If you think of acne as an eruptive skin disease, you are on the right track. Further, if you think of it in scientific terms as a disorder of the sebaceous follicles of your skin, you must be a genius. Acne is a disease that affects the skin’s oil glands. The small holes in your skin (pores) connect to oil glands under the skin. These glands make an oily substance called sebum. The pores connect to the glands by a canal called a follicle. Inside the follicles, oil carries dead skin cells to the surface of the skin. A thin hair also grows through the follicle and out to the skin. When the follicle of a skin gland clogs up, a pimple grows. Sometimes, the hair, sebum, and skin cells clump together into a plug. The bacteria in the plug cause swelling. Then when the plug starts to break down, a pimple grows.
There are many types of pimples. The most common types are:
- Whiteheads. These are pimples that stay under the surface of the skin.
- Blackheads. These pimples rise to the skin’s surface and look black. The black color is not from dirt.
- Papules. These are small pink bumps that can be tender.
- Pustules. These pimples are red at the bottom and have pus on top.
- Nodules. These are large, painful, solid pimples that are deep in the skin.
- Cysts. These deep, painful, pus-filled pimples can cause scars.
Put simply, acne is a skin condition that causes spots and pimples, especially on the face, shoulders, back, neck, chest, and upper arms. Understanding acne, how it comes about, and how to deal with it are important given that an estimated 80 percent of all people between the ages of 11 and 30 have acne outbreaks at some point. It is the most common skin condition in the United States (U.S.), affecting up to 50 million Americans yearly. Acne can attack just about anyone, but is most common in people who are just entering puberty.
A lot of folks like to think that they are immune to a skin condition like acne, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Acne is no respecter of persons; if you do not suffer from the condition, it is merely a fluke of selection. Common causes of acne include some medications that contain androgen and lithium, greasy cosmetics, hormonal changes, emotional stress and menstruation. However, the main cause is thought to be a rise in androgen levels. Androgen is a type of hormone, the levels of which rise when adolescence begins. In women, it gets converted into estrogen.
There is new research that also suggests that diet may play a role in the formation of acne. If you are old enough, I’m sure you’ve been told to avoid greasy food-enemies such as French fries to combat acne. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said “Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food.” Let’s follow this track to see if we can heal – or better yet, avoid – these outbreaks.
If you have moderate to severe acne that hasn’t gotten better with other treatments, a retinoid may help. Retinol, also known as Vitamin A1, is a vitamin found in food and used as a dietary supplement. All retinoid forms of vitamin A are used in cosmetic and medical applications applied to the skin. Retinoic acid, termed Tretinoin in clinical usage, (brand name Retin-A), is used in the treatment of acne and keratosis pilaris in a topical cream.
- Help prevent dead skin cells from sloughing off and clogging pores
- Reduce the amount of oil your skin produces, which also reduces pore-clogging
- Suppress androgen formation (androgens in the skin are a major cause of acne)
- Protect fats from oxidation (which keeps cell damage and inflammation at bay)
This leads to the possible conclusion that acne can be treated with a diet rich in Vitamin A. There are two main classes of vitamin A – retinoids and carotenoids, however, retinoids – which include retinol and its various metabolites – are the forms of vitamin A that are biologically active in the body. They do vitamin A work. Retinol is found in animal foods, especially liver, but also eggs and dairy products.
Carotenoids are actually yellow-orange pigments, which are found in things like carrots and brightly-colored fall leaves, the most famous of which is beta-carotene. Dietary sources of provitamin A carotenoids include carrots, sweet potatoes, some dark green veggies, and basically any yellow-orange fruit or vegetable.
While dark rich colored fruits and vegetables are healthy for a variety of reasons, According to the Mayo Clinic, retinoids are the most effective treatment for acne because of their ability to regenerate and heal the skin rapidly, so that you quickly have fresh skin.
Zinc is a metal. It is called an “essential trace element” because very small amounts of zinc are necessary for human health. This fundamental mineral plays a strong role in cell division and regrowth. In other words, it accelerates the development of skin cells necessary for clear skin. Increasing zinc levels has been shown to discourage the production of P. acnes bacteria on the skin, often linked to a hormonal imbalance. When bacteria get into a blocked pore, it can create irritation that causes pimples to turn red. It is important to note that when you have acne, your body is more likely to react more severely to these irritating bacteria than those with “normal skin”. Therefore, it is important for acne sufferers to include zinc in the diet because it works to reduce the inflammatory response to bacteria.
Zinc is found in a lot of foods naturally, like meat, fish, nuts, and grains, but poor soil quality and food processing removes zinc from foods that we eat, making zinc deficiencies common. Zinc and acne go hand in hand as low zinc levels are commonly reported in individuals with acne.
Zinc is often used in topical treatments for acne. One study found that applying a lotion of 1.2 percent zinc acetate and 4 percent erythromycin twice significantly cleared the skin. Research also suggests that zinc is beneficial for acne when taken in supplement form, too. You only need small amounts of zinc in the body. The Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults is 8-11 milligrams (mg). There is some evidence that a relatively safe dose of 30 mg can help treat acne.
In addition to diet, scientists are looking at new ways to treat acne. Current research includes:
- Working on new drugs to treat acne, including new topical antibiotics
- Looking at ways to prevent plugs
- Looking at ways to stop the hormone testosterone from causing acne
- Understanding more about bacteria on the skin.
Don’t let anyone tell you that acne treatment is cut and dried; that you get the condition because you have not cleaned your skin well enough, and you heal when you are clean. Acne affects a broad swath of people, for a variety of reasons, and responds to myriad treatments. Find the solution that works for you so you can put your best face (back, shoulders, and neck) forward!