Diet and acne
Acne affects mostly young people: preteens
and 20-somethings. Sebum production is
under the control of the sex hormones, the
most active of which is testosterone. Also
known as androgens, these hormones stimulate sebaceous gland cells to produce more
sebum. Higher levels of androgens encourage
In the 1960s and 1970s, studies and news
stories sounded the alarm that eating chocolate, soft drinks, and basically anything with
added sugar was the main cause of pimples.
The evidence, however, was shadowy at
best, due to flawed research.
But new research shows that
androgens are not the only chemical that influences sebum production. Insulin-like growth factor-1
(IGF-1) and a series of other
chemical compounds also increase
sebum and are implicated in the development of acne.
Insulin is a storage hormone that helps
control blood glucose levels. Eating processed
carbohydrates will cause insulin levels to
increase. Any time insulin increases, so does
IGF-1, which stimulates sebum-producing
cells to increase sebum production. IGF-1 also
makes skin cells grow faster and stimulates
the production of more androgens. The effects
of these chemicals may point the way to the
link between diet and pimples.
Better living through
What you eat may affect your pimple production, but it will take time and dedication
to your diet to find out. If you need more or
faster help, there are numerous over-the-counter and prescription treatments for acne.
Start with products that you can buy without
a prescription, such as cleansers, scrubs,
masks, or spot treatments that aim to remove
dead skin cells, kill bacteria, or
minimize oil production.
Benzoyl peroxide (C14H10O4)
(Fig. 2) is a popular over-
compound that kills P.
acnes by preventing the
organism from reproduc-
ing. In addition, benzoyl
peroxide is lipophilic,
meaning it can dissolve in
oil—making it the perfect weapon
to penetrate deep into pimples. This ingredi-
ent can be found in gels, creams, lotions, and
Figure 2. Chemical structure of benzoyl peroxide
Salicylic acid (Fig. 3) is
treatment that can be
useful for acne without
causing irritation or
dryness. It does not kill
the bacteria; instead, it
loosens and removes
the outermost layer of
skin and unclogs hair
Figure 3. Chemical
structure of salicylic acid
If you need stronger measures, your doctor might prescribe topical or oral antibiotics,
which have been used against moderate acne
for more than 50 years. A cautionary note
about using antibiotics is that the bacteria may
become resistant to the drugs, making them
For moderate to severe acne that does not
respond to other treatments, the most common prescription medications include a class
of potent chemical compounds known as retinoids, which are related to vitamin A. Applied
topically, these drugs have exfoliating and
anti-inflammatory effects, but they take a few
weeks or more to work and can also cause
your acne to get worse before it gets better.
If you are a woman, your dermatologist
might prescribe oral contraceptives, or a drug
called spironolactone, to help control severe
acne. Birth-control pills work by regulating hormone levels, but also pose a slightly
increased but serious risk of blood clots.
Spironolactone also blocks the influence of
androgens on the sebaceous glands, reducing
oil production in the skin and improving acne.
Find what works for you!
Today, there are many ways to treat
pimples, including managing insulin by eating
more low-glycemic foods and fewer processed carbohydrates; using over-the-counter
products that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl
peroxide; and finding a dermatologist who
might recommend prescription lotions or pills.
If you are one of the many of us who deal
with pimples on a regular basis, keep in mind
that the pimples won’t last forever. Megan was
able to laugh about her truly awful breakouts
(at least some of the time), and things did
get better for her (and her skin). “Finding the
right makeup and cleanser for my oily-and-sensitive-at-the-same-time skin helped,” she
said. “And so did getting older!”
Rohrig, B. Demystifying Gross Stuff. ChemMatters,
Oct 2011, pp 12–14.
Baxter, R. Battling Zits. ChemMatters, April 2005,
Acne Treatments: Medical Procedures May Help
Clear Skin. Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.
ments/art-20045892 [accessed Sept 2016].
Joely Johnson Mork is a science writer who
lives in Seattle, Wash. This is her first article in
Chemical Compounds that Clear Acne
Benzoyl peroxide (C14H10O4) is an organic compound in the peroxide family. It consists of two benzoyl groups bridged by
a peroxide link. In addition to treating acne, it is also used to bleach
hair, to whiten teeth, to make bleached flour, and to remove dye and
ink during the production of plastic toys.
Salicylic acid (C7H6O3) has a structure where the
OH group is ortho to the carboxy group. It was originally
derived from the white willow plant, which was used to
treat fever and pain in ancient Greece and Egypt. Native
Americans also used white willow as a medicine.
Retinoids are a class of chemical compounds that are
related to vitamin A. The basic structure of a retinoid molecule consists of a cyclic end group, a polyene side chain, and a polar end
group. Research is being conducted to use retinoids to treat cancer, in
particular Kaposi’s sarcoma.
Spironolactone (C24H32O4S) is primarily used to reduce fluid
buildup in the body due to heart failure or kidney disease. It is also
one of the main drugs used for hormone replacement in transgender
women (males who are transitioning to female).
—Joely Johnson Mork