Just after turning 19 I developed chronic adult cystic acne. I'm now 23. Here's the list of things I've tried over the past four years:
- Antibiotics (doxycyline, tetracycline)
- Epiduo forte
- Retin A
- Cutting out coffee
- Cutting out dairy
- Low GI diet
- Gluten Free diet
- Cutting out alcohol
- Alkaline/antiinflammatory diet
- Medical mediums protocols (includes avoiding dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, corn, and canola oil- as well as taking 5-8 natural pills a day)
- Exfoliating twice weekly
- Exfoliating three times weekly
- Completely natural skincare
- Countless skincare products (I'm a junkie, so probably at least 15-20 new products a year)
- Exercising every other day
- Living with plants, buying an air purifier
- Washing my face with only bottled water and paper towels
- Practicing yoga and meditating daily
- CBD oil
- Balancing hormones using adaptogens
- Supplementing with zinc, hemp oil, and countless other things
- Balancing hormones through diet and supporting foods
- Using exclusively essential oils
- Focusing on digestion health: using probiotics, digestive enzymes, and bone broth
- Juicing at least 3 times a week
- Drinking 80-160 ounces of water daily
*Bolded are things that I still do on a consistent basis, I practice yoga and still workout- but I give my body a break in-between. I aim for 3 times a week instead of every single day, I've found everything works best for me in moderation. *
Does this sound familiar to you? Research acne for four years straight looking for a cure and you'll drive yourself crazy. If you're anything like me, you'll start to believe you have every hormonal imbalance, digestion issue, and vitamin deficiency known to man and try anything that claims to free you of the cystic acne clutches. But what if your problem was due to something else.. Something you haven't thought about yet.
is your acne caused by an upset acid mantle?
Wait, what? "but trust me, I've thought about literally everything- just looking at your list mine is the exact same!" Is probably what you're thinking right now. But trust me, the answer could be so, soo much simpler than you can even imagine. What if in doing all of these things, we lost sense of the whole less is more approach when it comes to skincare; and in overcompensating actually stripped the skin of its natural acid mantle, causing our problematic skin. After all, it only takes one skincare product to disrupt the delicate balance and ruin a good skincare routine. It could be a cleanser, a toner, or even a moisturizer that's destroying your acid mantle- without you even realizing it.
The acid mantle is severely underrated when it comes to healthy, blemish free skin. Before a week ago, I hadn't really considered it as a major factor contributing to my acne. Sure, I thought maybe it could make things a little worse, but never did I think it was the main factor. Well guess what folks- it can be. If you're constantly over exfoliating and using alkaline cleansers you may be stripping the skin of its acid mantle leaving it vulnerable to inflammation and acne causing bacteria.
what is the acid mantle and why is it important?
The acid mantle, or barrier, is a very fine thin layer on your skin made up of sweat, fatty acids, and sebum secreted from your sebaceous glands. The acid mantle plays an important part when it comes to the overall health of your skin. It acts as an invisible shield and protects your skin from bacteria, viruses, and other harmful contaminants that might damage the skins barrier. It keeps the good stuff in, and the bad stuff out. Externally, pH plays an important role in maintaining a healthy acid mantle.
The skin exists at an acidic pH of about 5.5, ranging anywhere from 4.5 - 6.5 depending on the person. That’s right, the skin is naturally acidic. Seems kind of strange doesn't it? I wouldn't have guessed that our skin is acidic (like lemons or limes)- but it is! The skin needs acidity to inhibit bacteria growth, which may be why skin that is too alkaline is more susceptible to acne.
The more alkaline your skin becomes (pH of 7+) the more susceptible you become to acne causing bacteria. This is why it is so important that you are using a pH balanced, or a slightly acidic cleanser (ranging around 5.5). You can easily test the pH level of your cleanser by using an at home . If your cleanser is at a 6.5 or higher, throw it out! Acne bacteria LOVE alkaline environments, they thrive in it! It’s a cycle. The skin becomes alkaline, bacteria thrives, and the skin can't keep up with the growth, leading to more and more breakouts.
how the acid mantle becomes disrupted
There are several ways an acid mantle can be thrown off balance:
- Overuse of skincare products (washing your face too much)
- Over exfoliation, chemical and physical
- Using bar soap (alkaline 7+)
- Harsh toners, isopropyl alcohol, makeup remover/wipes with alcohol
- Using tap water (can more alkaline than skin from 6.5 - 7)
- Not using pH balanced products (too alkaline)
When you cleanse and apply products the acid mantle is damaged, with the amount of damage done depending on the acidity or alkalinity of your products. It immediately begins to restore itself, taking anywhere from 5 minutes to 24 hours. The issue is when the acid mantle is being repeatedly damaged and stops restoring itself or becomes slower during the restoration process. This can happen with overuse of AHA's/BHA's or alkaline cleansers. If your skin feels tight and dry right after cleansing, you have just stripped your skins acid mantle. By constantly using alkaline products you begin raising your skins pH level, making it more prone to acne and inflammation.
what about oil cleansing?
pH, which stands for Potential of Hydrogen, measures how acidic or alkaline a substance is ranging from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. pH technically measures hydrogen ion concentration in an aqueous solution (water). Because oils don't contain water, they don't have a pH. Therefore, oils won't disrupt the pH of your skin. Oil absorbs oil, so when you use a cleansing oil it dislodges the dirt that clogs your pores without removing the sebum from your sebaceous glands or stripping the acid mantle. Though it may seem counter intuitive to use oils for acne, you can safely use oils to cleanse- just make sure you rinse them off completely when done!
how to tell if your acid mantle is out of whack
There are several telltale (and some not so obvious) signs of a damaged skin barrier:
- Increased skin sensitivity, skin is highly reactive
- Hyper inflammatory response
- Flakiness, Itching, Tightness
- Skin stinging upon product application
- Tried multiple different products with no difference in skin
- Tried multiple different diet or lifestyle changes with no difference in skin
If you're dealing with persistent acne that won't quit, it may be that you have a compromised a skin barrier. Are you using products for acne, only to be left with red, irritated, and flaky skin? It could be that you actually have sensitive, dry skin and are treating it inappropriately (making matters worse). Not to fear! The skins acid mantle can be repaired. Give your mug a break! Try
avoiding absolutely all irritation; no cleansers, water, toner, masks, or moisturizers for at least two weeks as your acid mantle restores itself. If your skin improves- then you know you're on the right track! And don’t worry, you can add back in your favorite skincare products eventually (once you feel your barrier is completely repaired). Our skin knows how to take care of itself, sometimes we just need to get out of the way and let it do its thang.
balanced pH cleanser recommendations
Check out the links below for a few pH balanced cleansers! Again, if you're oil cleansing you don't have to worry about the pH but if you prefer to get a little sudsy, the links below are for you. (It's probably best to avoid all bar soaps unless they don’t contain alkali or have a low pH. Bar soaps typically have an extremely alkaline pH of about 9 or 10).
Banish KitFades Acne Scars Naturally. If it doesn't work for you, send it back for your money back!
Kali Kushner, known as the Instagram alias myfacestory, is a natural beauty advocate in the greater Cincinnati area who is passionate about using organic skincare and holistic remedies to heal acne from the inside out. Her dedication lies in her own chronic acne struggles as she continues to restore herself while helping those around her.