So what is acne….really?
I live with both a three year old and a scientist, so you can be sure that I hear “why?” about 7.3 million times per day. When he was 2, my son’s favourite questions were “what it do?” and “you like that?” which are fun to answer when he asks about simple scientific stuff like the contrails an airplane leaves behind. “What do airplanes do, mama? What those lines do?” “Those are called ‘contrails’, Z. It’s tiny water droplets being left behind by the airplanes jets. They are like clouds.” “You like that?” “Well, I like clouds because they give us rain, and I like flying in airplanes, so yes, I guess I do like that.” I don’t get into the environmental effects of airplanes, but he’ll get those lectures in good time. (The what it do/you like that questions are harder to answer when he asks about really random, mundane things like bubbles in honey or a small crack in a sidewalk, for example.)
But lets take the question of acne. I mean, “what acne do?”, and “you like that?” are easy enough to answer. Acne feels awful, doesn’t look great, is a signal from the body about inflammation and can mess up a person’s entire outlook on life and no, nobody likes that. But….why? Why does acne happen? Why does the body produce this “defect”? And why is acne important?
So let’s start at what a pimple is, and go from what creates a pimple to why it’s being caused in the first place.
It all starts with sebum. Sebum is the lovely waxy oil skin produces to stay healthy. It’s really good stuff, in moderation. It is produced in a hair follicle, which are commonly called “pores”. Sebum production is a healthy and normal function of the skin, so it’s not an excess of sebum that causes acne, which is a common myth, but the backing-up of the sebum that can cause a pimple (we’ll talk about WHY in a second, hold your pants.) So, oily-skinned people are not necessarily more prone to acne (as a teenager, I was super oily but never broke out. No, that was the curse of my 20s…when I was actually drier!) Sebum is actually very much wanted and needed for healthy skin! When the balance of it is perfect, and all systems are go, then in theory we wouldn’t even need much or any skincare products.
Of course, stuff gets out of whack.
So what happens when hair follicles/pores aren’t in perfect harmony? Well, healthy skin has something called keratinocytes at the surface. When dead karatinocytes aren’t shed before new ones arrive to replace it, it causes a back-up. This is when stuff starts to go wrong, and a comedone is formed.
A pimple is a type of comedone, a clogged hair follicle, that has become inflamed. Black heads and whiteheads are comedones too, and related to acne in that they are what oxidized sebum looks like when it’s sitting around, a little bloated and backed up in the hair follicle, but not red-hot, angry and inflammed like a pimple.
A pimple is caused by a backup of debris in the little oily cavity of a hair follicle with old, oxidized sebum and dead cells that can’t seem to escape via the shunt route (along the hair follicles) due to a build-up. Dried sebum and dead cells become like a waxy plug, and prevents new sebum from reaching the skin’s surface, creating a sebum traffic jam. Because this happens at the site of a hair follicle, a little rolled-up hair can get stuck in there as well. As pressure builds up, dead cells, bacteria (including one called p. acnes… guess what it does?) and other nasties your body fights so hard to get rid of, build up in this oily, waxy cesspool until your skin’s immune system sounds the alarm in distress and builds pus in it’s defense and then, voila! All that pressure creates a hot, hard and angry bump we call a pimple.
A little dramatic, isn’t it?
But why does all this happen? Why can’t the body shed the dead cells in time, keep the systems moving along in time and without getting a nasty back-log?
Well, two reasons: cells aren’t being shed quick enough and/or sebum is being produced too quickly. So, your pore can get backed-up because of a bunch of makeup or sunscreen or environmental debris not properly washed off, or it can become clogged because for some evil reason there’s just too much sebum for it to deal with.
So…why all the sebum, chum?
Sebum production is a little mysterious and random, tied to a few things within the body. But nothing as important as hormones. Ah, hormones. Love ’em, hate ’em, can’t live without ’em. They are like the tide within our body, ebbing and flowing about invisibly and mysteriously, with all kinds of fun ups and downs, regulating everything from stress response to sex drive and throwing all kinds of surprises into the mix. Like a long hair growing out of your nipple, a sudden outburst of anger or zits. Fun!
Sebum is controlled by the sex hormone androgen, which is primarily a male hormone (which is why guys have more sebum that women). Androgen actually controls sebaceous glands, and as these get old and die, they leave behind a squirt of sebum deposit as a little departing gift.
Adult acne, most common in women, almost always have a direct tie to a fluctuation with hormones, perhaps due to medication, menopause (or other fluctuation related to their menstrual cycle, such as PCOS) or stress. (I have a hunch that stress is a BIG one nowadays.) Adult acne also tends to be more of the cystic variety: large, painful “underground” pimples that take a long time to heal. Unfortunately, adult acne can lead to a lowered self-esteem, depression, scarring, and all kinds of symptoms that go far beyond a mere skin blemish. When acne is more severe than a mild breakout from time to time, then mere products will not work (if you have mild acne, then I highly recommend our Green Tea Detox Clay Mask, White Willow Bark Toner and Cypress Purity + Defense oil…all amazing for keeping hair follicles CLEAN, excess sebum in check and sloughing away dead skin cells effectively and gently.)
But what about when acne isn’t easy to control with safe, natural products? What can be done? I’ll be the first to say that when adult acne is severe, medication is tempting…. but don’t do it! Medication is a band-aid solution when your body is clearly calling out for help! Acne is a sign that something is out of line, and when acne is severe, it’s distressing, but it means it’s time to take a good look at your life. A friend of mine battled cystic acne for years, and only got it under control when she seriously took on two important aspects of her life: diet and stress. When she completely cut out dairy for several weeks (and permanently) and was in a happier place socially, her skin finally cleared up as though by magic. When this happened, she found that skincare products (Stark, naturally) worked even better because it wasn’t working against an uphill battle. Her body was resisting dairy, and because she had never cut it out, she didn’t even realize the damage it was doing. Her solution was deceptively simple, but it was impossible for her to attack until she had the right mindset. (Want to learn more about mindset and acne? Check out my program 21 Days.)