10 acne treatments that may be killing your skin

What works and what doesn’t? An acne specialist gives us the lowdown on popular anti-acne beliefs. 


PHOTO: Ingimage

Anyone who’s ever suffered from acne will tell you that it is the worst. No matter how beautiful your features are, or how much makeup you pile on, you’ll always feel self-conscious walking out of the house with a face covered in pimples. Getting rid of it often entails trying a series of expensive, painful, and ineffective skincare methods. Even if you find the one thing that works, moving to a different climate or undergoing the physiological changes that come with age can set you back at square one.

At the launch of Vichy’s new Noraderm products earlier this month, we met with Dr. Jonathan Lee, a speaker at the event and a specialist in The Aesthetic Studio Singapore. In addition to being an established surgeon, Dr. Lee is also an expert in minimally-invasive facial rejuvenation, skin resurfacing, and acne scar remodeling.

Given his experience, we thought we’d ask Dr. Lee to give us a specialist’s lowdown on the various acne treatments available today. What works, and what doesn’t? Read on – you might be surprised at which popular claims are misguided, pointless, or even harmful.

Claim: Dry your pimples
Truth: Moisturise your pimples

Less is more. While it might be tempting to douse your zit in medicated ointment, you risk drying the top layer of your skin (and inflaming it) without penetrating the pimple beneath. The drier your skin is, the more dead skin cells accumulate at the top, creating a flaky crust that might act as a barrier to the ointment’s active ingredient. Worse, your skin could even crack, making it vulnerable to bacterial infection and scarring. This is why Vichy created their Normaderm Hyaluspot, which uses hyaluronic acid to moisturise and protect the pimple with an invisible layer of film.

“Hold up!” you say. “PROTECT your pimple?”

That’s right. Not only should you moisturise your pimples, but you need to protect them from outside bacteria. According to Dr. Lee, hyaluronic acid, which naturally occurs in the skin, prevents your pimple from inflammation while shielding it from contamination. That way, the salicylic acid present in the product can penetrate the epidermis without scarring it. 

Vichy’s Normaderm range is available in pharmacies and drug stores like Guardian, Watsons, and Unity island-wide. Prices range from S$25-S$39.

Normaderm Hyaluspot available for S$29.90

Claim: “This treatment will make your skin eliminate toxins. So it’s going to look worse before it starts looking better.”
Truth: Baloney! A good product will make your skin look better, period

If you’ve ever heard an esthetician, a dermatologist, or a sales person say this, run for the hills. When we told Dr. Lee that the reasoning sounded logical, he laughed and said that not only does it sound illogical to him as a doctor, but that there’s no scientific backing for this claim.

A dermatologist who prescribes a treatment that will cause an initial breakout to “clear toxins” risks subjecting his patient to even more scars. “You don’t want to prescribe a treatment for the treatment,” Dr. Lee said.

While the skin might take one or two weeks to acclimate to a new product, the best ones heal you in a safer, calmer way, with side effects that doctors know how to manage.

Claim: Abstaining from chocolate, potato chips, and greasy food will cure your acne
Truth: Specific foods can neither cause nor prevent acne

Once again, there is no scientific backing for this. Pimples aren’t caused by potato chips, they are caused when naturally occurring bacteria breaks down sebum and creates irritating fatty acids. While greasy foods might make your skin feel oilier, they don’t make the bacteria in your skin more active. In fact, most research suggests that hormone levels are to blame for outbreaks. On that same note, there aren’t any foods that specifically prevent acne. The guiding principle is that you can’t blame a specific food, you can only blame a bad diet which leads to poor health, which may contribute to outbreaks. So before you ditch pizza and chicken for a diet based purely on fruits, keep in mind that being deprived of protein, dairy, or carbohydrates can also contribute to bad skin. 

Claim: Facials are dangerous; do everything at home
Truth: Facials are safe; what has happened to customers in the past are freak occurrences

A few weeks ago, Singaporean blogger Juli, of bunbunmakeuptips, made international news after a facial gone wrong caused clusters of pimples to sprout all over her face. While many readers (including us) swore off facials after seeing her skin covered with angry pustules, Dr. Lee assured us that in general, these procedures are totally safe. They may not be effective in the long-term for getting rid of pimples, but they aren’t bad for you. Like with any procedure, there’s always a chance that things will go haywire, but the important thing is that you consult someone who knows how to handle the complications that may arise.

Claim: Dry environments are better for the skin

Truth: Rapid changes in climate, hot or humid climates, are more to blame for acne

The skin takes at least a week to grow accustomed to new products and environments, meaning that travel can really do a number on your complexion. In between flying and being exposed to different climates, your skin hardly has time to adjust how much oil it produces. While many people believe that dry climates lead to less oil production (and less pimples), sudden exposure to dry weather might actually prompt your skin to overproduce sebum to compensate for the sudden lack of outside moisture.

Claim: Tanning or skin whitening clears acne
Truth: Tanning and whitening help your scars blend in, but it doesn’t prevent new ones from forming

In fact, spending too much time in the sun can irritate your skin and put you at risk for cancer, which isn’t exactly a worthwhile exchange for hiding zits. By that same logic, whitening agents may fade your scars, but they won’t prevent new pimples from growing.

Claim: You should see a dermatologist right away
Truth: You can self-medicate – up to a point

You don’t need to see a dermatologist right away. Buying topical ointments and trying different face washes works fine. The point at which you stop self-medicating and start seeking clinical treatment is when you develop cystic acne, which can cause scars. That way, the dermatologist can evaluate your condition to decide whether it requires hormonal treatments or antibiotics. In more serious cases, he can also see if your condition is linked to a deeper issue, such as polycystic ovaries or a major imbalance of hormones.

Claim: Wash your face as often as possible
Truth: Don’t wash your face more than twice a day

Moisture doesn’t cause acne, nor does having dry skin guarantee safety from it. Washing your face more than twice a day strips it of its natural healthy oils, meaning that your skin may produce too much sebum to make up for what’s lost – and worse, the flakiness of dehydrated skin may trap harmful agents inside your pores. Exfoliation is important, but don’t overdo it.

Claim: Avoid chemicals! Use natural at-home remedies only
Truth: At-home remedies are unpredictable, untested, and can hurt the skin

There’s a lot to be said for anecdotal “evidence” to that yoghurt, honey, or oatmeal clears acne. And while this may work for some people, the fact that these ingredients are all-natural doesn’t guarantee that they’re healthier or more effective. In fact, Dr. Lee says, the rough texture of oatmeal is actually a little too abrasive for the skin and can inflict more harm than good.

“Chemicals are tested,” he said. “The produce predictable, repeatable results. And they are not expensive.”

Avocadoes, tomatoes, oatmeal, and more cult home ingredients haven’t produced enough results on a large sample group to be reliable. While the word “chemicals” might sound scary in today’s pro-organic society, you can take comfort in the fact that they’ve at least been subjected to close scientific evaluation.

Claim: The important thing is to pinpoint the one cause of your acne, and to fight that
Truth: There is no “ONE CAUSE” or “ONE CURE”

We hate to break it to you, folks, but there’s rarely a single cause or a single cure for your acne. It almost always arises from a combination of factors: you’re genetically predisposed, you’re dehydrated, you’re not washing your face correctly, you products are too strong, and you’re not sleeping right. The key to conquering acne is achieving balance, both in your body and in your skin. Skin that is unhealthy will be more vulnerable to irritation and contamination, while skin that is healthy will not only be less acne-prone, but it will respond more effectively to new products that you introduce into your regime.  

One of our biggest mistakes you can make when treating acne is targeting the pimples without considering how your treatment affects the other components of your skin. Dousing your face in an extra-strong solution of benzoyl peroxide might sound like the right course of action, but it also compromises your skin’s level of moisture. There are so many factors behind good skin that are uncontrollable. You can’t help it if your country has terrible pollution, if your hormones are off the wall, or if your job only lets you sleep five hours a night. But by drinking enough water, using mild facial solutions, maintaining a balanced diet, and using moisturisers appropriate for your climate, you’ll make your skin more resistant to the damage that its environment can incur. 

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