From glycolic and salicylic acid products to retinoids and peels, we’ve all heard the typical go-to acne solutions. But what works in the real world? We asked YouBeauty readers to share the methods that truly made a difference in their breakouts—and believe it or not, there’s not a single skincare product on this list.
Cutting Down on Sugar
Sugar can be more addictive than cocaine, so limiting or cutting out this additive may seem incredibly daunting for the sweet-tooths out there—but for one reader, it made a drastic difference in her complexion. Claire Sharpe suffered from cystic acne on her body and face for years, and had tried prescription retinoids like Differin and oral contraceptives, as well as three rounds of Accutane. After noticing last year that her acne seemed to flare after eating sugary foods like cake and chocolate, Sharpe cut out all refined sugar.
Amazingly, the angry acne spots cleared. After reintroducing sugar several times and seeing the acne reemerge each time, Sharpe now shuns refined sugar. “I make my own yummy treats by sweetening with agave nectar, honey or dried fruit like dates,” says Sharpe. “I truly believe people need to avoid the processed junk, because I think it’s making us sick.”
So why can such sweetness be so bad for skin? After eating sugar, insulin is released into the body, and those high insulin levels are a leading cause of inflammation, says Rye Brook, New York holistic doctor, Susan Blum, M.D. That inflammation can trigger and worsen acne, increase surface redness and leave a sallow, dull look to the complexion. If you want to ease off processed sugar to see if it makes a difference in your skin, fresh fruit and Sharpe’s list of sweetener alternatives can help you cut out the white stuff. And you need not sacrifice those delicious baked goods; just substitute applesauce as a sweet and healthier sugar alternative.
Sometimes, the best skincare advice is passed down through generations. Reader Shannon Christine Bazemore was taught by her mother to combine two to three lightly coated aspirin with a few drops of water to mix a mask that heals acne. “I have my 12 and 14 year-olds apply the paste of crushed aspirin and water, let it dry, and then rinse off,” explains Bazemore. “It works like a charm to dry up acne!” Since there’s no binding agent, it’s normal for the paste to be fairly loose and flaky. If you’d like a hydrating and soothing binder, try adding some honey or aloe vera, suggests Bazemore.
This recipe isn’t just an old wives’ tale. Aspirin is made of acetylsalicylic acid, which helps reduce inflammation in the skin—and which is closely related to salicylic acid, a popular beta hydroxy acid that is often used to treat acne in over the counter skincare products. “While the two compounds are not identical, a paste made from aspirin can help acne by reducing inflammation and removing excess oil and dead surface skin cells,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical dermatology research at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Filtering Hard Water
Reader Maria Williams struggled with stubborn monthly breakouts for much of her life, until she installed a whole house water filter that treats hard water. Now owner of PuriTeam—a business specializing in filters—Williams says a few months after the change, she noticed that her hair felt cleaner and her skin had skipped its usual monthly acne; a pattern that continued to repeat until she realized her skin was in the clear. “Breakouts are something I’ve struggled with my whole life, and now it’s no longer an issue,” says Williams. She says the only breakouts she experiences now happen while she is traveling—and that her skin clears again once she has been home and washing with her filtered water for about a week.
MORE: Is Your Water Causing Acne?
“Hard water” describes the kind of tap water that is heavy in metals like lead, zinc and magnesium, as well as calcium. “Heavy metals convert the skin’s oils into a waxy, gland-blocking substance, resulting in acne, blackheads, stretched-out pores, redness and irritation,” explains New York dermatologist, Dennis Gross, M.D. “It can also aggravate existing conditions such as rosacea and inflammation.”
While Gross says that metals can still sneak through a home filtration system like the one Williams says helped her skin, the doctor advises that adding chelators to your skincare routine will counteract the effect of pore-clogging metals. Chelators engulf and prevent heavy metals from penetrating the pores, and are so efficacious that they’ve been used to treat heavy metal poisoning. Examples of chelators are derivatives of vitamins C and A like ascorbyl palmitate and retinyl palmitate, among scores of others. A chelating complex can be found in the Hydra-Pure line of skincare products by Gross, including a facial spray that can be sprayed after cleansing to counteract hard water deposits that may be left behind on your skin.
One reader found that the cause of her skin troubles lurked right in her refrigerator. “I’ve cut out most everything in my diet that adds hormones, like dairy,” says April Brown, to what she says are clear and glowing skin results. And as it turns out, it’s true that those dairy products may have you asking, “Got acne?”Dairy cows are often treated with hormones, which can trigger and flare hormone-related acne, says Washington, D.C. dermatologist, Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D. “Even organic products—without the use of hormones and antibiotics—can worsen acne, because, for some people, dairy increases overall inflammation in the body, leading to inflamed facial acne and redness,” explains Tanzi.
But there’s good news: dairy-free sections are only growing with popularity at the grocery store. Almond and rice milks can be tasty alternatives to milk, and soy-based yogurts and cheeses that might even pass for the real thing can be found at health food stores. For those concerned about calcium intake, enriched milks and servings of leafy greens like kale, bok choy and broccoli can (perhaps surprisingly) weigh in just as comparatively.
Clean Pillow Cases
For another reader, the solution to the breakout angst of her teens was right under her nose—or, as it were, heads. “I taught my kids to turn their pillow cases over every night, and to change them every other day,” shares Robin Guyton. The result? Clearer skin with less acne breakouts.In this case, mother knows best. “Oil, bacteria and leftover residue from makeup and hair products can transfer from your skin and hair onto your pillow case,” says Elena Arboleda, head aesthetician at New York’s Mario Badescu Skin Care.
As a result, sleeping with your face pressed to a pillow for several hours a night can lead to clogged pores and breakouts. In addition to sleeping on clean pillow cases, “cleansing your face right before bed and loosely tying hair back away from the face can help too,” suggests Arboleda. You can also adjust to sleeping on your back, which is not only better for your pores, but can also help prevent premature wrinkling from the pressure of linen lines pressed into your face every night.
“Gluten” has been a buzzword lately as more people discover an intolerance to the seemingly omnipresent ingredient. Comprising about 80 percent of the protein found in grains, gluten functions as a glue of sorts that holds dough together, giving it an elastic texture.
When reader Molly Hogg was put on a gluten-free diet by a family doctor who was treating other health issues, she experienced a most welcome side effect. “My acne clearing up was a nice surprise!” she says. Previously, the nursing student had treated her persistent breakouts with prescriptions and Retin-A, with little success. After about three weeks on a gluten-free diet, Hogg noticed that her skin began to clear. After about 60 days, any trace of acne was gone. “I used to be extremely self-conscious and wouldn’t leave the house without makeup on,” she says. “I now have clear skin. But if I go back to eating large amounts of gluten, my acne returns.”
MORE: Does Gluten-Free Make for Better Skin?
While the allergy to gluten known as Celiac’s Disease can result in an irritating rash called dermatitis herpeformis on the face and body, some experts say there’s a possibility that gluten can trigger or inflame your garden variety case of acne, too—if you’re sensitive to the protein. The inflammation that gluten digestion can trigger in the body is thought to be at the heart of the issue. “It’s hard to quantify, but people look better [gluten-free],” says Wisconsin cardiologist, William Davis, M.D, who says he has seen everything from acne to eye puffiness and facial redness improve significantly in patients who have changed to a diet that is free of the ingredient. “Easily more than 80 percent of the population has problems with some component of wheat, gluten and otherwise,” adds Davis. “Many of the components of wheat have no blood tests to identify.”
Washing Makeup Brushes
Your daily beauty routine could be a hidden cause of your acne, as one reader found out firsthand. After attending school to become an esthetician and learning about the types of bacteria that lurk in makeup and brushes, Adriana Perez put two and two together one morning. “The majority of my breakouts were on my cheeks—exactly where I applied my blush. At first I thought my blush was the culprit, but then I realized it could be my brush,” says Perez. The 29 year-old got into the routine of washing brushes with shampoo and air drying them every couple of weeks, plus disinfecting with blush cleaner to quickly refresh every few days. A month later, Perez noticed that her cheek acne had cleared up—and it stayed away for good.
According to YouBeauty Cosmetic Chemistry Expert Ni’Kita Wilson, you’d be horrified to take a microscope to those makeup brushes. “Brushes can carry old makeup, dirt, skin cells and debris that you spread all over your skin along with the makeup!” says Wilson. “It’s like a feeding ground for p.acne,” says the chemist of the bacteria that causes acne. If you’re a daily brush user, cleansing sprays and wipes are an effective way to quickly clean brushes every few days, though a deeper shampooing is truly needed to sanitize completely every couple of weeks. Washing with baby shampoo and lukewarm water will ensure the longest life for your makeup brushes.