Image: Disciple Skincare
Beyond the harsh on-the-spot creams and drying facial washes, there’s a more sustainable side to acne skincare. Beatrice Murray-Nag looks into the more natural ways to balance hormones and soothe skin, from wonder ingredients to lifestyle and diet.
There used to be something of a disparity between my idea of natural skincare, and that of targeted acne solutions. While the former conjured up aesthetically pleasing imagery of bar soap and glass bottles of golden face oils, the latter stood for white plastic tubes labelled with names fit for a chemistry class. So, when I felt the first bump of what was to become a classic case of adult hormonal acne appear on my cheek one day, my mind jumped to conclusions written in acids, oxides and peroxides.
Like many, I thought that chemical-heavy, sebum-stripping gels and face washes would be the only solution for my newly problematic skin. Aside from being harsh and often over-drying, commercial acne treatments often contain chemical ingredients that may worsen the problem as well as causing harm to health; both personal and planetary. A quick search on the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Skin Deep (an online tool made for finding toxic chemicals in beauty products) reveals that alongside its active ingredients, acne skincare often contains fragrance and parabens found to cause problems with cellular reproduction.
The root of the problem
Rather than heading straight down to the local pharmacy, I decided to focus on getting to the root of the cause and finding chemical-free ways to treat it. In her book ‘Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life,’ Dr Claudia Welch states that “the first step to achieving hormonal balance is to understand it.” Welch uses the idea of yin and yang to explain how our hormones can easily get out of whack with menstrual cycles and hormonal contraceptives, not to mention the everyday stresses of modern life. This can cause headaches, breakouts, or “extreme emotions.” Sound familiar? Well, the good news is that she also cites the importance of diet, lifestyle and stress management in restoring equilibrium.
If you’re nodding along so far, there are a few remaining warning signs to suggest hormones are to blame for your problem skin. Blemishes caused by internal imbalance often manifest along your jaw, cheeks, and sides of your mouth, and rather than being surface-level pimples, they tend to appear as hard bumps under the skin. Their tell-tale timing is another pointer, as these types of spots usually pop up around the same time each month.
Images: Guy Morgan, Wild Source Apothecary
With a pretty good inkling as to the cause behind my breakouts, I turned to nature to try and cure the problem from both inside and out. Starting with topical treatments, the first point of call was to try to find natural ingredients that replicated the benefits of some widely prescribed hormonal acne fighters. To my surprise, chemicals such as the yet widely recommended salicylic acid can actually be found in naturally occurring forms, in this case in the bark of the willow tree. Meanwhile, the antibacterial properties of benzoyl peroxide are mirrored by tea tree oil and berberine – a substance found in mahonia plants. While natural skincare brand Evolve Organic Beauty makes their Rainforest Rescue serum with natural willow bark, Neal’s Yard Remedies offer a mahonia skin gel and herbal tincture.
Another approach that caught my attention was that of natural skincare brand Disciple, whose wholistic ethos aims to target the causes of acne both internally and externally. Psychotherapist and brand founder Charlotte Ferguson explains that “anxiety, stress and low mood can cause inflammatory skin issues such as adult-acne, eczema and premature ageing. Disciple products are unique in that they work not only on the surface of the skin, but the adaptogen-rich formulas help the body and mind deal with internal stress too.”
Combined with other natural wonder ingredient such as plant-derived Linoleic acid and prebiotic burdock root, these plant-based adaptogens are absorbed into the body through topical treatments to help combat acne-causing anxiety hormones. The Good Skin and Dreamy Skin facial oils, as well as the Night Shift cleansing oil have become firm favourites in my routine, alongside the CBD-infused Harmony Oil by Wild Source Apothecary.
Images: Disciple Skincare, Evolve Organic Beauty
Yet even once the angry red blemishes calmed down to a much more manageable level, my skin had a new surprise in store. In the place of the raised bumps down were now dark red-ish marks, smaller yet irritatingly more persistent than their inflamed counterparts. A little research told me what I was experiencing was post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, a problem where skin produces increased amounts of melanin during the healing process. Common cures include chemical peels, which often have a down time of a few days, or strong vitamin C serums.
In this area too, nature had an answer. Plant-based oils such as rosehip and black seed are rich in fatty acids that help skin heal and regenerate, diminishing the appearance of dark marks. With a base of rosehip and sea buckthorn seed oil, Guy Morgan’s Dagger Rose Facial Treatment oil is a good natural alternative for treating pigmentation. The other route is to speed up cell turnover; but this doesn’t mean turning to harsh physical exfoliators that can cause more harm than good to problem skin. AHAs are known for their regenerative properties, and can be either synthetic or fruit-based. Opt for plant-based versions such as Evolve Organic Beaty’s Miracle Mask, which uses 100% natural fruit acids including Glycolic Acid from sugar cane instead.
As well as treating acne externally, lifestyle factors such as diet and sleep can be major players in balancing hormones and alleviating consequent symptoms. One key element in re-establishing hormonal harmony is the diet we eat, with foods such as dairy thought to contain acne-stimulating androgen hormones. Meanwhile, the DIM compound found in green leafy vegetables is thought to change the way these hormones behave in our systems, reducing the production of sebum. The minerals like zinc for hormonal balancing and probiotics for gut health found in Viridian’s Clear Skin Complex have also been considered to have a positive effect on acne, while essential fatty acids support overall skin health.
Dr Welch also has it that changing our habits can bring us back into balance, breaking the cycle of producing overstimulating stress hormones. Taking time to properly relax and decompress are unlikely but essential ways to help manage our bodies’ reaction to stress, meaning yoga classes and meditation could hide the cure to problem skin.
If anything, for me, learning to treat hormonal acne has been an exercise in patience in a time that has us so used to instant gratification. My skin may still not be perfect, but it’s certainly all the better after a lesson in self-acceptance and slowing down, which can only be positive for myself and the planet.
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