The skin disease acne starts when hair follicles (the shafts that hairs grow in) become clogged with dead skin cells, bacteria, and a mixture of oils known as sebum. This backed-up material cannot escape through the pores (the openings at the top of the follicles), and blemishes appear.

Alternative treatments work to strengthen the body's own defenses to prevent acne flare-ups in the first place, as well as to reduce the inflammation and scarring associated with the disease. Conventional medicine believes that dietary factors have little impact on acne, but many alternative practitioners disagree.

Nutritional Therapy for Acne

Nutritional therapy holds that some foods may trigger the overproduction of oils in the skin and should, therefore, be avoided. Topping the list are refined carbohydrates (sugars) and foods loaded with saturated fat. Yes, that includes chocolate. Milk's fat and hormone content can also be a problem for some people. You should also avoid foods high in iodine, such as seafood and iodized salt. A diet of whole grains, raw or steamed vegetables, fruits, and beans promotes healthier skin.

A mineral or vitamin deficiency could also be putting the body in a weakened state, leaving it unable to fight off the factors, such as stress, that lead to acne flare-ups. But vitamin supplementation in acne treatment is not usually used to combat a deficiency. Rather, single nutrients are used for their therapeutic effect, such as their effect on hormone levels.

Supplements that are commonly prescribed to people with acne or who are prone to acne include:

  • zinc
  • selenium
  • vitamin A (usually in doses that require a doctor's supervision because of vitamin A's potential for serious toxicity)
  • vitamin B6 (especially in cases of premenstrual acne)
  • vitamin E

Several studies conducted in the United States and Europe have reported a zinc deficiency in people who have acne and other skin disorders. In one French trial, acne patients were given daily doses of either elemental zinc or a placebo. After two months, those who took the zinc had significantly fewer and significantly less severe pimples and cysts. Zinc is thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect, which would reduce the skin's reaction.

Whenever zinc supplementation is prescribed for an extended period, copper supplementation is also necessary because the two minerals compete in the body for absorption; when there is an abundance of zinc, the copper is less likely to be absorbed. Zinc used alone can cause a copper deficiency.

Getting your body's requirement of zinc from whole foods rather than supplements is a good idea. A few of the foods rich in zinc are:

  • dried beans
  • wheat germ
  • oysters
  • clams

Herbal Medicine for Acne

Herbal medicine relies on certain plants that can eliminate the bacteria that contribute to acne flare-ups. These plants are also used to cleanse the body, righting its internal balance to prevent future flare-ups.

Tea tree oil, made from a shrub that grows mainly in eastern Australia, is used for its antibacterial properties. A group of Australian researchers showed that a gel made from five percent tea tree oil is just as effective in clearing up acne as five percent benzoyl peroxide lotion. The study volunteers found the tea tree oil took longer than the benzoyl peroxide to produce results, but the oil was significantly gentler on the face.

The herb calendula, more commonly known as marigold, can be used for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. The dried flowers are often steeped in hot water like tea and then used directly on the skin, after cooling, as a facial wash.

The herbs burdock and cleavers may be used in tincture form (prepared in an alcohol and water solution) for their cleansing action.

Several studies point to the effectiveness of vitex (chasteberry) for acne, especially in women. The herb seems to work internally by normalizing hormone levels.

Scan the aisles of your health food store, and you'll find tea tree oil sold in many forms, including as an essential oil, shampoo, body lotion, lip balm, and even laundry detergent. Not all the forms necessarily contain enough tea tree oil to have antibacterial power, but because the herb is very potent, look for a form that has already been diluted for use as a body lotion or soap.

Other Acne Therapies

  • Aromatherapy for Acne -- The essential oils of bergamot, chamomile, juniper, or lavender can be diluted with warm water and applied as a wash or spray.
  • Detoxification, Fasting, and Colon Therapy for Acne -- Because acne can be a sign that the body's ability to eliminate waste and toxins has been compromised, detoxification treatments can be helpful.
  • Homeopathy for Acne -- Specific remedies must be tailored to the individual, but common prescriptions include kali bromatum, hepar sulphuris calcareum, and sulphur.
  • Hydrotherapy for Acne -- Possible remedies include applying ice to skin sores, soaking in ocean water, and quickly rubbing the body (not the face) with a cold, damp washcloth.
  • Meditation for Acne -- Regular meditation sessions can be effective for acne triggered by stress or nervous tension.

For more information on acne and alternative medicine, see: