The Secret to Healthy, Glowing Skin: Antioxidants
More adult women are getting pimples than ever before, and new research reveals that antioxidants could be an effective, natural treatment.
In seven small trials of antioxidant supplements or lotions, up to 78 percent of acne patients experienced “excellent” or “good” relief after a few weeks of treatment, according to a new paper published in Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. The trials included 458 people.
This new analysis challenges the conventional wisdom that clogged follicles are the main culprits in acne, by presenting emerging evidence that systemic inflammation and oxidative stress play a key role in triggering zits.
Acne Depletes Protective Antioxidant Vitamins
Compared to people with clear, healthy skin, those with acne are hit with a double whammy: they have higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood, and lower levels of protective antioxidant vitamins—with 31 percent less vitamin E and 52 percent less vitamin A, the paper reports.
In addition, acne sufferers had significantly lower levels of two other antioxidants—vitamin C and beta carotene—and low blood levels of two crucial co-factor minerals that regulate activity of antioxidant enzymes in skin: zinc and selenium.
These findings suggest that adults with acne are under far more oxidative stress than those with healthy skin, says lead study author Witney Bowe, MD, a dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology in New York and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
The War Within Your Skin
“Classically, we were taught in medical school that follicles get plugged, leading to colonization with bacteria that then caused inflammation,” says Dr. Bowe. “This view was accepted as dogma until more sophisticated molecular studies turned it upside-down.”
The new research indications that systemic inflammation actually precedes bacterial colonization. “A rise in inflammatory markers, such as interleukin-1, is actually one of the first events in the pimple-causing process,” adds Dr. Bowe.
As I reported recently, many scientists theorize that low-grade systemic inflammation may be the root cause of most or even all chronic diseases. In fact, it’s been linked to a wide range of disorders, from heart attacks and stroke to type 2 diabetes, lung disorders, neurological conditions, and even cancer.
This fiery process is the body’s natural response to injuries and infections. Most of the time, it’s protective, by sending immune system defenders to attack invading pathogens. However, chronic inflammation is like being shot by friendly fire, since the relentless immune system assault turns into a war within the body that harms instead of heals.
“Now there’s emerging evidence that inflammation and oxidative stress are early players in causing acne, which has focused us on using antioxidants as a treatment,” says Dr. Bowe.
What is Oxidative Stress?
When a freshly cut apple turns brown, a copper penny turns green, or a wrought iron railing gets rusty, the culprit is oxidation, a reaction between oxygen molecules and substances they touch. As you may remember from high school chemistry, oxidation is the process of removing electrons from a molecule or atom.
One byproduct of normal metabolism—as well as smoking and other unhealthy habits—is formation of free radicals, highly unstable atoms or molecules that are missing one of their electrons. To achieve stability, they steal an electron from nearby molecules, leading to a domino-like chain reaction, in which the attacked molecules become free radicals and then rob their neighbors, resulting in oxidative stress, explains Dr. Bowe.
However, the body also has antioxidant defenses to protect against free radical damage, including physical barriers to cage free radicals, enzymes to neutralize dangerously reactive forms of oxygen, and antioxidants in our diet that donate electrons and defuse free radical chain reactions.
Antioxidants for Beautiful, Glowing Skin
Although there are no large, randomized clinical trials of antioxidants as an acne therapy yet, all seven of the small, recent studies Dr. Bowe and colleagues analyzed found striking improvements in acne after just a few weeks of treatment.
If you’re prone to pimples, the studies the team analyzed suggest that the following oral or topical therapies could be helpful. Dr. Bowe also recommends consuming antioxidant-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and green tea.
Discuss the treatments below with your dermatologist or healthcare provider to make sure they are appropriate for you:
- Antioxidant supplements. In one of the studies, nearly 79 percent of people with mild-to-moderate acne who took a supplement containing zinc, vitamin C, mix carotenoids, vitamin E and chromium three times a day for 12 weeks had 80 to 100 percent improvement. In another study, taking a supplement with zinc, copper, folic acid, and nicotinamide for four weeks resulted in 79 percent of patients reporting moderately-to-much-better skin appearance, and 55 percent reporting a moderate (25 to 50 percent) reduction in zits or a substantial (more than 50 percent) reduction.
- Zinc. In another study, taking 30mg of zinc gluconate daily for two months effectively reduced the number of pimples in people who initially had 15 or more acne pustules. Zinc was also effective in reducing antibiotic resistance in acne-inducing bacteria in lab tests.
- Sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP, a vitamin C precursor). Four of the studies evaluated the effects of 5 percent SAP lotion, with improvements ranging from “statistically significant improvement” to nearly 79 percent of participants experiencing “excellent/good efficacy.” All of these studies were randomized controlled clinical trials, deemed “level 1 evidence” (the highest scientific rating).