Ten Ways to Banish Breakouts That Actually Work
If you're no stranger to the kind of breakouts that make you want to put a paper bag over your head and cry, well, chin up—but step away from the benzoyl peroxide. Because they are formulated to penetrate deep into the skin, traditional acne products are extremely harsh and can contain some of the more unhealthy chemicals used in personal care products. BP is the most popular over-the-counter spot remedy in the United States, but that doesn't mean we should be using it. Studies have shown it to be free-radical-generating (that's bad—free radicals age the skin), and it has caused tumors in mice—to say nothing of its skin-peeling harshness.
But take heart. Here are 10 completely nontoxic ways to clean up your skin from the outside in, and the inside out.
This is a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt.
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Illustrations by Brianna Harden
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Take your omegas. Nothing has made a bigger difference in our skin than taking high-quality omega 3s daily. Nature's aspirin is anti-inflammatory and loaded with good fats. Omegas are a hot-button topic—people cite mercury contamination as a reason not to take them—but third-party batch-tested omegas from low-food-chain fish, or simply ground flax seeds if you're vegan (or squeamish), are safe and effective.
Don't be scared of oils. The second biggest difference came from embracing oils. Argan oil, my personal favorite, has been shown in studies to reduce scarring, reduce acne, and seriously moisturize; it's counterintuitive, but moisture is a must for healthy, blemish-free skin. (See "Use a gentler cleanser" below for more about how harsh soaps and cleansers can actually make acne worse.) Avoid snake-oil, though, and go for the pure stuff, like Kahina Giving Beauty's.
Use a gentler cleanser. It's the instinct of any blemish-prone person to strip our face oils. But the truth is, it's not the slick on the surface that's to blame; it's the overproduction of oil way down in the gland—which no cleanser can fix. Instead, harsh cleansers irritate the skin and strip the natural barrier skin needs for protection. Try an organic nonfoaming gentle cleanser, or try washing with pure organic honey instead.
Rule out food allergies. You might have a hard time finding a doctor to agree with this, but it's empirically true—and it makes sense: Often enough, when people with stubborn skin change their diets, their skin clears up. Good nutrition, and taking out any foods that are provoking inflammation (due to an allergy or intolerance), can be nothing short of miraculous.
Probiotics, probiotics, probiotics. As we've said before, we can't overlook the role that food plays in our health and wellbeing—and that goes for skin, too. Taking probiotics orally, or simply making sure you get your daily dose of Greek yogurt, can work wonders on skin by balancing out candida overgrowth in your stomach (ew!). Bonus? It's delicious.
Look into willow bark. This stuff, from the aspirin family, is the soothing anti-acne active in luxurious cleansers like Tata Harper's and drugstore brands like Burt's Bees. It's nature's option for the old standby salicylic acid—willow bark is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory—but without the skin-burning, peeling, and general harshness.
Let clay do the heavy lifting. We both keep this stuff on hand to use as a weekly mask or a spot treatment. For problem areas, you can leave it on blemishes overnight. Our favorites are loose powdered clay. Just add water or a little witch hazel to form a paste, apply a thin layer, and rinse when you're done. Clay draws out impurities and also softens the skin.
Try tea tree oil. Everyone's heard of this stuff, and for good reason: It's nature's answer to that toxic beast benzoyl peroxide. In studies it was shown to be as effective as BP—it just took a little longer to work. Tea tree can be drying and irritating to some people, so spot testing is advised, and make sure you dilute it with a carrier oil or your lotion.
Use other soothing botanicals: Calendula is a great, soothing botanical you can get in gel form from the health food store to use on especially red or inflamed spots. For everyday maintenance, try a serum and lotion containing calendula, like Tata Harper's: It's antibacterial, calms the skin, and promotes healing—ideal for broken or irritated skin.
Check out your hormones. Often enough, the culprit for acne is a hormonal imbalance. You'll need to see a good old fashioned endocrinologist for this—sometimes too-high testosterone or a sluggish thyroid is to blame. Get those in check, and your skin cooperates too.