Acne not only affects our skin, but can also affect our mood and self-confidence. Our faces are our window to the world. This is where others read how we are feeling, and on a more primitive level, assess our health.
While the presence of acne is not necessarily a reflection of our overall health, many will feel hesitant to show their acne to others. A whole industry of drugstore acne treatments as well as concealers and make-up has grown out of a perceived need to hide how our skin looks naturally.
While anyone with a large amount of pimples should seek medical advice, many with the odd blemish try to treat the issue with over-the-counter products. Every person must decide for themselves at which point they seek medical advice. I can only advise from personal experience that it is worth doing everything to avoid scarring, which is very difficult to remove, if not impossible. In my experience, leaning on over-the-counter cleansers and creams can help to a certain extent, but can risk just slowing down the process, and in the end you can end up with the same scars only years later. For me personally, the only thing that ever helped was natural soap - I documented my personal experience here. I can however recommend to always consult a doctor if you have acne - it is not worth being complacent and then having facial scars years later.
What is Acne?
Firstly, what is sebum? Sebum is an oily substance produced by your body’s sebaceous glands. It coats, moisturises, and protects your skin. It is normally imperceptible - if you look at your skin right now, you won’t necessarily see that you have a thin layer of sebum on your skin! This oily sebum coating sits on top of your outer skin layer, your stratum corneum, and also flows in between its cells, creating a brick and mortar structure. This gives you a strong skin barrier. Sebum also contains humectants which will keep water trapped inside your skin, which helps with normal skin functions, and the sebum barrier prevents this trapped water from evaporating.
Your face and scalp contain the highest concentration of sebum glands. Your face, in particular, may have as many as 900 sebaceous glands per square centimetre of skin. Your shins and other smooth surfaces typically have fewer glands. The palms of your hands and the soles of your feet are the only areas of your body without any sebaceous glands at all.
Acne can form due to the interaction between three things:
- Excess Oil
Genetics and hormones can play a large part here. People can have a genetic predisposition to creating more sebum than required. This is difficult to change. Hormones, called androgens, can also have a huge role in how much sebum is produced. Age plays a large role in the amount of androgen production (think teenagers and during a woman's menstrual cycle), as well as medication and even disease.
An arguably more common cause of excess oil production is from cleansing your skin too harshly. Most facial cleansers and body washes contain the ingredient SLS (Sodium lauryl sulfate), or a variation of it. This is a very cheap cleanser which is made of highly refined petroleum or palm oil. Even if palm oil is at least a renewable resource, many chemicals are required to refine it into SLS.
SLS is not natural, nor good for your skin. SLS is highly effective at stripping the sebum layer completely from your skin. This is why it is widely used in cleansers and shower gels - it is cheap and cleanses very well! However it is not easily combined with any ingredient that would quickly replace your oil barrier. If your skin is stripped of all its dirty oils, and no oils are immediately replaced, skin will panic and quickly over-produce sebum. One way to avoid this is to quickly apply a moisturising cream, which will help avoid this oily over-reaction. However SLS can also be a skin irritant, and is not suitable for use on an already damaged skin barrier.
- Dead Skin Cells
Sebaceous glands, which produce sebum, are most often found in the shaft of a hair follicle, although they can exist on their own. Once your skin over-produces sebum, it will travel over the surface of your skin, and trap dead skin cells, sweat, and dust. These will collect together, and then settle in the troughs of your skin, especially around the hair shafts. This can cause the hair follicle shaft to become blocked, while the sebaceous glands continue to produce sebum below this blockage. We get a build-up.
Everyone has acne-causing bacteria living on their skin, but researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have found that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ strains of the bacteria, which either cause acne, or apparently do not.
Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes, formally known as Propionibacterium acnes) lives deep within the hair follicle shaft and pores, as well as living on the surface of the skin. It has a healthy function of eating sebum and dead skin cells. However, if it becomes surrounded by a large amount of sebum, such as the build-up of sebum after being trapped by dead skin cells at the top of a hair follicle shaft, it can eat as much sebum as it wants, and multiply. The blocked follicle shaft, the build-up of sebum in the shaft, and the bacteria multiplying causes a crisis - a pimple.
Things That Make Acne Worse
If someone is already predisposed to having acne, some factors can make it even worse.
Stress slows the body’s ability to heal acne wounds. Slower healing could leave a wound open for longer, and susceptible to further infection. If acne takes longer to heal, it also means that more pimples are visible at the same time, which can worsen its appearance.
Steroids can increase levels of testosterone, an androgen which increases sebum production
- Greasy environment
If working in a kitchen, the greasy atmosphere can deposit on your skin, which can act like sebum and contribute to pimples.
Sugar causes a quick spike in your body’s blood sugar levels. Your body’s way to regulate this is with hormones, which can also signal to your sebaceous glands to produce more oil. Milk can also contain hormones, which can signal for more oil production.
How Does Natural Soap Help Acne?
Skin’s needs can be broken down into 2 main areas:
- Skin needs water on the inside to maintain its functioning, held there by humectants such as glycerin
- Skin needs an oil barrier in order to prevent water evaporation and to provide a protective layer against irritants
When you use natural soap, three things are happening at the same time:
- Soap is surrounding the dirt and old oils on your skin and cleaning them away
- Glycerine is entering your skin, because the molecules are under 500 Daltons large, and will draw water into the skin and hold it there
- Plant oils in the soap leave a new thin oil layer on your skin, which compliments your skin barrier. This helps keep water locked into your skin, and provides a defence against anything that could harm your skin. If a new oil layer was not left on your skin, the soap would clean away your dirty skin barrier, and without a new oil layer your skin could lose water to evaporation and could become irritated due to contact with your surroundings. The oil layer replaces your old skin barrier, so you do not have to wait for your skin to eventually produce new oils to protect your skin.
The main benefit to natural soap with regards to acne is that it leaves behind a thin layer of plant oils on your skin, that is not too thick. You immediately already have a renewed skin oil barrier after washing! Without an overreaction of oil production, you don’t get the effect of trapped dead skin cells and other particles settling into the hair follicle shafts and blocking them. In addition, there is no negative reaction to harsh SLS chemicals.
pH-Value of Natural Soap
Natural soap has a pH of 8, which is slightly basic. While skin has a pH of around 5, which is slightly acidic, these are the conditions that bacteria has evolved to thrive in. A pH of 8 is effective at killing acne-causing bacteria, without being harsh on your skin. Your skin is not affected by a temporary pH of 8.
By regularly washing your face, 1-2 times a day, with natural soap, you are keeping acne-causing bacteria under control, while ridding your skin of impurities, providing your skin with a water-binding humectant and immediately rebuilding your skin’s protective oil barrier. No other product on the market has these abilities.
Why is this not more well-known?
It comes down to society’s distance from natural products, and the ability of highly processed products to be more easily marketed towards one specific function. SLS was created around the 1930’s, and quickly took off as a cheap and efficient way to clean skin in the form of body wash. It was a more marketable product, as it is easy to add artificial fragrance, colours, and textures to liquid SLS body wash. A plastic bottle has more space for marketing to be printed on it, and is always in front of the customer in the bathroom. In addition a whole industry of moisturisers built up due to SLS body washes stripping away the skin’s oil barrier.
Soap bars ended up getting a bad reputation since the glycerine and oils can be extracted, and the core soap - only the cleaning part - is sold as cheap industrial bar soap. Many people only know soap as the cheap soaps that they see in their drugstore, and do not know that it is in fact only the pure soap which has been taken out of natural soap. The pure soap is also too harsh for skin - anything that only cleans is too harsh for skin. Natural soap on the other hand has not been processed, and already contains everything our skin needs to be cleansed and cared for. Hopefully natural soap - unprocessed soap - will return to being the main soap that people use to look after their skin.