Adult Acne: Clearing Skin On the Horizon
by Lara Evans

When we leave behind our teenage years, we'd like to believe we also leave behind teen angst, braces, baby fat and pimples. It seems painfully unfair, then, when adult acne rears its ugly whitehead. So what exactly causes adult acne, and what can we do to effectively fight it?

The Causes
An oily substance called sebum is secreted by the sebaceous glands in hair follicles. Sebum keeps skin and hair moisturized by flowing up through the hair follicle canals. However, if there is too much sebum or if dead skin cells block the canal, there is a build-up of bacteria, resulting in inflammation and blemishes.

According to naturopathic doctors Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno in their book The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Prima Publishing, 1998), acne is most often- though not always-caused by male hormones (in both men and women), which stimulate the manufacture of sebum. However, increased sebum production can also be the result of lifestyle and environment.

Besides hormone imbalances, toxic overload, stress and mineral deficiencies greatly contribute to adult acne, says Ann Louise Gittleman, M.S., C.N., author of several books, including Your Body Knows Best, Super Nutrition for Women and her most recent, The Living Beauty Detox Program (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000). Gittleman's career as a nutritionist was shaped by her personal battle with acne during college. "It's one of the reasons I became so interested in nutrition in the first place," she says. "The blemishes seemed to take forever to heal and often left a little reddish mark. I was terrified I'd be scarred for life," she says.

Eventually, Gittleman discovered that an excess of copper and deficiencies in zinc and progesterone played a large role in her acne problems. She says, "Copper destroys vitamin C and the bioflavonoids, thereby weakening collagen and the skin proteins, keratin and elastin." It's interesting to note that chocolate happens to be high in copper.

While over-the-counter (OTC) acne medicines are abundant, they can cause side effects. According to Murray and Pizzorno, OTC medications are often too harsh, leaving the skin irritated and dry. Retin-A, another OTC option, can burn the skin and cause redness and peeling.

Taking vitamins and minerals can help balance the body's hormonal and nutritional needs. Experts suggest supplementing with the following:

Vitamin A is considered one of the most important vitamins for skin health. It's been shown to reduce sebum production. For controlling acne, high doses are required. Due to potential toxicity, consult your health care practitioner for appropriate dosage.

Vitamin B6 has been widely reported to control acne, especially premenstrual outbreaks due to hormonal imbalances. By metabolizing fats and fatty acids, vitamin B6 balances oil production in the skin.

Vitamin E is also important for proper absorption of vitamin A and works in conjunction with selenium.

Selenium is an antioxidant trace mineral that plays an important role in controlling inflammation associated with acne.

Zinc helps in cell regeneration and has proven to help control acne. It reduces sebum and facilitates the absorption of vitamin A.

Chromium is known to enhance insulin sensitivity, which, according to Murray and Pizzorno, has been reported in an uncontrolled study to induce rapid improvement of acne patients.

While conflicting theories abound regarding the correlation between nutrition and acne, holistic practitioners proclaim that a balanced, healthful diet low in fat and refined foods will have beneficial effects on skin. The experts advise that you:

Avoid refined sugar. According to Gittleman, refined sugar has no nutritional value and the body has to use its own mineral reserves-including important skin nutrients such as chromium and zinc-to digest it.

Avoid foods high in hydrogenated oils such as margarine. Hydrogenated oils interfere with prostaglandins, a hormone that contributes to healthy skin, says Gittleman.

Limit salt. For individuals sensitive to iodine, this irritation may result in an acne outbreak, says Gittleman.

Topical Treatments
While treating acne from the inside out, topical treatments still have their place. These tried-and-true natural remedies may provide results:

Calamine lotion, rich in zinc, is an excellent acne treatment. Plus, it's inexpensive and readily available in stores-and may already be in your medicine cabinet.

Sulfur has been used for thousands of years to treat skin disorders. A topical antiseptic, it helps control acne without irritating the skin. Sulfur-containing acne products can usually be found in natural products stores.

Tea tree oil, famous for its antiseptic and antifungal properties, has demonstrated the same benefits as five-percent benzoyl peroxide, popular in over-the-counter acne treatments. However, tea tree oil is much gentler on the skin. For moderate to severe acne, use up to a 15-percent tea tree solution.