggest impact on my skin. None of the topical treatments or prescription medicines had anywhere near the same effect. I know you’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again, you’ve got to work from the inside out. Not only did the acne creams, gels, and spot treatments dry out my skin, they also did nothing to prevent more blemishes from popping right back up again. The changes I made in my lifestyle didn’t make the acne go away overnight, and I had to be consistent. Even now, if I let any area of my life get too out of whack, I’ll notice a duller complexion and more bumps. Please keep in my mind that these are my personal observations and recommendations based on my experiences. So grab a cup of herbal tea and settle in, I have a lot to share with you today!
(Disclaimer: While I stand firmly by my whole beauty approach, and it has worked wonders for me, I am neither a dermatologist nor physician. Just a gal who is finally happy with her skin after years of reading, researching, and trying everything.)
1. Feed Your Beauty, Starve the Acne
This one is by far the most important factor for me and one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog. I love learning how our diet affects not only our health and well-being, but the look of our skin and hair. I keep this in mind with every recipe I post here. One of the first major changes I made a couple of years ago was to cut out refined sugar and reduce packaged/processed foods. I started paying close attention to nutrition labels. While I don’t count calories or fat grams, I always look at the ingredients list. I try not to buy much in the way of processed food, but when I do, the simpler the better. While I chose a mostly plant-based diet for myself for many reasons several years ago, the best thing about eating this way is that, well, you eat a lot of plant foods. I’m talking fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds… anything grown in the ground, on a plant, in a tree, bush, shrub (you get the picture). This is where you’ll find the clear-skin goodies; antioxidants, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. If you think that sounds boring, or like “rabbit food,” just spend 2 minutes searching vegan recipes on Pinterest and you’ll be amazed at the meals, snacks, and desserts you can create with plant foods. While I know a 100% plant-based diet isn’t for everyone, filling your plate with “whole” real foods that were not made in a warehouse or factory (including lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and nuts) is going to do wonders for your health and skin. Start by focusing on whole foods and cutting back refined sugar. Also, include healthy fats, like nuts, avocados, and small amounts of olive oil and coconut oil. Try to avoid foods with processed vegetable oils, like soy, corn, and canola oil. If you suffer from chronic acne, you may want to also consider eliminating dairy food. A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has linked cow’s milk to the aggravation of acne. Make small changes gradually over time, and stick with it.
2. Work it Out
Second only to diet, getting some exercise can have a dramatic impact on your skin. I know it can be hard to fit into a hectic schedule, but I notice a big difference in the way my skin looks if I get some physical activity most days of the week. Exercise increases blood flow, which is nourishing to the skin. According to Dr. Oz, exercise can improve acne by decreasing stress, while perspiring during a vigorous workout can help unclog pores. I find that anything that increases my heart rate and makes me sweaty and a bit red in the face does the trick, but you don’t need to start training for a marathon to get the benefits. Any activity, whether it’s dancing around the house, going for a brisk walk, or even doing a few free online workout videos, is going to get your blood flowing and improve your skin. I love to jog, but sometimes I don’t get out as much as I’d like. When I can’t run, I’ll either pop in this ballet-inspired workout video, or do a series of jumping jacks, push ups, crunches, shuffles, lunges, etc, right in my living room. My daughter thinks it’s a party and usually joins in the action and sometimes adds a nice challenging element (lunges holding a 20-odd lb toddler anyone?). The added benefit I’ve found is that exercising makes me feel more confident about how I look, and I usually perceive myself as looking better after a good workout. Just be sure to (gently) wash your face after working up a sweat, which brings us to my next tip.
3. Cleanse Gently
I used to wash my face with all of the tenderness of brillo pad. I’m surprised I never actually used a scouring pad on my skin. I would suds up with the strongest soaps I could find, exfoliate three times a day, and follow up with a medicated astringent toner. It was difficult for me to accept that it was not the dirt and oil on the surface of my skin causing the most problems, but what was going on inside my body. These days I’ve found that a mild cleanser works for me, and I have used witch hazel as a toner, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary if you want to save a step. Stripping the natural oils from your skin with harsh cleansers and toners will dry out your skin, and may make the acne worse. So be kind to your face! My favorite cleansers are Alba Good & Clean Gentle Acne Wash and Desert Essence Thoroughly Clean Face Wash. If I use toner, it’s Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel. These all leave my skin feeling clean and soft, and they are cruelty-free and made with natural ingredients to boot.
4. Treat Spots Naturally
After scrubbing the living daylights out of my skin, I used to then assault it further by applying an assortment of zit creams, gels, lotions, and drying masks. I would have to divide my face into sections in order to use all of the products I thought I needed to keep the acne away. This would leave my skin red, dry, and flaky. When I decided to simplify my skin care routine, I stopped using benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, and switched to pure tea tree essential oil. I apply a tiny amount directly to any bumps, but sensitive skin types may want to mix it with a little bit of jojoba oil before applying. Another amazing discovery I made was the effectiveness of castor oil, especially on inflamed or cystic acne. In the past, absolutely nothing would shrink those deep, stubborn, and painful zits. Just a dab of castor oil at night (I know, weird that an oil would be good for acne, but it’s true. More on this below!). Castor oil has anti fungal, anti microbial, anti inflammatory and very healing. It’s definitely a bit sticky, and you’ll only want to use it if you’re staying in or for overnight, but it’s great for treating those big red pimples. Using tea tree essential oil and castor oil is a cost-effective and natural way to treat spots, without causing those annoying flakes that accompany most acne treatment creams.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of Oil
After cleansing, you’ll want to add a bit of moisture back into your skin. I used to be convinced that using oil on my face would make it greasy and worsen my acne. If you choose the right variety, and apply a small amount, a natural oil can be a wonderful way to moisturize blemish-prone skin. Some oils that I have used and can recommend are argan oil, jojoba oil, rose hip oil, and evening primrose oil. I have also heard wonderful things about Hemp Seed Oil for acne-prone skin, but have not tried it myself. Just remember to use a small amount and apply it to freshly cleansed, slightly damp skin.
6. Reduce Stress
We all know that stress is bad for our health. Stress causes our cortisol levels to rise, which leads to inflammation and hormone imbalance, resulting in acne and other health problems. Yet few of us know how to “de-stress.” I admit, this one is difficult for me. Despite my best intentions, I often let my anxieties get the best of me. Many of the points we’ve already talked about will also help reduce anxiety and tension. Sometimes a vitamin deficiency, even a slight one, can alter our ability to handle stress. Which is why eating as much nutrient-rich foods as possible is so important. For me, dwelling on negative thoughts sends my stress skyrocketing. Even just thinking about how stressed I feel makes me more stressed! So, for me, anything that quiets my mind or distracts me from over-thinking can help. Exercise, yoga, breathing exercises, playing with a pet, reading, journaling, and listening to music are all wonderful ways to reduce tension and calm your mind. The main point here is to find something that you enjoy and stay in the moment. Also, try to reframe the situation. Many times when we are frazzled and stressed out, it’s because we’ve set an impossible standards for ourselves. We invent disastrous consequences if things don’t get done “perfectly” or in the amount of time we wanted them to be. I am certainly guilty of this. Another helpful practice I have found in reducing stress is to take time each day to list (either mentally or on paper) all the things I am grateful for. Two books I would highly recommend for changing perspective and negative thought patterns are The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. Discovering these books seven years ago was a light-bulb moment for me. I try to reread these books every year or two to keep the concepts fresh in my mind, as changing our thought patterns requires a continual effort. Although it takes some practice, reducing the stress in your life can have a tremendously positive effect on your skin, not to mention your overall health and happiness.
7. Harmonious Hormones
Hormones and their connection to acne is undeniable, yet extremely complicated and difficult to understand. Most (if not all) acne stems from some kind of hormonal imbalance. For women, estrogen dominance is often to blame for wonky hormone levels. Estrogen dominance is caused by stress, the use of birth control pills, and foods we eat (especially conventional, non-organic meat/poultry, and commercially grown fruits/vegetables containing pesticides). Also, exposure to xenoestrogens (toxins found in plastics, cosmetics, paint, solvents, carpet) contribute to estrogen dominance and are nearly impossible to avoid completely. If you are experiencing other symptoms of hormone imbalance, it’s best to talk to your doctor about it, and possibly have your levels tested. This is an area of health and wellness that I am very interested in, and I’m always looking for natural ways to balance my hormones. Eating a nutrient-rich diet high in organic fruits and vegetables and reducing stress are two good places to start. Try to reduce your exposure to xenoestrogens (check out the searchable database on ewg.org). Superfoods like maca root are thought to balance hormones as well as evening primrose oil, green tea extract, zinc and other vitamins and herbs. You will want to talk to your doctor and/or consult with a naturopath before starting any supplements or herbal treatments.
8. Go Out
Outside, that is! In today’s fast-paced, tech-centric world we often overlook the healing powers of nature. Humans were once intuitively connected with nature, thriving and evolving alongside our environment. In the last 200 years, people have become further and further removed from nature. Eco-therapy and the use of indoor gardens and natural lighting in building design are becoming more popular with more people living in urban areas and working in offices. Spending some time outdoors not only give us a healthy dose of sunlight and fresh air, but it can strengthen and rebuild our connection to nature and relieve stress. The realization and appreciation that we are connected to nature and something bigger and beyond ourselves nurtures our spiritual wellness. Being outside also gives us a chance to enjoy all of nature’s beauty. Studies have shown that after just three minutes of viewing nature, our stress hormones decrease and our mood improves. So take a moment to get back to nature, whether it’s just a stroll down the block, or a trip to a park, trail, or nature conservatory.
9. Sleep, Baby, Sleep
“Beauty Sleep” is real! This is another tip I know we all hear all the time, yet many of us continue to skimp on sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to a number of diseases and health conditions. Lack of sleep is tied to increased cortisol levels, which as we’ve seen above is related to hormone disruptions and inflammation. Also, it is during the deepest stages of sleep that tissue repair is thought to occur. I can clearly (no pun intended) see the difference in my skin when I’ve had a few nights of decent sleep, compared to a string of sleepless nights. Getting enough sleep is a huge challenge for me these days, as I have a toddler who still wakes up several times during the night. Translation: I haven’t slept more than a few consecutive hours at a time for almost a year and a half! There are evenings, however, when I choose to stay up late to do a bit of writing, or watch some British mysteries with the hubs. We all have a lot we want to cram into each day, and many times our quality and quantity of sleep suffers. Sleep, stress, and hormones are all intertwined and can affect acne as well as skin aging. The food we eat is also related to sleep quality. Being even slightly deficient in certain vitamins and minerals can make it difficult for your body and mind to relax. If you’re dreaming of a good night’s rest, you may want to skip the caffeine and sip on a soothing beverage instead.
10. Fun, Laughs, Good Times
I would not be a conscientious Rec Therapist if I didn’t mention the importance of having fun for our overall well-being. Acne can be a real downer. When my skin was at its worst, I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide out from everyone. In addition to being isolating, it can take over your thoughts and become an obsession. One of the best things you can do for your skin is to stop thinking about it! Do something you enjoy and get lost in it. It is very difficult to obsess over your skin if you’re swooshing down a snowy slope on your skis or painting the Venetian landscape. Watch a funny movie or find a few bad jokes and tell them to your friends. Even the dumbest jokes can get me laughing. Laughter can be extremely healing and is a great stress buster. Surround yourself with friends and family who love you, and stop worrying about people looking at your acne. I know this sounds cheesy, but it’s true, it’s time to start appreciating yourself, now, even with acne. Start enjoying life and don’t hold back because you’re waiting for your skin to be perfect. It might feel like an endless struggle when you’ve been battling acne for a long time, but trust that it is just temporary. It’s time to start wearing that smile again, because you’re already beautiful!
Talk to me!
I realize this was quite the long-winded post this week, but I had so much information to share with you. If I can help just one person dealing with acne then mission accomplished! Have you struggled with acne? What are your tips for clear skin? I’d love your feedback!