Forget about grades. Forget about peer pressure to try drugs and alcohol. Forget about who's dating whom on the latest episode of The OC. One of the biggest concerns for teens all over the world is how to avoid embarrassing acne—a skin problem that virtually every man and woman who's made it through adolescence has had to deal with at one time or another.
Acne is a skin condition that most commonly affects the nose, forehead, cheeks, chin and back. These are generally the areas of the body containing the largest oil glands, and a buildup of oil causes those unsightly lesions that we've come to know as pimples. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that nearly 85 percent of the entire U.S. population suffers from some form of acne, making it the most common skin disease in the nation.
Why are teens in particular afflicted with this condition? Quite simply, it's the hormones. Teens going through puberty experience an upsurge in hormone production, which in turn produces an upsurge in oil production, which results in acne breakouts. It's the same hormonal imbalances that can sometimes cause pregnant or menstruating women to have acne flare-ups. Other contributing causes of acne are thought to be a poor diet and food allergies.
Although acne is far from a life-threatening disease, its effects on people—especially those who are going through those awkward adolescent years—should not be underestimated. Acne can be scarring, both physically and mentally.
"The way our skin looks plays a big part in how we feel about ourselves," says Dr. Alan Dattner, a pioneering holistic dermatologist with offices in New York and New Rochelle, N.Y. "Acne can have a significant effect on a person's well-being."
Many teens turn to topical treatments like Oxy pads for relief. The advertising that comes along with such conventional, over-the-counter topical remedies for acne takes advantage of the vulnerability a teen suffering from acne may feel. "From the moment they enter their teens, teenagers are bombarded with celebrity-endorsed, chemically derived products," says Mia DiFrancesco-Licata, brand manager for Gardiner, N.Y.-based Kiss My Face. "It's unfortunate, because nine out of 10 times, those chemicals are going to end up irritating their skin. They may get rid of the zit itself, but they aren't doing anything to really prevent further acne. And they'll probably leave a welt where the zit was anyway."
Casi Hudson, director of marketing at Chatsworth, Calif.-based Nature's Gate, says, "A natural course of action is an ideal way to treat acne because it is a gentle, but also effective, form of treatment. Many conventional products contain extremely harsh ingredients, such as benzoyl peroxide. An ingredient such as this can cause redness and overdrying, which not only can irritate skin, but can also worsen acne and exacerbate an already problematic situation.?When skin becomes too dry, oil glands go into 'overdrive,' thus creating more breakouts."
As a holistic dermatologist, Dattner bypasses conventional remedies and tries to seek out the underlying problem causing acne breakouts, rather than simply trying to get rid of the pimples themselves. "It all depends on the individual," he says. "Some people need to change their diets. Some of that is obvious—you want to stay away from fatty, fried foods, junk foods, saturated fats and partially hydrogenated oils. If I wanted to make someone break out with acne, I'd give them French fries and a milkshake.
"But there are also cases I've seen where I've found the acne to be caused by food allergies," Dattner continues. "I had someone in who stopped drinking orange juice and the acne got better. I've recommended to many people that they stop eating and drinking dairy products, and that's helped a great deal in clearing up acne. That's not to insult the dairy industry, but it just goes to show that there are many underlying causes that over-the-counter remedies don't address."
Kiss My Face recently introduced a topical, chemical-free, botanical acne gel that aims to control skin breakouts, redness and inflammation. "One of the primary ingredients is tea tree oil ( Melaleuca alternafolia), which is a natural antiseptic," says DiFrancesco-Licata. "So it fights bacteria on the skin, it promotes circulation and it detoxifies the skin as well."
A study carried out last June by the department of Medical Microbiology and Immunobiology at the University of Szeged in Hungary found that a number of essential oils, including tea tree oil, possess antimicrobial properties. An earlier study by the Department of Dermatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Australia compared the effectiveness of a tea tree-oil gel with benzoyl peroxide lotion in 124 people suffering from mild to moderate acne. The test subjects in both treatment groups showed a significant reduction in the number of inflamed and noninflamed acne lesions over a three-month period. However, 79 percent of the benzoyl peroxide group reported unpleasant side effects, including stinging, itching, burning and dryness. In comparison, the researchers reported, far fewer side effects were experienced by patients treated with tea tree oil.
Nature's Gate also uses tea tree oil to help fight acne. Its acne treatment system is a three-step kit that includes a cleanser (with salicylic acid, encapsulated tea tree oil and certified organic botanicals), and toner and lotion with oligopeptide-10 (an antimicrobial peptide) and certified organic botanicals. Kiss My Face's acne gel also contains a wide array of other ingredients known for their antiseptic properties. "Peppermint is in there, bergamot oil, witch hazel and chamomile are in there as well," DiFrancesco-Licata says. "We wanted ingredients that soothed and stimulated the skin. And as an added bonus, the ingredients are antiaging agents in addition to controlling breakouts. Because, honestly, it's never too early to start taking care of your skin in that way."
Dattner notes a number of supplements can have a positive effect on the fight against acne, such as vitamins A and C and zinc, which he says "addresses up to 70 enzymes in the body and can help to prevent inflammation. Vitamin A promotes immune system-enhancing epidermal differentiation and helps the cells inside the follicular apparatus." However, he cautions, the large dose of vitamin A that is needed to really work against acne can cause, in some cases, negative side effects. Dattner is currently in the process of putting together his own synergistic, holistic, over-the-counter line of remedies for a variety of skin ailments, including acne. He hopes to have the line in stores next year.
Tyler Wilcox is a freelance writer with very clear skin living in Longmont, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 54, 56