If you type ‘clear acne naturally’ into Google, you’ll come across some awful suggestions:
- Cut out gluten, dairy, sugar and carbs immediately (ok, shall I just eat lettuce then?)
- Use coconut oil as a moisturiser (even though coconut oil quite literally blocks your pores?)
- And the worst one, use lemon juice to target spots (um, ouch?)
It’s immediately clear that most of these articles have been written by a blog writer with clear skin, rather than someone who’s actually experienced acne and come out the other end.
Well, that’s where I come in 🙂 My name’s Alice and I’ve had acne on and off since the age of 14. I’m 30 now, and while I’ll always be acne-prone, I’ve found loads of ‘natural’ ways to keep the worst of my hormonal acne at bay.
By natural, I mean diet and lifestyle changes and skincare, rather than loading your body on accutane, antibiotics spironolactone and the pill. I’ve tried all of those things and, while they might work short-term, I didn’t find long-term relief from them.
Here’s how bad my acne was in my early 20s:
And here’s how my skin looks now, after various treatments but, ultimately, diet and lifestyle changes being the key driver:
How to clear your acne naturally
With that said, here’s my guide on how to clear acne naturally – using strategies that actually work, rather than being told to rub lemon on your face or cut out every single food group known to man.
But please bear in mind that I’m not a doctor. All of these suggestions come from my own experience and years of learning how to beat hormonal acne. What worked for me specifically, might not work for you.
1. Get some tests done, if you can
The thing that makes acne tricky to solve is the fact that the cause is different for everyone.
For some, it could be a hormonal issue, for others, it could be a food intolerance, gut dysbiosis or poor liver detoxification. For some, it could be a combination of all these things.
For this reason, the easiest way to see improvement is to get some testing done to see if you can pinpoint what your specific route cause is. This way, you can tackle it head-on, rather than guessing or self-diagnosing.
These tests might include a nutritional screening, a hormone blood test, a stool test, a DUTCH test and more. I’d recommend seeking help from a specialist who can listen to your symptoms (which may include more than just acne) and guide you on which tests to take. They’ll then be able to talk you through your results and what they actually mean.
I’m based in the UK and chose a company called Happy Hormones For Life for my tests. (If you decide to go with them, please quote ‘Notes By Alice’ when they asked you who recommended you and I’ll get a small commission that I can use towards more tests). I’d also recommend Ella Gorton at MySkinStory, as she’s very knowledgeable in acne specifically.
I understand that this route can be expensive and isn’t possible for everyone. I also know, from experience, that it’s hard to get this level of investigation on the NHS. So if you’re unable to work with a professional, don’t worry. You can still follow my tips below and see improvements in your skin – they’re universal!
2. Try an elimination diet
Whether it’s from Instagram, blogs or magazines, you’ve probably heard of numerous people cutting out dairy or gluten and miraculously clearing up their persistent acne.
And it’s true – these foods, for some, can definitely be a trigger. For me, dairy definitely worsened (but wasn’t the sole cause) my acne, while cutting out gluten was the final step I needed to see clear skin.
But that won’t be the case for everyone, so there’s no need to cut out food groups for the sake of it. Plus, it’s not healthy – physically or mentally – to cut out several food groups at once or restrict your diet excessively.
The answer? Try an elimination diet. This means cutting out one – and only one – type of food at a time. This will allow you to pinpoint which food types are actually having an impact on your skin, so you don’t have to cut out everything unnecessarily.
For example, you might start with gluten. Try your best to cut it out of your diet for at least a month – but really, the longer the better – and see how it impacts your skin. If your skin doesn’t improve, that’s one possible trigger crossed out. If it does improve, you might choose to carry on indefinitely.
Other common food triggers for acne include dairy (switch to non-dairy milk and cream), a high-sugar diet (aim to reduce your consumption of refined/added sugars) and sometimes caffeine, in those that are sensitive to it.
Whatever you do though, make sure you’re only making one significant change at a time. This way, you’ll actually be able to pinpoint what helped and what didn’t.
3. Focus on your gut health
Gut health has become a bit of a health industry buzzword of late, but it’s for good reason. Your gut literally impacts everything – your immunity, your digestion and, yes, even your skin.
Plus, if you’ve been on endless rounds of antibiotics and accutane for your acne (like I have), they could have had a negative impact on your gut health.
Learning about – and working on – your gut health is a real win-win, because even if you don’t see a significant change to your skin, your long-term health is likely to benefit regardless.
This is by no means a complete guide, but some simple things you can do to improve your gut health (and, hopefully, your skin) include:
- Eating more whole foods: Try to eat more fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils and grains (plus fish and good quality meat, if you eat those foods), whilst relying less on processed foods (basically, most stuff that comes in a packet with an endless list of ingredients). It’s all about balance, so don’t deprive yourself of your favourite foods entirely, even if they’re processed – just aim to enjoy them in moderation. Think 80/20!
- Eating a wider diversity of plants: One of the biggest ever gut health studies concluded that people who eat a wider variety of plants had more good gut bacteria than those who ate fewer. So, this doesn’t just mean eating more volume of plants, but eating lots of different types and colours of plants. Remember, this doesn’t just include fruit and veg – nuts, seeds, beans and legumes are plants, too.
- Eating fermented foods: Fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, some pickles and sauerkraut are great for your gut. If you can, try to eat them a couple of times per week. I know they can be expensive, so why not try making your own sauerkraut? It’s affordable and, once you’ve done it once, super duper easy. Another hack of mine is to simply choose a can of Kombucha (rather than a Coke or Sprite) when you’re in a restaurant or grabbing a drink from a supermarket. Most places have it now and it’s equally tasty, but much better for your body.
4. Balance your blood sugar
The relationship between blood sugar levels and acne isn’t fully understood, but some studies do suggest a potential connection. I’ve personally noticed a significant improvement since focusing on my blod sugar long-term, but obviously, that’s anecdotal.
I’m no nutritionist or doctor, so I can’t fully explain to you why it helps. However, at a very basic level, spikes in blood sugar trigger the release of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1. Elevated levels of these hormones can, over time, contribute to inflammation, increased oil production and the development of acne.
Here are some simple tips that you can use to better manage your blood sugar levels:
- Avoid ‘naked’ carbs: Eating a big bowl of processed carbs like toast, chips, rice or pasta, without any protein, fat or fibre alongside it, is a sure-fire way to spike your blood sugar levels. So, as much as you can, try to pair your carbs with protein, fibre and/or fat (more on this in the next point). This could be as simple as adding peanut butter to your toast, or making loaded fries with mince & guacamole.
- Think protein, fibre, fat: In every meal you eat, try to include plenty of protein and fibre, and a serving of fat. Protein includes foods like meat and fish, or, if you’re vegan like me, tofu, tempeh, beans and legumes. You’ll find fat in foods like nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil, as well as oily fish if it suits your dietary choices. Fibre is an easy one; that’s your fruit and vegetables, as well as foods like beans and lentils.
- Choose fibrous carbs over processed carbs: Fibrous carbs like chickpeas, beans, lentils, quinoa and sweet potato contain more fibre than simple carbs like bread, pasta and white rice. This means they take longer to digest and have less of an impact on your blood sugar levels. So, as much as you can, choose these as your carb for your meals.
5. Explore supplements, but be careful
Supplements are a tricky one, because without testing, it’s hard to know what you actually need. But there are a few supplements that are likely to benefit the majority of people and might (but not always – so proceed with caution if your budget is tight) improve your skin in the process.
- Vitamin D: A huge proportion of adults in the UK are low on vitamin D – thanks, crappy weather. Vitamin D plays a role in hormonal health, so this is a good one for the vast majority of acne sufferers to test out. I use the BetterYou Vitamin D spray – it’s affordable and well-absorbed, too. Focus Supplements have a good quality vitamin D product if you’d prefer a daily tablet.
- Magnesium: Stress and sleep quality can have a huge impact on your overall health and your skin. Magnesium is great for both, so for most people, I’d say it’s worth a try. I’ve noticed a huge improvement in my sleep, which no doubt is helping to keep my hormones in check. I use Magnesium Glycinate from Focus Supplements. Not all forms of magnesium are as well-absorbed as glycinate, so be careful about the form you take.
- Omega 3: If you don’t eat oily fish or chia/flax seeds often, you might not be getting enough omega 3. Omega 3s play a wide range of important roles in the body, including promoting healthy hormone function, specifically with your reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone. I use a vegan omega 3 supplement from Omvits, but you could use a good-quality cod liver oil if you’re not vegan.
- Probiotics: Without a stool test, it’s impossible to know which good gut bacteria you may be missing. However, as so many acne sufferers have spent years on antibiotics and accutane, it’s likely your gut could’ve been negatively impacted in some way. For that reason, if you’re unable to afford testing, I believe it’s worth testing a general probiotic for a few months to help bring your gut back to balance. I currently use BioKult, which is available on Amazon. Symprove has brilliant reviews all around, but it’s very pricey.
- Multivitamin: At the very least, I’d recommend trying a good quality multivitamin for a few months to see if you notice any positive impacts on your general health and acne. I use the multivitamin from Omvits, as it contains the most bioavailable form of each vitamin. Quality does matter when it comes to supplements, especially vitamins – some contain such poor-quality forms of each nutrient that you barely absorb anything.
There are a huge range of other supplements that can help people to combat acne, but it really does depend on the cause, so I’m hesitant to recommend them.
For example, I find that DIM helps me, but that’s specifically because my tests show my estrogen detoxification was off-kilter. If estrogen isn’t playing a role in your acne, it could end up making things worse.
Likewise, some people find that spearmint tea helps, due to its anti-androgenic effects. However, if high androgens aren’t a factor in your acne, it could have the opposite impact.
6. Keep stress in check (and a note on caffeine)
Stress isn’t a cause of acne in itself, but if you already have acne, studies have shown that stress can worsen the situation.
This is because being stressed leads to your body releasing cortisol (a hormone), which can cause your skin’s sebaceous glands to produce more sebum. On top of this, stress induces inflammation, which is closely associated with acne.
Reducing day-to-day stress is often easier said than done, especially if you have a stressful work environment or are stressed due to personal or family issues. But don’t overlook the basics.
Prioritising good quality sleep (even if that means sacrificing an hour of TV for an hour extra in bed), exercising (even a gentle walk can do wonders) and practising meditation via apps like HeadSpace can all help.
It’s worth noting that excessive caffeine intake can disrupt the normal regulation of cortisol, so if you’re a big coffee drinker, it could be worth cutting back. Personally, I try not to have caffeine on an empty stomach (which can amplify its impact on cortisol) and limit myself to a maximum of 2 cups per day.
If you feel that stress could be playing a role in your acne, I’d also recommend Magnesium Glycinate supplements, as studies suggest that they may help to regulate cortisol levels and promote better sleep.
7. Use evidence-backed topical treatments
I view having clear skin as an acne-prone person as a lifestyle change; and that doesn’t only include what you put into your body, but what you put onto your skin, too.
The ingredients I’m about to recommend aren’t necessarily ‘natural’, but they are backed by scientific evidence. Many (if not most) ‘natural’ skincare remedies (think lemon juice and apple cider vinegar – no, thank you) are not.
From experience, I strongly believe it’s best to use an evidence-backed topical treatment, consistently, rather than waste your money on random skincare brands that promise the world and rarely deliver.
Here are a few key topical treatments to consider:
- Tretinoin (a retinoid that stimulates cell turnover on your skin and promotes collagen production.
- Azelaic acid (kills bacteria on your skin that cause acne and helps to clear up post-acne marks)
- Benzoyl peroxide (kills bacteria on your skin that cause acne)
These are typically applied all over the face, once per day (usually at night), and followed by a non-comedogenic moisturiser. My personal preference is tretinoin, as it not only treats acne but can help to improve the appearance of scars and prevent premature ageing all in one.
The British Skin Foundation suggests: ‘Some topical treatments can be irritating to the skin, so it’s recommended to gradually increase the use of the treatment, for example using it once or twice weekly, progressively building to regular daily use if tolerated.’ And I 100% agree. Building up the frequency slowly might be a longer process, but it means you can skip the red-dry-peeling skin stage, which can be difficult to deal with.
You should be able to access topical treatments via your GP. Tretinoin is normally offered in the form of ‘Differin’ or ‘Adapelene’, while Benzoyl Peroxide is often offered as ‘Epiduo’.
You can also access these treatments via online dermatologists, which can be expensive but are generally more tailored to your specific skin type and concerns. For example, my current Uncouth prescription includes tretinoin, azelaic acid (great for pigmentation) and hyaluronic acid (a hydrating ingredient), making it a lot gentler and multi-purpose than the creams offered on the NHS.
Skin & Me and Dermatica are also good options for this.
8. Nurture your skin barrier
If there’s one key thing I did at the start of my acne journey that 100% worsened the situation, it was throwing too many harsh products on my skin.
The skin barrier is the outermost layer of the skin, known as the stratum corneum, which acts as a protective shield against external factors. Maintaining a healthy skin barrier is crucial in preventing acne, as it hinders the entry of acne-causing bacteria.
Here are my simple tips for keeping your skin barrier in check:
- Use gentle cleansers: Cleansers are essential for acne-prone skin as they help to remove impurities that can lead to breakouts. The catch? If you use one that’s too harsh, you can end up stripping your skin and compromising your barrier. Try to opt for something gentle, such as the Simple Micellar Gel Wash (my go-to!), the Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser or the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser.
- Keep skin hydrated: I know it’s tempting to ditch any form of moisture if you’re acne-prone, but keeping your skin hydrated with non-comedogenic (more on that in the next point) products will actually help to prevent breakouts. Include a moisturiser in your skincare routine and, ideally, use it both morning and night.
- Use an SPF: Wearing SPF daily will help to protect the skin barrier against UV rays, which can not only compromise your barrier, but have harmful long-term effects too. There are many non-comedogenic options available, with my favourite being the UltraSun Face SPF30.
- Ditch physical exfoliation: If you’ve currently got a St.Ives Face Scrub in your bathroom, chuck it away immediately (I’m not even joking). Harsh face scrubs can temporarily damage your barrier and create micro-tears in the skin, opening it up to acne-causing bacteria. If you feel the need to exfoliate, opt for a chemical exfoliator such as lactic or glycolic acid and use it once or twice a week at most.
- Ease in on active ingredients: Using topical treatments (like the ones mentioned above) is key to clearing your skin long-term, but they shouldn’t be used at the expense of your skin barrier. If you’re introducing a new active ingredient, ease into it slowly and build up usage gradually to prevent extreme irritation.
- Have skin ‘rest days’: This is a term I’ve coined myself, but I swear by skin ‘rest days’. Once a week, normally on a Sunday, I give my skin a total rest from any active ingredients and use only hydrating products. If my skin starts feeling dry or irritated, I increase this to two or three days per week until it recovers.
9. Check for comedogenic ingredients
This one was a game-changer for me, but I think it’s overlooked in the majority of ‘how to clear your acne’ advice.
Comedogenic ingredients are ingredients in skincare or makeup that have the potential to clog your pores and contribute to acne. For this reason, it can be extremely helpful to look for non-comedogenic products – i.e. they won’t clog your pores or contribute to acne.
I’ll be honest though, what you’ll find is that the majority of products have some kind of comedogenic ingredient in them. I use the Acne Clinic NYC Ingredient Checker to double-check everything new that I buy and, with some searching, it’s definitely possible to create a 100% non-comedogenic routine.
It’s hard for me to recommend specific products as everyone’s skin is different, but some stand-out non-comedogenic products for me include:
- Greek & Gorgeous Hydration Station Moisturiser
- Byoma Gel Cream Moisturiser
- Kiel’s Oil-Free Moisturiser
- BareMinerals BarePro Foundation
- Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer
- Too Faced Born This Way Concealer
- Maybelline Fit Me! Concealer
Be aware that everyone’s skin is different and even if a product is deemed ‘non-comedogenic’, it’s still possible (though much less likely) for your skin to react to it.