Cautionary Example Of The Dangers Of Doing Your Own Research

The balance in my love-hate relationship with alternative and natural medicine starts to tip towards hate. Mostly because of the endless stream of nonsense and noise the proponents generate and the harm it causes to innocent people.

This email I recently got is a good example of the dangers of doing your own research and lacking skeptical skills while doing it.

I have acne along my forehead i have managed to get rid of acne along my cheeks and chin just have scars remaining. What do you recommend for the forehead from my own research i have come across that area to be linked with gut and intestinal issues. I am taking a ton of supplements doing stress relieve with EFT technique have switched over to raw food diets consisting of vegetables and not much fruit green apples and grape fruit and i am using aloe/green tea extract 100% natural on my face. Is there anything else you can recommend?????

I think this is a fairly typical tale of a confused person lost in the alternative and natural health jungle. And not too different from where I was a few years back.

While there’s nothing inherently dangerous about the situation this guy is in (at least in most cases), I can also predict he would waste years of his time and god knows how much money with hit and miss efforts to get rid of acne. If he’s really unlucky, he might even develop an eating disorder in the process.

All because he listened to the all-pervasive natural health nonsense and lacked the critical thinking and skepticism skills to separate facts from fiction. And I can’t fault him for that, it happens to most people – me included.

Brain reset

In a case like this it’s really hard for me to know even where to begin. I wish I had one of those flashy things from Men in Black movies that would reset the brain to the ‘pre-natural health’ state.

Short of that, here are some problems I spotted. Other than this brief email, I have no other contact with him. So I’m taking the liberty of making some assumptions. They may not all apply to him, but they are fairly common among people sucked into the natural health world.

Raw food diet

This is based on the mistaken assumption that cooking somehow destroys the vitality of foods; making it ‘dead’, whereas raw foods are brimming with vitality, energy and enzymes.

It’s certainly a good idea to eat raw fruits and vegetables, but it’s hard to see the rationale for limiting yourself exclusively to raw foods. Cooking does destroy some nutrients, but it also improves bioavailability of other nutrients. Cooking also makes many vegetables much easier to digest, and eating those same things raw might cause gut problems. Not to mention potential issues with FODMAPs when you eat so many raw fruits and vegetables.

Limiting yourself to raw foods restricts your diet so much you are very likely to develop nutritional deficiencies. It also doesn’t make social life any easier. All this for… what… dietary dogma based on faulty logic and not supported by any credible evidence. See also this raw food article.

Chinese face mapping

When he said his forehead acne problems are linked to gut and digestive issues, I assumed he was talking about Chinese face mapping. It’s the idea that different parts of your face are somehow connected to different organs, and that problems in specific areas of the face reflect problems in specific organs. This forehead-gut connection often comes up.

The problem is that traditional Chinese medicine is based on pre-scientific ideas, and scientific testing has shown those ideas not to be true. Acupuncture has been thoroughly researched and good quality, unbiased research shows it’s no better than placebo. There’s no credible evidence that meridians exists, neither is there any evidence for links between areas of the face and different organs. More acupuncture posts here.

It’s very much possible his forehead acne is linked to gut problems, but this ‘hit’ is pure coincidence. I’m also not aware that forehead acne would be any different from acne around the mouth. Where you get acne depends largely on the distribution of oil glands on your face, and possibly also on whether you treat different parts of your face differently.

Emotional freedom technique

Emotional freedom technique or EFT is meridian theory twisted to support nonsensical psychotherapy. The idea is that emotional problems are a result of ‘energy’ (whatever that means) getting ‘blocked’ in the meridians. Tapping to the meridian end points in specific sequences while mentally repeating the problem somehow clears these blockages and resolves the emotional problems.

I used to believe into this thing. And if you look carefully, you can still detect bumps in my forehead as a result of furious tapping.

The problem of course is that if there are no meridians then there’s no way this thing can work. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry wrote a good article about EFT and similar energy psychology techniques.

This is not to say that doing EFT wouldn’t help. I often found that tapping did offer temporary help with the issue I was working on. I felt less anxiety and stress after a tapping session. The results never lasted though. There’s some research to indicate that simply paying attention to a negative emotion resolves it to some degree. I wrote about this in an earlier post. This view is consistent with the little scientific research we have on EFT, also see here.

Taking tons of supplements

As a general rule dietary supplements are useless, and there’s some evidence they might even cause harm. That said, there’s some evidence that vitamin B3, zinc and antioxidants might be helpful in acne.

I’m assuming that the reason you take many supplements is due to concerns over soil depletion or the idea that you can somehow boost your immune system (or other parts of the body) with them. Even if it were possible to ‘boost’ the immune system (thankfully it’s not), as a person suffering from acne you wouldn’t even want to do it. There’s evidence to suggest that the immune system is already overactive in acne patients. Boosting it would make things worse. All the talk about boosting, enhancing and supporting is just weasel-talk to sell you stuff that doesn’t work.

100% natural skin care fallacy

The cosmetics and skin care industry has their own ‘alternative branch’, one that promotes the idea that chemicals are harmful and that 100% natural products are better for you.

I’m the first person to agree that some chemicals can be bad for your skin and that you should be conscious of what you put on your skin. But this kind of black and white thinking is rarely helpful. Lot of 100% natural skin care ingredients can irritate the skin, especially fragrances (that are often 100% natural essential oils).

The problem with this chemical-free nonsense is that everything in nature is a chemical. Without chemicals there would be no matter and no life. Of course what they mean is free from synthetic chemicals. The problem is that your skin doesn’t care whether a chemical is synthetic or ‘natural’. A lot of synthetic chemicals are safe and non-irritating, and a lot of natural chemicals are very irritating. It’s also likely that synthetic chemicals have gone through far more safety testing than ‘natural’ chemicals, especially since many of these ‘evil’ chemicals have been crafted to be non-irritating and non-comedogenic.

Anyway, this isn’t really my area of expertise, so I recommend you check out some other sources for this:

Be skeptical

So what can we learn from this? I think the main lesson is to always be skeptical.

I understand that you are in a difficult situation. If you are reading this website, you’ve probably been to dermatologists more times than you care to admit. And they are likely to dismiss any claims regarding diet or offer any alternative advice.

So your only choice is to take your concerns to the internets and see what you find. I totally get it, and I’m not by any means advocating doing nothing. Just be skeptical as you read stuff online (even here). Anyone can post stuff online, and the stuff that gets posted usually isn’t verified in anyway.

Medical information can be hard to understand. Without sufficient background knowledge many of the natural and alternative health claims seem to make sense. And because they seemingly make sense and are fairly easy to understand, they can be very convincing. But if there’s anything I’ve learned here, it’s that biology is extremely complicated. Simple answers, though they seemingly make sense, are 99.99% of the times wrong.

Do your best to get both sides of the story. One way is to add ‘skeptic’ after any search term in Google. That often helps. Though there are a lot of skeptics that never believe any alternative claims and try to debunk everything. But these people are pseudo-skeptics, and they’ve made skepticism just another dogma to follow. Good skeptical arguments are dispassionate, cite evidence for their claims, and remain open to further evidence.

Where to go from here?

It’s kinda hard for me to recommend where to go from here.  Most of what he wrote about, I wouldn’t recommend doing. Perhaps a good place to start is this article: Help I have no clue where to start. It outlines a way to get started on this science-based natural acne treatment path. I would also recommend less restrictive diets. By all means eat a lot of raw fruits and vegetables, but do add some animal foods into your diet.

Other than that, if you have some specific questions, maybe I can help you with those.

Feature image Wrong Way … Way Wrong by Bob.Fornal @ Flickr.

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About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.

References

12 thoughts on “Cautionary Example Of The Dangers Of Doing Your Own Research

  1. Hi Seppo, thanks for your recent article, I really enjoy reading them, you manage to add great humour to a subject that is mostly not funny.

    I know all about natural acne “treatments” myself and also the hard stuff – accutane. I’ve fasted, cut food out of my diet, added supplements, tried all sorts of natural crap on my face and have been taking a mild contraceptive pill since I was 14 years old. Now I’m reaching 37 and discovered that France has removed my contraceptive pill from their shelves after linking 4 deaths from deep vein thrombosis to it. Great stuff. I am not free from acne yet, it comes and goes, sometimes just little zits and more rarely now, a cyst on face, but often I struggling with them along my bikini line. I am attempting to go dairy free and am incorporating some fish oil, zinc and B3’s and I am TRYING to swallow the green tea (not a big fan) But I’ve recently come across a product I think needs mentioning. I can’t use benoxyl as I blister from it and I find that BHA’s and AHA’s can disagree with me (particularly the AHA’s) My skin needs a “grown up” product as it can be fairly dry sometimes and I am concerned about the premature aging – years of going about with no sunblock to prevent acne will do that. Anyhoo, my chemist put me on to a cleanser and moisturiser called Papulex. Here in Australia, we only get the cleanser, an oil free cream and a hydrating cream. I used the oil free cream and after one week, the 4 pimples on my face have healed up rather nicely. I will continue with this cream as it seems to agree with my skin very well and I’m using a sunblock over the top – my last attempt to save whatever youthfulness I can :o)

    Just wondering whether you have come across the product and had any comments to make about it?

    Well, thanks for your posts! Always interesting to read.

    • Thanks for the comments Nicola.

      No need to drink green tea if you don’t like it. It can be helpful, but I don’t think there’s any magic to it. You can get antioxidants also from other sources.

      I just looked at the Papulex cream and it looks quite promising. Both topical vitamin B3 and zinc have quite good evidence backing them. So I would expect that cream to work quite well.

  2. Hello Seppo

    My nearly sixteen year old daughter has just entered the world of teenage acne and having seen her brother go through it for several years we wondered if we couldn’t try and tackle it sooner rather than later. She is just finishing the second month of a mild antibiotic course ( lymecycline 408mg) and having spent much time going in and out of your wonderful site we have decided to try a course of the ‘Exposed skin care’ for some topical treatment. Can you advice us on wether it is safe to be using the two treatments at the same time.?
    We have found your site really useful and encouraging and very interesting, especially your last posting about being skeptical! Thank you.

    • Happy to hear that your daughter found the site useful.

      I’m not qualified to talk about possible drug interactions. This is something you should talk with your dermatologists. I’ve seen studies that look at systemic absorption of benzoyl peroxide from topical treatments and those studies show BP has almost no systemic effect. It’s hard to imagine how a topical BP would interfere with oral antibiotics, but please talk to your doctor about this if you are concerned.

      Exposed is a good product and I’ll be happy to stand behind it. If you want to say little thanks, please use this link to buy Exposed (I will get a small commission that helps to keep this site going):

      https://www.acneeinstein.com/recommends/exposed-skin-care/

  3. Thanks for that Seppo, I have now talked to the doctor who sees no problem with mixing the topical and oral treatment. As for using your link to exposed skin care unfortunately we have already ordered the products but will certainly use your link the next time. Thanks again.

  4. Seppo you rock!
    Any chance you’ll release a digital version of your book? I live in Russia and ordering is a pain, I would rather read it on my ipad instead of paperback.

    • I know what you mean! I live in Thailand and it’s a pain in the a** to order anything here. I’ll start working on digital versions next week. They should be out soon, but I won’t make any promises as I don’t know all the hassles related to publishing on Kindle or EPUB.

  5. Seppo, I actually do think that there’s some truth in Chinese face mapping. I get pimples on the forehead only when I eat gluten or sugar. Maybe also milk but it’s been a while since I last had it and I’m not going to take the risk again. However, gluten is more difficult to avoid so every time I get a cystic pimple on my forehead I do a research and it turns out I have had something that is a hidden gluten food. If I don’t eat gluten, milk (I think) and sugar my forehead is clear. However, I get pimples around my chin and cheeks when I don’t sleep enough and just before my period. I tried spearmint tea (it has a proven antiandrogenic effect, you can research it, it has been tested to work for hirsutism) and all the cystic pimples there disappeared but unfortunately I also got an ovarian cyst. I did a research and it turned out that when your testosterone levels lower your estrogen levels rise and if you do something for your testosterone levels you should also do something for your estrogen (I hope you understand what I mean). Well, I didn’t and too much estrogen is a problem and it causes ovarian cysts :(. I stopped the tea and the same pimples appeared again, the same place. So yes, I am sure that the location of the pimple is important.
    Most researches also show that homeopathy doesn’t work but it did save my kidneys. So yes, if you ask a scientist, homeopathy doesn’t work but it has worked for me so many times (the first time I didn’t believe it but after several times I was just convinced. I don’t care that nobody has discovered how and why it works – it does work and my medical tests before and after prove it).

    • I think it’s good to start by acknowledging that we are both after the same thing – safe and effective treatments for acne. Perhaps the methods by which we try to achieve that goal differ, but we are after the same goal anyway.

      Chinese face mapping. If there is something to it, then it’s something science hasn’t yet discovered. This is of course possible and scientists constantly learn new things.

      The problem I have with is that there’s no evidence for it. I’m not sure that any scientist has taken it seriously enough to really study. But there are a lot of studies on acupuncture and other aspects of Chinese medicine. There are some ‘positive’ studies on acupuncture (that show it has effect beyond placebo), but as a whole studies show acupuncture has no effect beyond placebo. It doesn’t really matter where the needles are stuck, you can even get the same ‘effect’ by twirling toothpicks.

      So where does this leave us? First, there’s no known (science-based) mechanism by which acupuncture or Chinese face mapping would work. Second, there’s no evidence that those things have any effect on anything. The only conclusion from this is that there’s nothing to those things. We should of course remain open to further evidence, but this is what the current evidence says.

      It also seems that the Chinese face mapping wires are connected the ‘wrong way’ in my body. Because gut problems cause scalp acne for me. If there is a connection between Chinese face maps and location of acne breakouts, it’s most likely by coincidence only.

      I understand that you got positive results from these. And nothing that I write here is meant to take away or deny that. The problem is that just because something seemed to work for you doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for others. Single data point is too unreliable to say anything from. This is why we need to study these things in a larger group and look at what happens on average.

      As humans we are also very good at fooling ourselves. It’s possible that homeopathy worked for you, but it’s equally possible that the improvement was due to something else. Many health problems are self-limiting and resolve over time – without any intervention. Again, I don’t want to take away anything from your experience. But strictly speaking you probably don’t have enough information to conclude that it was homeopathy that worked for you.

      To account for biases like these scientists do controlled trials. Test where one group is given an active treatment and one is given an inactive placebo. That’s the ONLY way to know what caused the improvement: the treatment or some non-specific effect.

      Controlled studies quite clearly show that homeopathy has no effect beyond placebo. Yes, there are some positive studies but the majority of high-quality studies show no effect.

      My ultimate point is this. I’m sick and tired of BS, nonsense and trying one ineffective treatment after another. That’s why I don’t give a crap anymore what a homeopath, acupuncturist or naturopathic doctor, or an MD for that matter, says. All I care is hard evidence and facts. Does it work? Where’s the evidence? Where are the facts? That’s all I care. And science is our best tool for answering these questions.

      But if you live by the numbers you also die by the numbers. Meaning that we should accept the fact that scientific scrutiny doesn’t always agree with our cherished beliefs and notions. It’s not easy or comfortable, but ultimately I prefer to abide by reality than protect my delusions.

  6. Well, I understand that you want evidence. But also, keep in mind that just because something has not been proven to work doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
    Anybody familiar with homeopathy will know that tests made the same way other drugs are tested will just not work. I was sceptical as well. But have you ever experienced kidney problems? Well, after I literally couldn’t move because of the pain for several days the homeopathic remedy worked in a couple of hours and since then my kidneys work just fine. My father was very cynical about it until my mum just forced some homeopathic remedy in his mouth for his cough and it worked. I was amazed how fast a wound was healing after applying homeopathic arnica topically. I really didn’t believe it in the beginning. I believed after I had first hand experience. I don’t care when someone will find how it works. I only know it does work.
    About TCM. Well, what about Chinese herbs? They seem to work just fine. I’m not sure about face mapping but I am sure different kinds of pimples on different parts of the face do mean different things. Maybe the face maps available are not 100% accurate but they are a step in the right direction.

    • You are absolutely right that just because something hasn’t been proven to work doesn’t mean it won’t work. If that were the case I wouldn’t say anything about homeopathy, acupuncture or other alternative treatments. But many of them have been tested and found wanting.

      It’s not up to scientists to prove that homeopathy does NOT work. It’s up to the homeopaths to show that it does work. So far they haven’t been able to do that – not even close.

      The notion that homeopathy can’t be tested with science is just homeopaths whining and trying to explain away the failures. If it can be sold over the counter in pharmacies without any ‘consultation’ from a homeopath, then it can be also tested the same way.

      Anyway, I’m happy to hear that your kidney problems got better, and I seriously hope it stays that way.

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