After giving birth to her second child in 2006, acne started appearing on Molly Blake’s face.
A dermatologist prescribed a cream that reduced the number of breakouts but Blake feared that the side effects, which ranged from redness and itching to burning and peeling of the skin, might be worse than living with acne.
“There is a strong history of skin cancer in my family and using harsh chemicals on my skin made me nervous,” explains Blake, 40.
Blake was convinced that post-pregnancy hormone fluctuations and a move from Arizona to Virginia were to blame for her worsening complexion. But she didn’t want to clear up her skin at the expense of her health. So Blake stopped using the prescription acne cream and sought natural alternatives. “I wanted to at least try something natural and out-of-the-box to see if it would help,” she says.
While there is an abundance of acne medications, most contain harsh chemicals or come with side effects. In fact, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that using prescription acne medications with antibiotics for as little as eight weeks contributed to antibiotic resistance.
What’s more, “traditional acne treatments are suppressive,” explains Lauren Deville, ND, a naturopathic doctor in Tucson, Arizona. “The medications might clear up breakouts but they don’t address what is causing acne in the first place.”
Making an appointment with a natural health practitioner or a dermatologist willing to focus on chemical-free treatments can be helpful. “Make sure that person is considering your big picture,” advises Sarah Villafranco, MD, founder of an organic skincare company. “Someone who doesn’t ask about your diet, exercise and stress management is not going to be the right choice for you in the long term.”
Blake decided to see if acupuncture could help with her breakouts. “I had such a positive experience with acupuncture when I used it to treat insomnia and thought it might work for acne too,” she explains.
Instead of medication, the acupuncturist suggested Blake drink more water and less alcohol, and minimize the processed foods in her diet. (Researchers have found that eating fried foods and a diet with a high glycemic load, including foods like white bread, pasta and refined sugars, trigger breakouts.) Since the acne coincided with her relocation from a dry climate to a humid one, Blake also adjusted her skincare routine to reflect the change.
Villafranco recommends practicing good skin hygiene, removing makeup before bed and resisting the urge to touch your face, which transfers dirt and oil from your hands.
Using high-quality skincare products is also important.
“We are learning so much more about the potential for hormone disruption and carcinogenic activity in many mainstream skincare products,” Villafranco explains. “Switching to natural skincare, including natural acne products, can help limit the numbers of chemicals you expose yourself [to] every day.” She says your skin benefits from skipping chemical acne creams, which “tend to be very drying and can leave the skin looking damaged and angry during treatment.”
Villafranco notes that acne medications tend to strip the skin of its natural oils, including sebum. Essential oils like clary sage and palmarosa can balance sebum levels and control acne. The process might take longer but Villafranco believes that the long-term effects are worth the wait.
Effective acne treatments also include supplements and holistic therapies such as acupuncture. These options address underlying issues like hormone imbalances, insulin resistance and environmental toxins.
Supplements used to control acne include vitamin A (the active ingredient in the popular acne treatment Retin-A) and zinc, calcium D-glucarate to balance hormones and botanical blends.
Deville advises creating a treatment plan with the advice of a holistic practitioner. “You need to have the right balance of supplements and most have to be put in the context of a larger protocol to be effective,” she notes. “It’s better to work with someone who knows your medical history and can recommend the right mix of supplements.”
For Blake, the results were gradual but noticeable. After two months of lifestyle changes, comfrey root supplements (a plant extract that promotes skin cell growth) and weekly acupuncture treatments, she experienced a significant reduction in breakouts.
Research supports her experience: A study published in Medical Acupuncture found that acupoint stimulation was more effective than prescription medication for reducing breakouts.
Blake believes the experience of acupuncture also helped get her acne under control.
“Stress is a huge contributor to acne and the sessions helped me relax,” she recalls. “I have far fewer breakouts and I didn’t have to use chemical treatments.”