The News Report That Should Have Never Happened – And Lesson In Reading Scientific Research

By Seppo | Critical thinking

Scientific research is today more available to people like you and me than it has ever been. And that’s fantastic, because this site couldn’t exists without access to research data. But this silver cloud has a dark lining. Today there are more newspapers, websites and cable channels demanding content. These news hungry outlets are eager to report about ‘breakthrough research’. And without a decent understanding of the hierarchy of scientific evidence and how the process of science works this is the perfect recipe for confused people.

I again want to take some time to briefly answer an email I got. Let’s start with the email.

If you want something more to write about; there has been done some research on thyme, and how it effects acne. Thyme is said to kill the P. acne bacteria more effectively than benzoyl peroxide. See the link below if you are interested.. The next useful article regarding this research would be something about how to effectively put these findings in practice. You can’t just pour thyme extract, or tincture straight on the skin (believe me, I’ve tried), and with that in mind, how (and how much) should you dilute it? Do you use a carrier oil? And ofc, how effective is it?

As far as I know, Dr Margarita Gomez Escalada from Leeds Metropolitan University is the only one doing any research on this, but there are probably a lot of people trying it out. I haven’t really found anything trustworthy information beyond what you can find on their page, however I’m quite impatient when googling, and I think you are a bit more experienced than I am doing so.

What he’s referring to is a press release from Leeds University: Thyme For A More Natural Cure To Acne. This looks to be an in vitro (petri dish) study where they tested the anti-bacterial properties of several essential oils, specifically against the P. Acnes bacteria. They found that thyme oil inhibited the growth of the bacteria better than benzoyl peroxide.

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Fantastic. And also completely useless at this point.

Research like this is interesting in the context of scientific research and when you understand its place in the hierarchy of scientific evidence. But this is completely useless noise for general public, just leading to masses of confusing people. I can already see people touting this breakthrough finding in acne forums and other, more conspirative minded people howling how the acne industry protecting its profits will repress and keep this cure from The People.

‘News reports’ like this can also lead to people self-experimenting, as was the case with the person emailing. While I do think some self-experimentation is good you have to be careful with these things.

But I digress. So what’s the problem with this research?

Nothing when we put it into context of scientific process and discovery. Stuff like this is the first step in the scientific process. It’s like ‘well, let’s see if there’s any possibility that this will work’. So now we’ve found that thyme essential oil can kill P. Acnes bacteria, but that fact alone doesn’t say anything about whether thyme can effectively treat acne.

There’s a long road to travel from petri dish to effective treatment. And out of 100 promising petri dish findings at least 97 never make it there. The next step is to test it in a more relevant environment, perhaps with skin biopsies and see how the essential oil interacts with the skin. Things like can it penetrate the skin barrier and will it react to other compounds in the skin. Then we need to understand more about skin penetration, like what percentage of the active ingredients penetrates deeply enough to make a difference.

Once all this is done it can be tested on animals. Then we have to understand dose-response relationship and determine the optimal dosage. Some effective ingredients have more side-effects than real treatment effects. If the treatment passes all this becomes the real litmus test, will it work on humans? And there are several levels of human trials. First come small-scale, open-label trials. If it works on these it can be tested more rigorously on randomized, blinded and placebo-controlled trials.

Only after all that’s done we can say that yes this stuff really works.

It took me some time to understand this, but we humans have infinite capacity for fooling ourselves. If we don’t guard against and control for these, often subconscious, bias then we have little hope for figuring out what really works. This is why we absolutely need a rigorous scientific process.

I have to give the Leeds Metropolitan University PR department a massive FAIL on this. There’s nothing wrong with reporting about this study. But a person reading this ‘news report’ comes away convinced thyme is the next best thing to sliced bread. Yes, there’s the token ‘we need more research’ bit, but it’s completely shadowed by credulous reporting and something most readers just ignore.

But this is the price we pay for the media machine that constantly demands sensational and breakthrough news. And another reason why a dose of skepticism and critical thinking can save you a lot of hassle.

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About the Author

Seppo Puusa, a.k.a. AcneEinstein shares rational advice about natural and alternative acne treatments. Read more about me and my acne struggles at the page.

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