Unexpected Harm From ‘Harmless’ Acne Home Remedies

Let me just get right to it without mincing words. Those home remedies you use to treat acne. They may not be as harmless as you’ve been led to believe.

Many acne home remedies use foods that make the skin excessively sensitive to sunlight. If you are not aware of this, you could end up seriously damaging or disfiguring your skin. For example, medical literature contains cases of lemon juice causing permanent discoloration of the skin and people ending up with severe burns over 80% of the body because they used DIY tanning lotion made of figs.

My point is not to scare you away from home remedies. Just to point out they may not be as safe as you believe, and that you should exercise proper caution when using them.

Lemon juice – scar treatment causes more scars

Lemon juice is one of the most common acne home remedies. It’s claimed to kill bacteria, exfoliate the skin, and reduce redness. As far as DIY acne remedies go, lemon juice is reasonably plausible.

However, there is one thing you need to be aware of before using it. Alarmingly, most sites hyping the miraculous healing benefits of lemon juice don’t mention this. Lemon juice can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight and cause rash and hyperpigmentation (also called acne marks or dark spots) if you don’t protect your skin. Ironically, most of these sites claim lemon juice treats this exact problem.

Let this 22-years old woman’s case serve as a warning example. She traveled to Mexico and took to the native custom of washing her clothes with lemon juice, she also rubbed lemon juice on her thigh. And while on a tropical holiday, she took to the beaches and enjoyed the sun. But after returning home she developed painful, hyperpigmented rash on her right leg. Here’s a picture:

Scarring from lemon juice exposed to sunlight

Source: What Is Your Diagnosis? Phytophotodermatitis.

She developed what doctors call phytophotodermatitis, which in plain language means skin inflammation (dermatitis) caused by interaction between plant substances (phyto) and sunlight (photo).

In this case the irritating substance is psoralen. When exposed to UV rays psoralen electrons absorb energy and are excited to 3 times their ground state, think of it like charging a battery. What goes up must come down and eventually the electrons release all the stored energy as heat and other forms of radiation. This energy store and release damages cell DNA and leads to cell death at the upper layers of the skin. The damage causes itchy and potentially painful rash on the skin, and is sometimes followed by hyperpigmentation, i.e. spots and patches that are darker than the surrounding skin.

Hyperpigmentation is notoriously difficult to treat, and usually takes several months to fade away. Sometimes there’s a problem with the healing process and the hyperpigmented areas turn lighter than the surrounding skin, i.e. hypopigmentation. This is what happened to our 22-years old DIY laundry enthusiast.

The paper didn’t mention anything about sun burns, so presumably the young woman was wearing sun screen.

Lest you think this is a rare occurrence, rash and hyperpigmentation from citrus fruits is sufficiently common that dermatologists refer to it as ‘lime disease’.

DIY self tanner sends people to hospital with severe burn wounds

These next examples aren’t related to acne remedies, but they show ‘harmless DIY fun’ can cause severe harm.

This paper describes two cases of extremely serious burns in people who had used DIY tanning lotion containing fig leaves. A 25-years old man developed blistering on 70% of body surface area following 3 hours of sun exposure. He had to be hospitalized for 11 days.

A 36-years old woman developed 2nd degree burns to 45% of body surface area following 8 hours exposure to sunlight. She had to be hospitalized for 26 days, during which she developed sepsis from extensive skin damage and could have died without competent medical care.

Another paper describes a case of a 42-years old woman who had to be hospitalized for 13 days because she used fig leaf tea as a DIY tanner. She had severe burns on 81% of her body surface area.

Carrot home remedies cause disfiguring brown patches

If you search for DIY self-tanning recipes, this page shows up among the first results. One of the recipes calls for carrots, which also contains photosensitizing substances, as shown by this case report. A Chinese woman used a carrot-containing DIY home remedy to treat swelling on her foot. Her foot developed disfiguring brown patches that took 3 months to fade.

Skin discoloration caused by carrot DIY remedies

Source: Phytophotodermatitis due to wild carrot decoction.

And now you can have such patches on your face, too! Just use these DIY, anti-acne carrot masks and spend some time in the sun.

Other recipes call for essential oils. Many essential oils contain substances that become extremely irritating after exposure to air or UV light. For example, oxidized lavender and citrus essential oils are a common cause of skin irritation.

Plants with known sun sensitizing substances

Here’s a list of foods that contain substances known to make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Please do not use these on your face before going out. Note that this is not a comprehensive list.

  • Essential oils
  • Figs
  • Lemons and limes
  • Oranges and grapefruit
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Parsley
  • Coriander
  • Dill

If you want to use these on your face, please do so in the evening. From what I understand, the sun sensitizing effect peaks a few hours after application and fades slowly after that. Eating these foods isn’t a problem as the majority of the sun sensitizing chemicals don’t make it to the skin.

The larger point

So what’s my point for showing you all these scary cases? To scare you away from cheap home remedies and into buying over priced skin care products?

Not at all, I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong with home remedies – as long as you take the appropriate precautions.

The point I want to make is that DIY and home remedies are not automatically safe. When people experiment with these things, they usually do so thinking “Well, what’s the harm? The worst that could happen is that it doesn’t work and I waste a bit of time.

In most cases that’s true, because our bodies are incredibly good at protecting us from the silly things we do. But that’s not always the case, as the above examples show (and there are many more in the medical literature). I bet the young laundry enthusiast also thought the same, and now she has hypopigmented scarring on her leg. And let’s not forget apple cider vinegar. In the comments for that post some people mentioned they had chemically burned themselves while experimenting with ACV.

There’s also another reason home remedies are so appealing. Collectively as a society we chose to ignore even high school level chemistry and decided chemicals are scary and bad. Because.. you know.. they are.. like.. chemicals.. and not natural. Of course, a few weeks back we learned that even your most organic, all-natural, from the mother earth foods contain chemicals. Quite often the very same chemicals found in drugs and skin care products.

So consider the reasons why you want to use home remedies. If you honestly think they give you good results, then by all means keep using them. But if you are drawn to home remedies because chemicals are icky or because you think they are gentle on our skin, then you might want to reconsider if such an attitude really serves you.

Because for home remedies to have drug-like effects, they must contain drug-like active ingredients and thus also have the potential for drug-like side effects.

In both cases you are applying chemicals on your skin. It’s just that in one of the cases the packaging is far more appealing to our naturalistic fallacies.

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About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstien(a.k.a. Seppo Pussa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoyed 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

20 thoughts on “Unexpected Harm From ‘Harmless’ Acne Home Remedies

  1. Hi Seppo,

    Thanks for your excellent resources, they’ve been very enlightening to me. Some home remedies really can be quite harmful like Apple Cider Vinegar and Lemon Juice. In fact, I was told to drink lemon water every morning by a naturopath for acne, but lemon juice can be highly corrosive to teeth.

    What do you think about using a natural treatment / wash like honey and clay? I have brown skin prone to hyper pigmentation, so I don’t want to risk using AHA / BHA washes. Also, I have mild-moderate acne (mostly whiteheads, some red pimples and red sensitive skin in patches), no cystic acne, so I don’t want to use anything too harsh. I am using the green tea cream you recommended for daytime moisturizing and a niacinamide serum for night time. Also, if you are genetically prone to acne, do you need to maintain an acne regimen for life? Does age have any effect in clearing things out? I ask, because I noticed that you have battled acne for years, and continue to need to manage it, and also because my dermatologist said I could do BP / other treatments, but for the most part, acne will be completely eliminated only when I ‘grow out of it’. I’m a 28 year old female and I started getting progressive acne over the last 2 1/2 years (a year after I moved to the US from India). I also wonder if the chlorine in the water is affecting me, as my acne is a bit milder whenever I’ve visited India, and even completely cleared up during a longer stay in India (during which I did clay masks once in 15 days),

    • Thanks for your comment, San. And glad to hear you like the site.

      I think honey is ok as a home remedy, especially if you use it as a mask you wash off after some time. I can’t think of anything bad with that, but I can’t promise it won’t have any downsides. After all, I only recently learned about the problems with lemon juice. But if I had to take a guess, I’d say honey is probably very safe to use. And unlike many other home remedies, honey has some scientific support. It’s been used to help wound healing, and it has some anti-bacterial effects.

      But the real problem with practically all home remedies is that they probably won’t penetrate the skin barrier. Honey is water-based and water has a very hard time making through the skin. That’s why skin care products contain ingredients designed to help skin penetration.

      AHA/BHA combination is one of the gentlest ways to treat acne. AHA helps to normalize keratinization problems at the skin and thus prevents formation of new blackheads and pimples. They are also very gentle for the skin.

      Age does affect the skin. However, since you are already 28 I’m afraid you may have to wait for 2 to 3 decades to grow out of it. I get emails from people who are 50+ and still struggle with acne. I expect it’s the same for me. Unfortunately, for those unfortunate to have the ‘acne genes’ the best we can do is to manage it.

  2. One time, I rubbed papaya (fruit and skin) onto my skin because papaya is supposed to make skin lighter/whiter…. the next day, I had terribly itchy rashes and red bumps on my skin (it was very very itchy some were slightly painful’ also made my skin dry) after healing, they left tiny scars,too …It’s true that “natural remedies” don’t necessarily mean SAFE.

  3. Thanks for the information Seppo. What are your thoughts on oil cleansing? It’s very popular among the alt-med community and it was recommended to me by a naturopath for treating my acne (in addition to quitting milk). I have significantly reduced my milk consumption since then (6 months ago), but the oil cleansing was just HORRIBLE. It would leave my skin feeling nice for some time, a little bit more hydrated (as I have dry skin too, and it was winter), but my face looked oilier and I broke out pretty badly. Is there any logic to the oil-dissolves-oils method? A lot of people swear by this method, even people with severe acne.

    • In principle the oil cleansing method is not that bad. There is evidence to show applying fatty acids to the skin helps with some skin problems, especially for dry skin problems. That said, I’m not sure how much actual cleansing it does. The oils don’t have any surfactants that actually strip the oil and grime from the skin. Wiping out the oil does some of that, but not sure how effective it is. Some fatty acids are also very prone to oxidation and could cause problems upon exposure to UV radiation.

      I’ve done it a few times, but I find it very time consuming and messy. If someone enjoys and wants to keep doing it, I don’t see it as a bad thing. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as I don’t see the effort and time required justifies the small benefits.

  4. And what are your thoughts on clay masks? They can be very drying, but when combined with something like honey / aloe vera gel, they are pretty soothing and do give a glow when washed off. For me personally, they always clean up the blackheads on my nose.

    • I have seen very little credible information on clay masks and various mud therapies. There are reports in the medical literature indicating they could be helpful. Especially Dead Sea mud contains a cocktail of minerals known to be anti-inflammatory and potentially good for the skin.

      And, as you said, they can suck out oils from the skin and make it feel nicer. How much of a therapeutic effect that has, I can’t say.

  5. Fantastic article. I’ve recently become interested in alternative medicine/home treatments after being misdiagnosed by my GP for a potentially life-threatening condition. I believe more and mor folks are beginning to wake up and understand that the medical establishment does not have our best interests at heart, and they must take responsibility for their own well being, because no one else is going to. Unfortunately, mainstream media continues to label anyone who talks about all-natural therapy/alternative medicine as a “quack” or a “charlatan” like this article from NBC news: https://www.nbcnews.club/cancer-patients-turning-alternative-remedies/373 . It’s nothing more than a hit-piece. We need to have some sincere reporting about the success rate of alternative medicine, it’s about time.

    • I’m not sure I would call that NBC article a hit-piece. I think it’s pretty accurate on stating that there’s practically no credible evidence to support the use of alternative cancer cures. Lot of them have been studied and found to have no effect. It’s a myth that these things are never studied. The US government alone spends around $200 a year on funding research on alternative treatments.

      I’m all for people taking responsibility for their own health and finding treatments that don’t depend on the commercial interests of drug companies. At the same time we have to use science, evidence and reason to figure out what works and what does. Almost all of those are sorely missing in the alternative health world. And for that they have no one but themselves to blame.

  6. I used to apply honey masks all the time. It was pretty good overall I’d say, and it helps with fading acne marks. However, I would advise to be extremely cautionary in combination with other products, especially if you have multiple products you apply, such as in a regimen. I was acquainted to doing them a few times a week, and then took a little break once I began using exposed skin cares kit. After about a month of using exposed skin care I decided to put on a honey mask again to help with the acne marks. The first time I did it I didn’t really have any side effects other than it drying out my skin, which it always did. The second time I did it, a couple days later, I initially had about the same reaction, except my skin felt a little more tighter afterwards than usual. However, over the course of the following days I began breaking out in an almost rash-like type of acne covering the entire bottom portion of both of my cheeks. Basically, it was like my bottom cheeks were covered in a bunch of pimples. The rash stayed for around 3-4 months, a bit fuzzy on how long exactly, a long time either way. During that time I had no idea what had caused the reaction on my skin, as I was at least certain that it was a reaction to something, so I stopped using all the topical treatments I had been previously using and tried other less harsh topical treatments. The story ends with me eventually researching online for cures to the rash as it made me extremely self-conscious during that period, which pointed me to applying an aloe-vera mask directly from the plant twice a day, which so happened to grow wild in my back yard (perhaps divine intervention). After about a week of using the mask, my acne-rash quickly went away, though it left some more marks on my face that I had to use quite a few chemical peels to finally get rid of (aloe-vera mask also helped a little with this). In hindsight, I have no doubt it was the combination of using so many topical treatments in conjunction with the honey mask that agitated my skin so much that it broke out in the rash. Honey masks are great, but they do seem to agitate your skin a little bit, at least it does for me, which is perfectly fine by itself, but if you start throwing in other products into the mix that agitate your skin as well, like BP, it might lead to similar break out I had. Hope this helped a little! 🙂

  7. I didn’t know where to post this question to you but I’ve been backpacking in Thailand for the past couple of months and the weather here is well you know…humid. I’ve been sweating all day and I always feel like my face by the end of the day isn’t clean enough unless I’m using a really strong cleanser or exfoliating it somehow since I naturally have super oily skin as it is and it is exacerbated by the weather. Do you know a basic, minimalist DIY exfoliator I can use while I’m here Seppo? Honestly, what has worked more than anything for me was a wash cloth and some water, but the wash cloth gets really grimy and it’s hard to do laundry around here. I’m thinking maybe I can use something abrasive like salt, sugar, baking soda, or white rice grains since the wash cloth is too tough to maintain? Do you have any ideas? Thanks!

    Going on this trip I am actually surprised my skin hasn’t gone into absolute hell to be honest because of the combination of the weather, my poor diet, and the spotty inconsistent sleep I’ve been getting. I think it has to do with my lack of neuroticism in the skin care department. At home I am so obsessive about my skin care, applying at least 4 products at once but since I didn’t bring those things, my skin care routine is literally just washing my face, apply benzoyl peroxide and sunscreen so I’m actually surprised by how well my skin has been holding up. I really do think it’s the lack of obsessing over my skin care routine. I also wouldn’t consider myself to be anymore psychologically relaxed either because a few things have gone down that have stressed me out in my personal life but as far as the skin care neuroticism goes, it’s been toned down because I’m simply not applying that many things to my face. Not to mention of course I love not having to spend an extra 15 minutes on my skin care every day!

    My first choice was baking soda but I was thinking that the pH in it would not be a good idea for my face. Salt would be my next best choice since I’m thiking it has astringent qualities to it?

    • Glad to hear your skin is doing better. You are probably right that not stressing over it so much helps. It seems to me that your real problem now is that you don’t ‘feel’ your skin is clean enough.

      I’m not very familiar with DIY remedies. But you are right about baking soda. It’s quite alkaline and I wouldn’t use it on the face every day. Maybe you can try combining honey with some mildly abrasive substance, like table salt. You should be able to find both from any 7-11 store. They normally sell honey in a handy tube, almost looks like a skin care product, that’s convenient for you.

    • I don’t see any rationale for using diatomaceous earth for acne. Some people claim it works against acne because it kills parasites in the digestive track. I’m very skeptical of this for two reasons.

      1) There’s no evidence that links parasites to acne. There is evidence to show imbalances in the gut bacteria are linked to skin problems. It’s more likely that people who say they have parasites actually suffer from some bacterial imbalance in the gut.

      2) Diatomaceous earth kills by dehydrating. It sucks water out of the critters. The intestines have a lot of water. Diatomaceous earth would just bind to free water in the intestines and probably wouldn’t do anything to parasites.

  8. What do you think about pineapple facials, or maybe they’re really more of a mild chemical peel affect. I did it once and left it on for 5 minutes. I mixed it with a bit of honey and just pureed the pineapple. It didn’t really bother my skin but it did tingle and I used more moisturizer for a few days afterward. Is this bad for the skin to use pineapple – kind of like using lemon (which I’ve never used)?

  9. Hello Seppo. 🙂 What do you think of using diluted ACV as a toner? I’m 22 and suffer from acne, and have been using it after cleansing twice a day. I mix one part ACV with four parts water. Do you think that could be damaging in the long run, though very diluted? Thanks!

  10. Hi seppo. Do you know if there is harm if you use diluted half water half apple cider vinegar on your skin, and then rinse it off. And after its rinsed off, go in the sun?

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