Being a teenager is hard enough without having to worry about acne. Yet 85 percent of teens cope with the occasional whitehead to severe cystic acne, which can cause permanent scarring. "Acne is a psychologically and socially crippling disease for many people," says Linda Upton, vice president of sales and training for Borlind of Germany, based in New London, N.H. Although the worst cases may require prescription medications—at least for the short term—natural acne care has advantages over both prescribed and over-the-counter drugs.
Consider benzoyl peroxide, one of the most common OTC acne medications. "Most products that contain benzoyl peroxide are very drying to the skin," says Tiffany Henry, brand manager for Earth Science in Corona, Calif. "When safety of ingredients is rated from a one to a five, this item comes up as a four because it is so likely to irritate the skin."
Because acne is caused in part by an overabundance of sebum, an oil secreted by the skin, drying the skin may seem like a good idea, but it can have a negative effect in the long run.
"One of skin's functions is to prevent dehydration of the body," Borlind's Upton says. "Drawing out too much moisture can actually stimulate production of oil in the skin." Thus, benzoyl peroxide and other drying ingredients may trigger a vicious cycle of breakouts brought on by the very products intended to treat them.
But there are alternatives. Many natural products effectively treat mild to moderate acne and often include ingredients to support skin health and address acne's underlying causes. Such items include gentle exfoliating ingredients to unclog pores, astringents to close pores, and moisturizing ingredients to keep skin healthy and supple. Herbs and vitamins with anti-inflammatory or antibacterial activity may reduce irritation and kill bacteria that foster whiteheads and blackheads.
Earth Science spent six years formulating its Naturapathics Care System, a four-product line consisting of tea tree toner, a clay mask, cranberry cleanser and an herbal drying gel. The gel contains salicylic acid, a willow bark extract that's one of the few ingredients found in both natural and OTC products. Its antibacterial and inflammation-reducing properties help fade acne marks. All four products also contain varying amounts of cranberry extract, tea tree oil, echinacea, witch hazel, cat's claw and white willow bark.
"Tea tree oil is antibacterial and antimicrobial; it's a gentler way to fight the acne than a strong drying product," Earth Science's Henry says. Cranberry extract is also antibacterial, cat's claw and white willow bark are anti-inflammatory and witch hazel is one of the most widely used natural astringents.
Earth Science's Russian Silt Clarifying Masque also contains an unusual ingredient—a synthetic called Nylon 12. "Though it's a synthetic, it's completely inert and nongaseous," Henry says. "It was developed to help remove oil from animals in an oil spill. Under a microscope, it looks like a perfectly round sphere with little slots in it, and it absorbs oils [from] the skin into the slots." Because Nylon 12 doesn't penetrate the skin it does not cause over-drying or affect the skin's oil production.
New York-based Camocare takes a simpler approach to acne. "We have one specific product for acne called Clear Solution," says Allison Carle, the company's director of sales. Its primary ingredient is Camillosan, a patented brand of German chamomile extract with high flavonoid and levomenol levels. "The flavonoids work as antioxidants and fight free radicals and sun damage. Levomenol is an anti-inflammatory," Carle says. Chamomile helps soothe the skin, she says, whereas some OTC product ingredients can cause skin to age faster—something teenagers might not notice for decades.
Borlind is one of the few natural products companies to offer an acne line formulated for young skin. Its Young Beauty U line consists of a cleanser, toner, day cream and night cream. The products contain various botanicals with specific skin-healing properties.
"Allantoin and aloe both help heal and soothe damaged skin," Upton says. "Horse chestnut is an astringent that also stimulates circulation, so healing is expedited. Marsh mallow heals and softens the skin. Rest-harrow calms the skin, while rosemary helps circulation. Sage is antiseptic, antibacterial and helps reduce swelling."
Increased blood supply helps skin heal quicker, while anti-inflammatories calm the redness associated with acne. "Another reason to reduce inflammation," Upton says, "is that people with blemishes tend to feel they can expedite the healing by toying with them; this increases swelling and calls attention to them."
Well In Hand Herbals of Forest, Va., offers another product line. Formulator and President Linda Doby originally developed the line when she couldn't find products that worked gently and effectively on her own acne. Comparing OTC products to herbal ones, she says simply: "Drugs take, herbs give." With that in mind, her products—called Zero Zitz—are built on a vinegar-and-water base with added soothing botanicals.
"I don't believe in drying out the skin," Doby says. "Since the skin is our largest organ and absorbs everything you put on it, you might as well put good stuff on it." She says her products, while useful for mild acne, also "help sidestep cystic acne, those big painful pimples that you feel long before you see."
Of course, topical products alone may not be enough to avoid acne entirely. It's important to exercise, drink plenty of water, and get nutritional support from herbs and supplements. But with all the natural alternatives available, there's no reason to damage skin in an effort to heal it.
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 30, 35
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 35
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 35