Acne is a HUGE subject. I am going to try to simplify the topic of treating acne with natural ingredients as best I can. My hope is that this page will provide you with information that can help you in treating your acne and finally getting the clear skin you desire.
There are hundreds of methods for treating acne. Because everyone's skin is so unique, some of these methods work for some, and not for others. This makes it so difficult to find a method that works on your own skin - it takes a lot of trial and error, and patience. The problems is most people give up on a treatment too soon. It can take up to 3 months of consistently doing the same regime to fully see the results.
I will mostly talk about what has worked for me personally, as I have struggled with acne for all of my teen and adult life [read about My Journey with Acne]. This page will include links to articles we have written as well as product reviews, along with links to products we recommend.
Disclosure: There are some affiliate links below and we may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post, but these are all products we highly recommend. We won't put anything on this page that we haven't verified and/or personally used.
What is Acne?
Acne is a skin problem that occurs mostly on the face and neck, but can also affect the back and chest. What basically happens is the pores in your skin get clogged with the oil, dirt, and dead skin cells, creating what is known as a microcomedo. The clogging allows bacteria (p. acnes) to proliferate in the pore, triggering an immune response that leads to active acne lesions.
People with acne have some things in common:
- Their skin sloughs off skin cells faster than people with non-acneic skin - this leads to an overabundance of dead skin cells that can clog pores.
- Their sebum is often deficient in an omega fatty acid called linoleic acid - this makes their sebum more sticky and comedogenic (pore-clogging).
- Their skin produces too much oil in response to drying products.
- Their skin hosts various strains of P. Acnes bacteria.
- Their skin reacts with inflammatory responses that trigger papule and pustule formation.
- They may have a damaged skin barrier that allows in bacteria, making the skin more prone to breakouts.
Contrary to the name, p.acnes bacteria is not the sole cause of acne. Everyone has this type of bacteria on their skin. The problem comes when dead skin cells and sticky sebum get trapped in the pores. This creates the perfect environment for p. acnes to grow, thrive, and trigger inflammatory responses in the skin.
Fact: It can take 90 days from the first formation of a microcomedo until it reaches the surface to create a pimple.
How to Treat Acne
Treating Acne Requires
- lowering dead skin cell build up.
- minimizing the overproduction of sticky sebum.
- controlling the proliferation of P. Acnes bacteria.
- reducing inflammatory responses in the skin.
- repairing the skin barrier.
- nourishing, rather than fighting the skin.
- diligence, consistency, and patience.
Lets tackle each of these points individually
We will talk a little about each of the requirements needed to treat acne. In the next section, I will go into specific products and treatments.
Lowering Dead Skin Cell Build-Up
As the skin regenerates, dead skin cells build up on the surface. People with acne-prone skin have been shown to produce dead skin cells at an accelerated rate, making them more prone to clogged pores. Dead skin cells are the root of the acne problem, they are the first cause that we need to treat if we want to see results.
Exfoliates are the best way to minimize dead skin cell buildup. There are two types of exfoliates, chemical and physical. Chemical exfoliates digest dead skin cells and include alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, beta-hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid, as well as fruit enzymes. Physical exfoliates remove dead skin cells with friction and include anything you use to "scrub" your face.
Both types of exfoliation can be beneficial, but chemical exfoliates are better for acne because they remove dead skin without causing irritation that can lead to more breakouts.
Minimizing Oil Production
People who have an overproduction of oil tend to be more likely to have acne, however you don't have to have oily skin to have acne, there are plenty of people who have dry skin and acne.
Many people try to fight breakouts by using drying products that strip the skin of all oils. This is counter-productive, because what happens is your skin tries to compensate by ramping up its oil production.
By avoiding drying products and applying the right oils to the skin, we can help balance oil production and calm the skin's overproduction of oil.
Reducing the Stickiness of Sebum
People with acne tend to have sebum that is deficient in linoleic acid (see the study here); this makes their sebum sticky and comedogenic. Topical application of oils high in linoleic acid can help reduce the stickiness of sebum and keep pores from getting congested. Keeping the skin properly hydrated and using the right oils to balance our skin will help keep sebum from being overly sticky and causing breakouts.
Articles To Read:
Controlling P. Acnes Bacteria
We are learning that there are many different strains of P. Acnes bacteria. To be the most effective, an acne treatment should target multiple strains and types. This explains why treatments such as tea tree oil only work for some people. Tea tree oil is only effective against type 1 P. Acnes. If a person is dealing with type 2 or 3 P. Acnes, the tea tree oil will have no effect.
Black cumin seed oil is one of the few oils that is effective against both type 1 and 2 P. Acnes.
Inflammation and acne go hand in hand. When a pore becomes overrun with bacteria, the body responds with inflammation. Inflammatory pathways are triggered, and the immune system sends in white blood cells to fight the infection ( a pimple!) Calming stressed and damaged skin makes way for healing. Our skin will not be able to heal if it is inflamed, that is why anti-inflammatory ingredients are so important in treating acne.
Ingredients that target the specific inflammatory pathways involved in acne will offer the best results.
Repairing the Skin Barrier
People with acne often have a damaged skin barrier. Oily skin can actually be a sign that your skin barrier is not functioning optimally. The excess sebum your sebaceous glands are producing is a response to your skin being in a state of dehydration due to a damaged skin barrier. You can have oily and dehydrated skin at the same time!
A weakened skin barrier can make acne worse because it allows more bacteria, pollutants, and irritants into our skin. Skin becomes dry and thirsty, pores get less elastic and more prone to clogging, and sebaceous glands pump out more oil to compensate. All this leads to more breakouts.
Healing the skin barrier, providing hydration, and nourishing the skin will go a long way in helping prevent acne as well as speed the healing of any breakouts we may encounter.
Nourishing the Skin
We must work with our skin, not against it. Using harsh products to strip, dry, and destroy will ultimately damage our skin. I used to use benzoyl peroxide to control my acne, and it worked well at getting rid of my breakouts - but it came at a price. My protective skin barrier was eradicated and I ended up developing a sensitivity to beeswax on my lips. My skin was dry and was aging at an accelerated rate.
When I started working with my skin, by nourishing it and using gentle helpers to keep my pores clear, my skin reacted much better. My skin is plump and vibrant, with no dryness or irritation.
When treating acne, we must be diligent. Pimples can take 30 - 90 days to form. That means that what we do to our skin now, may not give us results for 3 months! In order to see a change in our skin, we must stay consistent, we must do the same routine everyday, without fail.
When I switched to the current skin care that I am using to treat my acne, it took 3 months for my skin to get to the point where I didn't feel l needed makeup anymore. I went through a serious purge that made me breakout terribly and made me want to quit. I stuck with it, and I am glad I did, because now my skin looks and feels great.
What I Use
You may be wondering what I am using on my skin to keep my acne under control. I am using a brand called Moss. Moss is a luxury, organic skin care brand that focuses solely on treating adult acne in a holistic and natural way. You can read my reviews and see my results here.
An Acne Regime That Works
In this section I will share an acne regime that will work with time and patience. I will link to recommended products so that you can get started on your path to clear skin. Included are links to luxury products as well as budget buys.
If you want a truly luxurious experience, make sure you check out my Moss skin care reviews. Moss has completely transformed my skin, keeping my breakouts to a minimum, while also combating aging.
Oil cleansing is the way to go with acne. In the past I tried oil cleansing and found it didn't work for me, but I realize now that I was not patient enough and not using oils that my skin liked. Choose an organic/unrefined oil that is high in linoleic acid and a high-qual
ity castor oilfor cleansing your acne-prone skin.
Soaps and harsh cleansers mess with the acid mantle and natural pH of the skin, causing the skin to compensate by producing more oil. When you are not oil cleansing, use a gentle, soap-free face wash or gel cleanser. Micellar waters are an excellent choice - they are gentle and effective at cleaning the skin without stripping natural oils.
I recommend oil cleansing every other day, and using a gentle, soap-free face wash or micellar water in between. An emulsifying oil cleanser is a great way to remove makeup in the evening. I personally love Moss Skincare's Revele Oil Cleanser - Read my review here.
Toners are used after cleansing to balance the pH of the skin and to remove any leftover cleanser or dirt. With a well formulated cleanser, you shouldn't need a toner, unless you are wanting to deliver actives to your skin.
Hydrosols are a great product to use at this step. A hydrosol, or "flower water" is created when plants are steam distilled to extract their essential oils. Plant hydrosols offer similar therapeutic properties to the essential oil, but are much less concentrated. A hydrosol will deliver active ingredients such as antioxidants to the skin.
If you choose to use a toner, wipe it gently over your face with a cotton ball after cleansing.
Recommended Hydrosols to Use for Toning
Serums deliver actives into the skin, they are usually highly concentrated and are designed to be absorbed deeply. You want to apply your serum to your freshly cleansed face, so that there is nothing in the way of it absorbing.
At this step, you can use an exfoliating serum, something that will help get rid of dead skin cells - the root of breakouts. There are two ways to get rid of dead skin cells - manual exfoliation and chemical exfoliation. Manual exfoliation uses friction to remove dead skin cells - these are known as "scrubs". Chemical exfoliates remove dead skin cells with alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, beta-hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid, as well as fruit enzymes. Acne is best prevented with chemical exfoliation.
Salicylic acid from willow bark is my top choice for exfoliation and keeping pores clear. Salicylic acid is more gentle than another popular acne exfoliate - benzoyl peroxide. I have used benzoyl peroxide (BP) in the past, and it does work [Read about the BP product I used]. The problem with BP is that it destroys the entire top layer of the skin, digesting healthy cells as well as dead cells. BP will accelerate aging and increase skin dryness.
Enzymes are another good choice to keep dead skin cells from building up. Enzymes will target only dead skin cells, whereas alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid will kill live cells - something we don't want to do everyday. Using acids for a deeper exfoliation can be beneficial, but limit it to once a month at the most.
Some enzyme exfoliates include: Bromelain from pineapple, papain from papaya, pumpkin bioferment, royal jelly, and honey. Moth bean, or Vigna Antificolia offers a retinol-like effect in that it speeds up cellular turnover. We will talk more about enzyme exfoliates in the mask section further below.
Apply your serum to a freshly washed face and allow it some time to absorb before applying your moisturizer. How often you apply your exfoliating serum will depend on your own individual skin. I have to apply my serum twice a day to keep my acne under control. It is best to start with using your serum once a day at night, and see how your skin reacts. If it gets irritated, lessen your use, if you aren't seeing results, increase your frequency to twice a day.
Facial oils can be great for acne, but they need to be used properly so as not to exacerbate the problem. So why use facial oils? Well there are a couple of reasons:
- Plant oils are super concentrated in a diverse array of nutrients that are beneficial for your skin.
- Plant oils are small enough in molecular size and close enough to what composes our skin that they are readily absorbed.
The problem with facial oils is that they can feel greasy on the skin and they are easy to over-apply. For this reason, we need to mix our facial oils with an absorbing fluid, which we will cover below.
For now, we will talk a little about facial oils and how to choose a good one for acne-prone skin. Plant oils are composed of fatty acids, the two that we are concerned with are oleic acid and linoleic acid [Read: Omega Fatty Acids and Their Effects on the Skin].
Acneic skin has been shown to be deficient in linoleic acid. This lack makes our sebum more sticky and pore-clogging. By topically applying oils high in linoleic acid, we can help reduce breakouts [Read: A List of Non Comedogenic Oils].
Use a facial oil once a day to once a week, depending on how your skin is reacting. You only need to use 1 - 2 drops of oil, don't overdo it, or it can cause skin barrier problems. Also, don't rely on a facial oil as your only moisturizer, your skin still needs moisture from a water-based source to function at its best and not become dehydrated (yes you can have oily and dehydrated skin at the same time!) You can tell that your skin needs a break from oils if you find that your skin feels both oily and dry at the same time, or looks dull or inflamed.
Absorbing fluids help your skin absorb facial oils. A light lotion or serum can be an absorbing fluid, anything that is watery or gel-like. Hydrosols or plain aloe vera gel make good absorbing fluids. If you can find absorbing fluids that contain MSM or liposomes, they will be the best at helping draw nutrients deep into the skin.
Absorbing fluids help take the greasy feeling away from facial oils, giving them more of a dewy feel. I like to use an absorbing fluid mixed with a facial oil to create an emulsion. I just mix them together right in my hand and apply to my skin, but you can also use an anointing bowl. Another option is to apply a layer of oil and then a layer of absorbing fluid.
Using an absorbing fluid mixed with a facial oil can be enough to moisturize your skin. If you find your skin reacting well to this combo, you can skip using a moisturizer, which is the next step.
You must replenish your skin's hydration levels. Oils are not a good source of consistent moisture, the skin requires both oil-based moisture and water-based moisture. Moisturizers are meant to slow trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). Our environment and the health of our skin barrier effect how much TEWL we experience. Anything that damages the skin barrier will contribute to more water loss.
Moisturizers are most often a mixture of water and oils. They contain humectants, occlusives and emollients to slow TEWL.
- Humectants draw water from the air to your skin and hold it there. They work well in humid climates and not so well in dry climates. Glycerin, hyaluronic acid, plant sugars and saccharides are examples of humectants.
- Occlusives form a protective film over the skin to prevent water loss, they are mainly lipid (oil) based and include plant butters and oils.
- Emollients fill the gaps between skin cells and include aloe vera and shea butter.
- Other ingredients that help the skin retain moisture are ceramides, niacinamide, and cholesterol.
Moisturizers that work with acne-prone skin can be difficult to find. Emulsifiers (ingredients that keep oil and water from separating) in moisturizers are some of the most pore-clogging components in skin care. Also, moisturizers may contain oils that are high in oleic acid, and these are oils that acne-prone skin needs to avoid. Preservatives in moisturizers can damage the skin barrier, which contributes to more problems (more natural preservatives like radish root ferment and aspen bark should not cause this issue.).
Helpful ingredients to look for in a moisturizer are high linoleic fatty acids and anti-inflammatory Omega 3s and Omega 6s, ceramides and cholesterol. Another great ingredient is niacinamide or Vitamin B3 which is an anti-inflammatory and helps the skin to naturally produce it’s own ceramides.
The most simple method of moisturizing acne-prone skin is to use a mixture of an absorbing fluid and an oil. I like to use aloe vera water and a high-linoleic oil that I mix in my palm or an anointing bowl. This works well, but it lacks more robust ingredients that help repair the skin barrier and contribute to anti-aging. You can also make your own moisturizer by mixing a high-linoleic oil with a serum that contains humectants, niacinamide and ceramides.
- Moss Potenci Dermal Lifting Hydrating Milk - by far my favorite moisturizer for acne-prone skin.
Most spot treatments are created to dry out pimples. The problem with this approach, especially for adult acne, is that the drying out causes the skin to become less elastic, making the congestion less likely to resolve on its own. We want to nourish our skin, not combat it. Acneic skin is skin that is weakened and needs support to be in optimal health. Drying ingredients such as talc, alcohol, benzoyl peroxide, and clays can irritate the skin, leading to more inflammation and breakouts.
What is the most important aspect to look for in a spot treatment? (Hint: it isn't anti-bacterial or drying ingredients).
Many spot treatments utilize harsh anti-microbial ingredients such as tea tree oil. These can actually irritate the skin rather than support it. Tea tree oil does not kill the multiple stains of P. Acnes bacteria, it is only effective against one or two types, and it will have a hard time penetrating the protective biofilm that bacteria produces to defend itself. Also, dead bacteria can still contribute to inflammation and lesions. We must find gentle but effective anti-microbials that target multiple strains of P. Acnes and that can get through the biofilm.
Anti-inflammatory ingredients are the key to an effective spot treatment. Inflammation and acne go hand in hand, if we can calm damaged and stressed skin, we can make way for healing. Regenerative ingredients are also important, speeding healing and cell regeneration, as well as preventing scarring.
Patience and consistency are necessary, preventing acne from forming is the best approach, but when a pimple does crop up, an effective spot treatment can help speed up the healing of blemishes.
Apply your spot treatment after cleansing and toning. Allow it to sink in for 10 - 20 minutes and then do the rest of your skin care ritual. Now reapply the spot treatment over top of your other skin care products (including makeup). The reason for this is to allow the spot treatment to sink in undiluted with nothing on your face. When you apply the rest of your skincare, you dilute the spot treatment, so if you also apply the spot treatment again after your other products, it can be on your skin undiluted and not get smeared or smudged by the rest of your skincare.
To briefly summarize the basic protocol for treating acne:
- Cleanse: Oil cleansing method alternating with Micellar water.
- Tone: Use a hydrosol to tone the skin.
- Spot treat if needed.
- Exfoliate: Use an exfoliating serum containing salicylic acid and/or fruit enzymes.
- Moisturize: Mix a facial oil with an absorbing fluid as a light moisturizer, or use Moss' Potenci moisturizer.
- Spot treat again if needed.
There you have it, a natural and easy skin care routine for dealing with acne. I have used this protocol and it has worked for me, it does take time, so you have to be diligent. Everyone's skin will react differently, we all have such unique skin. Make sure to tune into and pay attention to how your individual skin is reacting to the routine and adjust accordingly.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below, or you can contact me directly. Also, let us know in the comments if you have found something that works for you, that way everyone can read and benefit from your experiences.