People with acne often turn to complementary or alternative treatments. These may include gels, creams, and lotions; dietary supplements and herbs; and special dietary routines.
Many people swear by alternative acne treatments. But the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that "all-natural supplements" have not been shown to be effective, and some may even be harmful. For example, the group cites an over-the-counter (OTC) acne supplement that contained more than 200 times the amount of selenium stated on the label. It caused a wide range of toxic reactions. The AAD also states that there is no evidence that any dietary regimen has an effect on acne.
Lindsey Emery, a freelance editor in Portland, Ore., asked about her bumpy skin. We passed her question on to Julie Harper, MD, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Paul M. Friedman, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Texas, Houston, and author of Beautiful Skin Revealed: The Ultimate Guide to Better Skin.
Q: I've noticed small red bumps on my face, jawline, and neck. Could it be rosacea? Or is it acne?
Alternative acne treatments haven't been well-studied. Therefore, sources such as the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database typically offer only tepid recommendations. For instance, oral zinc supplements are rated as only "possibly effective." The same is true for topical preparations that contain zinc and erythromycin. Until there is better research, it's impossible to say which alternative acne treatments work and which ones don't.
The Rationale for Alternative Acne Treatments
Conventional acne treatments don't always work for everyone. They can also cause side effects ranging from skin irritation to birth defects. Another concern, since antibiotics are used in so many conventional acne treatments, is antibiotic resistance. A study in the U.K. reported that more than one out of every two acne patients treated with antibiotics carried resistant strains of two different bacteria often found on the skin.
Proponents of alternative treatments point out that acne is unknown in so-called "Stone Age" societies. On the other hand, it affects up to 95% of adolescents in industrialized societies. This suggests, they say, that a Western diet may be a major factor in the development of acne.
Hundreds of alternative treatments for acne are promoted on the Internet and elsewhere as being safe and effective. Alternative treatments, though, do not need to be tested and shown to be safe before they are sold online or placed on store shelves in the U.S. So, be sure to discuss the pros and cons of any alternative remedy with your doctor or dermatologist before starting treatment.
Research is not conclusive, but some preliminary studies suggest that the following alternative acne treatments might offer some benefits.