“How do we avoid acne breakouts?” As dermatologists in Singapore, this is the commonest question we get asked. Certainly not a surprise, considering over 90% of the world population is affected by acne at one point or another in their life. Yes, acne is not a problem unique only to Singapore, which has a constantly hot and humid climate that some may try attribute their less-than-ideal complexion to.
Whilst the climate could play a role in proliferation of the P. acnes bacterium responsible for acne breakouts, the underlying cause of it is actually multi-factorial and intertwined with one’s genetics. Given the pervasiveness of acne, there are naturally burning questions surrounding what we can do to get rid of pimples that have popped up and how do we prevent them from reoccurring, which we discuss below.
Pimples that have come to the surface have two possible outcomes. One outcome would be the pimples going away, so the pus and all the debris get extruded out within two to three days. The pimple flattens out and leaves a mark and eventually it fades. The other possible outcome, which is undesirable, would be having the pimple grow bigger and bigger. This becomes cystic acne and may feel as being very deep under the skin. The pimple may also become part of broader acne breakouts, with multiple cysts and may even be painful. It is therefore a no brainer that we want to prevent the second outcome.
The crux here is to understand that having just 1 or 2 pimples a month is classified as physiological acne. This can actually be very well managed with over the counter topical acne creams. However, if you have anything more than five pimples a month, there is a need for prescription medications. Be it in the form of creams or oral medications, because otherwise, you will likely end up in an inefficient cycle, find that the problem keeps recurring and never goes away.
If you have anything more than 5 pimples in a month, it means that under your skin, you have at least 20 pimples gradually rising to the surface. These embedded pimples take turns to come out. That is why some people struggle with having acne which never seems to go away. The pimples do not appear overnight, contrary to popular belief. Micro-comedones, which are little bumps under your skin, rise to the surface of skin through the process of inflammation. These could take 1 to 2 weeks to appear. In the interim, over the counter (OTC) acne medications may be useful in resolving some bumps, especially where there are fewer bumps.
There are plenty of OTC active ingredients we know traditionally for treating acne. These include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and some people use sulphur based solutions. However, in my opinion, these only work for very mild acne. I personally do not prescribe any of these in my practice anymore, because they cause irritation and very often the side effects outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, you can get a lot of sensitivity, redness, burning and stinging sensations.
If you have more than 5 pimples a month or experience acne breakouts, you have at least moderate to severe acne. This warrants a visit to your dermatologist for comprehensive management of your acne condition. The following are some tips which I would dispense to those having mild acne breakouts, and also applicable as adjuncts during acne treatment and maintenance thereafter.
1. Use anti-inflammatory creams on acne breakouts
In place of the traditional acne treatment ingredients, I am now proposing anti-inflammatory pimple creams that are composed of bioactive viable botanical ingredients. One such cream is the Blemish Spot Cream, which I have formulated using an algae extract and amino acids. This is instead of the traditional harsh chemical ingredients which work by drying out the skin.
With studies in more recent years, we understand more about acne being an inflammatory condition, which is genetically determined. Accordingly, we work towards reducing inflammations. Therefore, certain amino acids like serine and methionine, that help to repair wounds and reduce inflammations, would be effective. If you think of your pimple as an injury to the skin, which it really is, you want the skin to heal faster. By the same principles, the raw materials supporting wound healing, i.e. amino acids, have the effect helping the pimple to resolve.
In addition, lipid extracts from the algae chlorella vulgaris is also a critical anti-inflammatory constituent. A 2015 study showed that these extracts have tremendous efficacy in inhibiting human inflammatory mediators, with nearly 80% inhibition in some permutations, thereby reducing the pathogencity of P. acnes in causing acne breakouts.
Another key ingredient in the Blemish Spot Cream cream tackles oil production. Oil production significantly worsens acne, causing it to become more inflamed. The abundance of oil also becomes a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, to even cause secondary bacterial infections. In this light, we use extracts from the Argania spinosa tree, colloquially known as argan oil, to reduce oil gland activity. Apart from regulating oil production, sterolins (a form of plant fats) in argan oil also has a potent anti-inflammatory effect from dampening overactive antibody immune responses.
Botanical-based anti-inflammatory creams have in fact increasingly taken the place of prescription antibiotic ointments in our practice. You may have heard of clindamycin, clindoxyl and erythromycin gels which are topical antibiotics that kill surface bacteria. The antibiotic gels, however, have demonstrated limited success in suppressing acne inflammation. Furthermore, I think it is important to highlight that these lose efficacy after a maximum of 3 months. This is because the body gradually develops resistance against topical antibiotics and should be closely managed by your dermatologist.
A more sustainable second category of prescription medication would be retinoid creams. Retinoids belong to the vitamin A group of topicals. Different trade names exist, although by and large the mechanism of action is similar. Essentially, retinoids such as tretinoin work by treating the microcomedones under the surface of the skin.
They accelerate the rate of cellular turnover of the skin, thereby bringing up to the surface microcomedonic bumps in the first one to two months of treatment. This is before they start to suppressing the growth of such microcomedones. However, these are not without side effects, such as redness and irritation which may occur during the course of treatment and needs to be monitored by your dermatologist.
For those with mild acne, the potent anti-inflammatory properties of the Blemish Spot Cream will be handy in resolving acne breakouts. This is especially when the pimples are not yet fully inflamed and in clinical practice for such cases, has demonstrated particularly quick spot resolution of comedones. For those undergoing acne treatments or maintenance post treatment, the Blemish Spot Cream may also be used for prevention of acne breakouts around acne-prone areas.
2. Use an anti-bacterial cleanser
I think for acne it is very important that you use an anti-bacterial cleanser. For the ladies, double cleansing works in this method – oil soluble pigments such as those from makeup, especially eyeliner, mascara, eye shadows pigments, need to be dissolved in either a micellar formulation or a oil based emulsion. The oil-in-water emulsion forms a milky formula which is what I usually recommend to my patients because this is much gentler on skin.
The second stage of cleansing is where acne-prone skin would benefit from if done correctly. An anti-bacterial face wash in the past to us meant using a chemical such as triclosan. Triclosan, while effective in preventing acne breakouts, has had some controversy in its use. Although not definite yet, it has some reported effects on the human hormonal system and that is why I have also stopped prescribing that. Instead, we use a medical grade honey cleanser which helps to emulsify the grim, dirt, and it forms a foam which is not based off a very strong lathering agent like the laureth sulphates.
We are using the natural emulsifying lathering properties of honey and the same would go with a product such as soya. The great things about these natural emulsifiers is that they form a layer of what we call a humectant after you wash it off. This is so that while your skin feels clean after a wash, it is not dehydrated. The humectant layer in fact stays on the rest of the day and helps to form a healthy skin barrier between your skin and the environment to help prevent the onset of acne breakouts.
3. Healthy diets go a long way to prevent acne breakouts
The other aspect that should not be neglected would be your diet. I find that if you have problem skin and we start you on treatment, almost everybody will get well as long as they comply with treatment. However, the rate of recovery as well as the sustainability of the positive effects of treatment is significantly better in the group where they are conscientious with their diet.
We now know that diets high in trans fat, i.e. deep fried foods, dairy products, sugary foods, are pro-inflammatory which means that it can exacerbate your underlying acne conditions to cause acne breakouts. I tell my patients to stay away from that and also take an anti-oxidant rich diet. It is very hard to imagine that we are not what we eat. The same goes for skin, an organ that needs to be respected along with whatever nutrition that goes to your skin, which occurs via 2 ways.
Firstly, nutrition to the skin is topically applied and to me that is the most significant such as in the form of antioxidant cosmeceuticals. The second means, by consumption, is for the healthy functioning of all your tissues. This is for it to fight the daily assaults of free radical formation from environmental pollution, uv exposure, biological ageing. It is critical that have your supply of anti-oxidants in diet and all these do not have to be found in supplements which may be controversial, in terms of the amounts that have to be ingested in a sustainable manner.
We should perhaps instead look towards a healthy natural anti-oxidant rich diet. Do include lots of blueberries and even olive oil. Olive oil in our diet has been proven both by cardiologists as well as within the dermatology research community to have positive anti-ageing effects on the heart as well as on the skin. These factors do add up eventually for healthy skin that is free of acne breakouts.Tags: acne, Acne treatment