4 Acne-Fighting Ingredients To Look For

Our resident cosmetic chemist weighs in on the new BPO, as well as a few natural acne-fighting ingredients.

Twelve: it’s an age many of us remember, with hormones raging and social awkwardness. One wrong step could mean the difference between popularity or sitting alone at lunch.

I was an early bloomer; the upside to this was that at 12 years old, I stood nearly half a foot taller than most of the boys in school. This was particularly critical because at this age, most girls were taller, too, and so I thought that being tall and having some Binaca always ready was a big advantage for my would-be love life. However this tallness came at a price, with the dreaded four-letter word that struck fear in the hearts of all middle schoolers: acne.

Like a lot of kids between the ages of 11-20, I had a bad case of pizza face. My name might have well been Zitty McPimpleston. And believe me I tried everything, from Oxy pads to lancing zits with needles. However, as I got older and my hormones began to level out, my acne finally settled to a manageable level. I still get the occasional breakout when I’m stressed or traveling, but luckily, I can arm myself with some of the newest acne technology that’s out there, and I want to fill you guys in on these new ingredients, as well. But first, some background on acne.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne is the most-common skin disorder in the US. It affects nearly 40-50 million of us at any one time. This means that nearly 85% (!) of us will have it at some point in our life (so you definitely should not feel alone in your acne-fighting quest).

The best way to fight an enemy is to know what you’re up against. Acne, first and foremost, is an infection. Just like any other part of your body, when bacteria builds up and starts to gain strength, you get an infection. Acne is the result of an overgrowth of the bacteria Propionibacterium Acnes or P. Acnes. P. Acnes is a class of bacteria called an anaerobe.

What this means is that when oxygen can’t get to the surface of your skin (like in a clogged pore) this bacteria will start to proliferate. It will then get infected and inflamed and the result is a pimple. So simple, but so diabolical. Most over-the-counter treatments work by unclogging pores, which allows oxygen to get to the infection, in turn killing the bacteria.

If all we need to do is get oxygen on the skin, then why do so many of us struggle with acne? Well it gets trickier because there are other factors at play. These include sebum (that shiny oil your face naturally produces), hormonal changes, environmental stressors, air pollution, travel, water quality, diet, and the list goes on and on.

There are more 600 products sold on Drugstore.com that claim to treat acne, so what works and what doesn’t? Unfortunately everyone’s skin type is different, and what may work for one person may not work for another. The good thing is that biologists and chemists are working hard every day to try to combat acne with both better ingredients and a better understanding of what causes acne.

Here a few acne-fighting ingredients I feel are noteworthy:Oils

Many of us with acne cringe at the mention of oil. It makes us think of our overproducing forehead at around 1 o’clock in the afternoon and the resulting whitehead we expect the next morning. If you’ve faced the acne struggle, you know that lack of oil on your skin is never a problem, so why would someone put oil on their skin?

I'll tell you why: because some types of oil are actually good for preventing acne. Oil helps moisturize the skin and keeps the body from over producing sebum after using harsh facial cleansers. Since sebum is basically Miracle Grow for acne, anything to help reduce it is a good thing.

Why were good oils overlooked until now? Some people attribute oil-phobia origins all the way back to 1962 when Neutrogena launched its “Oil-Free” cleanser designed to combat acne blemishes. This oil-free selling point stuck and oil got the negative reputation that follows it today. Over the last few years, our understanding of oils has changed. We now know that not all oils are created equally. The term “comedogenecity” is getting a lot of buzz. It means “pore-clogging,” so non-comedogenic ingredients are just ingredients that don’t clog pores. The good news is that there are some really great non-comedogenic oils.

Good oils to look out for if you have acne:

Hemp Seed Oil

Mineral Oil

Safflower Oil

Calendula oil

Grapeseed oil

Rose hip oil

Oils to avoid if you have acne:

Wheat germ oil

Soybean oil

Coconut oil (sorry, guys)

Cocoa Butter

Hydrogenated Vegetable oil

Using non-comedogenic oils is good because they help prevent acne from occurring, but they do not treat the breakout you already have.

Curoxyl: The New BPO

When acne does strike, one of the best tools to actively fight against it is benzoyl peroxide (BPO). It helps dissolve the oil that seals off pores and opens up the oxygen-free environment that P. Acnes thrive in. It also delivers a bit of oxygen to the site, not only by de-clogging the pore, but by delivering the “oxide” it’s carrying. This is its dual-action way of killing zits.

This little organic compound from the peroxide family is so important, it’s actually on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. This list is considered the gold standard of medicines necessary for a basic health system in any given population. But this ingredient is now almost 50 years old… what so new about it?

Research is taking place in improving the ingredients we already know work, and this is the case for BPO. Scientists discovered that if you mill the BPO crystals to a micron-sized particle (effectively increasing the surface area) acne was treated faster. This is because the new smaller particles can actually fit into the pores and deliver medication more effectively. What they also found out was that this method also greatly reduced irritation, thus making it more powerful but also gentler. This new type of BPO is called Curoxyl.

Brand MD Acne Control Serum is a great product that uses this new BPO technology. On a personal note, I am currently using their Acne Solutions Kit, since summer is always a troublesome time for my acne, and I have had great results. Brand MD makes medical-grade skincare products. Because these products contain micronized BPO, I haven’t had any irritation--even though they use it at 5%! (Disclaimer: I did not formulate these products)

Rosemary and Willowherb

Lastly, there is an increasing interest in more natural ways to fight acne. There are a few new ingredients on the market that claim to have near clinical results using natural ingredients. These are derived from plants that exhibit some sort of natural bacteria fighting abilities.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is extremely rich in phenolic compounds, such as carnosol and carnosic acid, which give it antimicrobial properties. Canadian Willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium extract) is another great natural ingredient to look out for. Evolving in the harsh Canadian climate, the property of interest to skincare chemists is Willowherb’s high content of a tannin called oenothein B (similar to what’s found in red wine), which inhibits P. acnes growth and contributes to acne control.

Paula's Choice Resist Triple-Action Dark Spot Eraser and Osmosis Skincare's Clarify Serum are two products that use natural acne-fighting ingredients. (Disclaimer: I did not formulate these products)

So even though almost all of us will struggle with acne at some point in our lives, the upside is that the science behind what causes acne, and better yet, how to prevent it, is getting better and better all the time. Whether it's using the latest technology in acne fighting or going with a more natural approach, there are many options available to you. I will continue to keep you all informed when the next best thing comes out in the world of acne; until then keep your chin up, even if it does get the occasional blemish.