Picture this: you woke up this morning and headed over to your bathroom to wash your face. You have a neat row of lined-up bottles of acne cream, acne wash, and other sorts of acne products that you have collected among the years from dermatologists and trips to drugstores. You wash your face, you apply said products, and then you look into the mirror and sigh – you have been following this skincare routine for a while now, with no real change. It’s 2021, a brand-new year, and you still have acne. Does this sound a familiar to you? For me, it definitely does. Have you ever wondered: why do I have acne? What even is it? And what can I really do about it? Well, I’m happy to tell you – I have some answers! In this blog post, I’m going to dive into the world of acne and try to find some solutions for our acne problems.
Quick disclaimer: I am by no means a certified dermatologist. All the information mentioned comes from a podcast I listened to: by Science Vs. This is my summary of the episode from the podcast and my personal opinion about the subject. Therefore, while you should take all of this with a grain of salt, do know that Science Vs. is a reliable source that has researched the topic thoroughly. All other sources will be sited below.
What is acne?
Alright! So: acne. Firstly, if you have acne, know that you are not alone! Acne is the most common skin condition in the U.S., and about 85% of people between the ages of 12 to 24 have experienced at least a minor form of acne. Unfortunately, although acne is so common, it is a topic that carries a lot of shame and self-consciousness – 70% of people said they would feel ashamed if they had acne. I relate to this; I’ve always felt that my acne is something that everyone can see, at all times. Because so many people, especially teens, feel ashamed about having acne and would take any chance they had to get rid of it, people with acne become the perfect targets for acne-treatment companies. In 2019, the acne treatment market size was 3.28 billion dollars, and it’s only expected to continue growing.
Secondly, what is acne? Our skin has pores, and these pores are connected to oil glands underneath the skin through hair follicles. Oil glands produce oil, and this oil travels up through the hair follicle, carrying dead skin along with it, and onto the surface of our skin. If these hair follicles are blocked, oil starts to gather underneath our skin. When this happens, skin cells, oil, and hair clump up together and become infected with bacteria, which causes swelling, and what we know as pimples begin to appear on our skin. Why does this whole process occur? Honestly, scientists don’t know. There has been very little research done on acne, and most acne-treatment experiments lack quality evidence. Still, acne-treatment companies are worth 3.28 billion dollars! Let’s take a look at what “cures” these companies are offering.
If you go to any drugstore to buy acne products, you will most likely find products that consist of one of two main acne-treating ingredients: Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid. The latter, is an exfoliant, and what it’s trying to do is unclog those hair follicles that get blocked. This sounds great in theory, but in reality, research on salicylic acid is extremely limited; there have been very few experiments done, and so you can’t really trust salicylic acid.
Okay, that doesn’t sound great so far. But what about the second? Let’s take a look at benzoyl peroxide. If you have used products that have benzoyl peroxide, you might have noticed that your sheets, pillows, and even clothes have bleached spots on them. This is because benzoyl peroxide is a bleach! Yes, if you have been using benzoyl peroxide products, you have been voluntarily putting bleach on your face. The purpose of this bleach is to kill the bacteria on your face, the ones that infect the cluster of skin cells, oil, and hair. Scientifically, benzoyl peroxide has been thoroughly tested and proven to work – although there isn’t any proof that different levels of benzoyl peroxide, such as 2.5% or 10%, make a difference.
Okay, well, this sounds pretty good, no? Doesn’t benzoyl peroxide get the job done? Well, no. The problem here is that acne happens for more reasons than just the bacteria on your skin - genetics, hormones, and stress levels all play various roles in acne production. An experiment found that having someone in your family who has acne doubles the chances that you will have acne, too (thank you so much, Dad!) Hormones can affect how oily your skin is, which could also increase acne production. The last factor, stress levels, actually hasn’t really been well-researched, although there is some research showing increased stress levels could increase oil production. All this is to say, though, that washing your face is not scientifically proven for curing or getting rid of your acne!
And, lastly, using a light therapy mask isn’t scientifically proven to cure acne, either. There have been two small experiments showing that it might be effective, but, like many acne treatments, it lacks quality evidence.
Wow, that sure sucked to hear when I first heard it. But okay, fine, acne products are basically a no-go. What about other treatments, though? Let’s take a look at diet.
If your parents have ever been concerned about your acne and rushed to take you to a dermatologist, the dermatologist might have told you that you need to change your diet. This claim – that an unhealthy, sugar-filled diet causes acne – was started all the way back in the 1940’s and 50’s.
To counter this, an experiment was conducted with 65 people, where half the participants ate a chocolate bar every day, and the other half of participants ate a placebo “sweet” bar every day. The experiments found no difference in the amount of acne the two groups had. However, this experiment is very flawed; for one, there were only 65 participants. Secondly, the placebo “sweet” bar contained equal amounts of sugar and fat to the chocolate bar. Thirdly, Hershey’s chocolate company sponsored the experiment! That really tells you everything you need to know.
Even today, there have been barely any experiments on the link between acne and diet, and most of the experiments conducted have been very small and inconclusive. Scientists aren’t even sure why diet would influence acne production. For instance, there was an experiment that found a tie between increased dairy intake and increased amount of acne, but a reason for the connection between the two wasn’t found.
Mostly, what experts do know is that there aren’t enough experiments. This is because a lot of experiments on acne are funded by pharmaceutical companies or people who have a commercial interest in acne (remember those acne-treatment companies we talked about earlier?) which make a lot of these experiments simply untrustworthy.
However, restricting sugar intake, eating more greens, and overall keeping a healthy diet, while won’t decrease acne, is beneficial for other reasons. It’s always a good idea to keep a healthy diet, but it won’t help with your acne problem.
So, where does that leave us? Personally, I will continue washing my face; less for the chance it might help me get rid of my acne and more because it helps my skin stay moisturized. I also encourage you to continue whichever skincare routine you were doing – as long as you are conscious about which acne products you are buying. Remember, that industry is dying for you to purchase their expensive products that have no real effect on your acne.
In the end, we know that we can’t change our acne, just like how we can’t change our height or eye color. Acne comes with another part of accepting who you are, what you look like, and learning to love yourself! Of course, this is much easier said than done, but acne wouldn’t be shameful or embarrassing if we come to normalize it.
Statistics about acne: https://www.aad.org/media/stats-numbers#:~:text=Acne%20is%20the%20most%20common,to%2050%20million%20Americans%20annually.&text=Acne%20usually%20begins%20in%20puberty,experience%20at%20least%20minor%20acne.
Statistics about acne-treatment industry: https://www.fortunebusinessinsights.com/acne-treatment-market-103361
Scientific facts about acne: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/107146#causes
shira zur and is a senior in high school living in the greater seattle area. she has loved to read and write ever since she can remember (you can find some of her work at other teen-run mags like teen belle and all ears!) she is the founder and social media co-runner of love letters magazine.