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Health & Wellbeing / Ali Horsfall

The Body Experts: What To Do About Adult Acne

We all have occasional breakouts, and it’s super-common to get to more pimples around the time of our period, but if you suffer with acne you’ll know that it’s spotty skin on a whole different level.

The British Association of Dermatologists describes acne as a skin condition that’s characterized by blackheads, whiteheads and pus-filled spots. It usually starts at puberty and varies in severity from a few spots on the face, neck, back and chest – which most teenagers have at some time – to a more significant problem that can cause scarring and have an impact on self-confidence. For the majority of people, acne tends to clear up by the late teens or early twenties, but sometimes it can continue for much longer. Acne can also develop for the first time during your late twenties or even the thirties.

Abigail James, facialist, skin expert and author or Love Your Skin, says there are many factors that can spark and irritate acne, but the underlying issue is almost always hormones.

Today, we get her advice on what can be done to help it.

So, what’s the deal with acne?

“Originally a condition that plagued our teenage years, there’s something of an adult acne epidemic spreading right now with people in their twenties, thirties and forties suffering from it. It might surprise you to know that up to 80 per cent of the population suffers from acne at some point.

“The sebaceous (spot-causing) glands are incredibly sensitive to hormonal fluctuations and easily become inflamed. The result is acne on the face, upper arms, back and chest. For most people, it begins in puberty when the body starts to produce hormones called androgens that stimulate the sebaceous glands. The link between acne and hormones means that women often suffer from recurrences during pregnancy, the menopause or when taking hormonal contraceptives,” says Abigail.

She adds that there is also an abundance of hidden hormone-disrupting chemicals present in our modern lives, including phthalates and plasticisers. These cause irreversible hormonal changes in men and women. Artificial fragrances are another form of irritant that disrupt the immune system and make the skin less able to withstand attacks from spot-inducing bacteria.

So what actually causes the zits? “We have around five million hair follicles in our bodies, which is where spots start,” explains Abigail. “Each tiny hole contains cells and glands that produce oil to help keep the skin plump and conditioned. But when there are too many cells or they become sticky as a result of hormones kicking in, they form a blockage. As more and more cells and sebum get trapped, the follicle starts to swell. The oxygen supply to the follicle also becomes reduced, producing the ideal environment for bacteria to thrive. Soon a spot is formed and the opening of the hole becomes blocked.”

Treating the problem

Treatments for acne can vary, depending on the root cause of the problem so Abigail says that taking a combined approach with your home skincare regimen, professional treatments and diet will yield the best results. “Blue LED light and laser treatments will kill the bacteria. Skin peels, focusing on reducing inflammation and targeting the bacteria, can be supportive, but a course is always needed to see results,” she advises.

Nutrition for skin

By making subtle changes to your diet along with taking certain supplements, you can do a huge amount to manage your acne. Abigail suggests reducing the following or eliminating it entirely.

Sugar: There is medical evidence to suggest that ingesting just 100g of sugar can reduce your immune system’s ability to function by as much as 50 per cent for up to five hours. Sugary foods reduce your body’s ability to fight off infection, thereby increasing its risk of inflammation and acne. While a healthy immune system can heal a pimple in five to seven days, an immune system weakened by sugar won’t be able to combat the inflammation underlying your spots, meaning it may ripen for ten days – or even two weeks.”

Refined carbohydrates: “These cause a surge in the production of insulin inside the body. This can lead to an excess of male hormones, which stimulate the sebaceous glands. So try to limit your intake of sweet and starchy foods such as rice, pasta, bread, cereals, fruit and fruit juices, milk and milk products.”

Meat: “Meat contains hormones and hormone-like substances which can affect our body’s balance internally. Alarmingly, dermatologists have reported that women who regularly eat red meat are more likely to suffer from acne and hirsutism.”

Dairy: “Humans are the only mammals that continue to consume milk past babyhood. While I don’t want to discourage anyone from eating dairy in moderation, it’s best avoided if you suffer from acne and dry skin conditions.”

In addition, Abigail advises acne sufferers to add the following essential nutrients to their diet.

Essential fatty acids (efas): “Research has shown that EFAs can help regulate the hormonal imbalances that lead to acne. People with hormone-related acne have been shown to have deficiencies of EFAs. Good sources include flaxseed, hempseed, walnuts, dark green vegetables, pumpkin seeds, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring and tuna.”

Zinc: “Oysters, shellfish, turkey, eggs, chickpeas, lentils, Brazil nuts, turnips, pumpkin seeds, oats, parsley, ginger root, buckwheat and carrots.”

Vitamin A: “Chili peppers, parsley, papaya, carrots, mangoes, peaches, kale, apricots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, broccoli and squash.”

Soluble fiber: “Flaxseed, nuts,oats, fruits, beans (such as black and kidney beans), pulses and apples.”

Insoluble fiber: “Green leafy vegetables, fruit skins, brown rice, bran, cabbage, chia seeds and garlic.”

Vitamin C: “Sweet potatoes, bell peppers, watercress and broccoli.”

Vitamin E: “Avocado, wheatgerm, pumpkin seeds and oily fish.”

Abigail’s top acne tips

Clever cleansing: “If you suffer from acne, it’s common to feel that the skin is ‘dirty’ and needs stringent cleaning. But acne isn’t caused by dirt. Rather, the walls of a pore stick together deep within the skin. Choose a cleanser containing a combination of anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant and hydrating ingredients. Salicylic acid, green tea, tea tree, retinoids, azelaic acid, alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) will also exfoliate the skin and prevent sebum building up. Have another gentle cleanser to use on days when you feel your skin needs a ‘rest’.”

Try natural: “Your skincare may be aggravating your condition, so try a product detox or natural approach. Aromatherapy lavender, rosemary, tea tree, frankincense and chamomile oils reduce inflammation and bring antibacterial benefits.”

Put away the magnifier: “It only makes the problem look worse than it is – and please don’t pick.”

The sun: “In the past, acne sufferers had been advised to take sunbeds to help. These days we’re all much more aware of the dangers of overexposure to UV light, so this is not a form of treatment I would ever recommend.”

Make-up: “Look for mineral make-up. I know you want to cover up but too many synthetics might clog pores further. Regularly wash your make-up brushes.”

Oils: “Use a tiny amount of oil at night time – your skin still needs oils to be healthy and balance itself.”

Supporting your gut: “Increase your intake of foods containing a direct source of friendly bacteria and take a multi-strain probiotic supplement.” 

Supplements to soothe the skin

Zinc: Helps repair scar tissue.

Vitamin C: Supports collagen production and skin repair.

Vitamin E: Increases skin tone, hydration and elasticity.

Vitamin A: Helps repair skin.

Flaxseed: Reduces inflammation and helps balance hormones.

Love Your Skin: The Ultimate Guide to a Glowing Complexion by Abigail James, is published by Kyle Books.

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