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6 Effective Anti-Acne Ingredients You Probably Haven't Heard About

Most of us experience acne at some point in our lives. Whether it's persistent breakouts or the occasional pimple, the struggle is real. Despite how common it is, acne is treated with a surprisingly narrow range of ingredients. Over-the-counter anti-acne products generally contain salicylic acid, retinoids or benzoyl peroxide as their active ingredients, and medical treatments tend to centre around antibiotics, but they don't work for everyone. That's why we are always on the lookout for innovative, new ingredients that can fight off even the most stubborn pimples. In this article, we explore the latest research in acne treatment and present six lesser-known ingredients that have shown promise in scientific studies.


1. Spirulina platensis powder

You might have heard of Spirulina as a dietary supplement, rich in protein, B vitamins and minerals. In fact, it comes from micro-algae and was historically a nutrient-rich food source for the Aztec civilization in South America. More recently, it found its way into skincare research, more specifically as an active ingredient that could combat acne. One study found that a 0.25% spirulina-containing cream was shown to significantly reduce counts of acne-associated bacteria over a 6-hour period, demonstrating its potential as an anti-acne treatment. In addition to its antibacterial properties, spirulina is also rich in antioxidants, which could help to prevent inflammation and improve overall skin health.


2. Lipohydroxy acid

If you've used anti-acne products, you have almost certainly come across salicylic acid. It is really the go-to hydroxy acid for acne-fighting skin care. However, a derivative of salicylic acid, such as lipohydroxy acid (LHA), could work just as well, while reducing the chance of irritation. LHA was developed by scientists at L'Oréal in the 1980s and has a lot of properties in common with salicylic acid, however, it is larger and therefore penetrates the skin slower. This results in a more gentle cell-by-cell exfoliation, which is thought to mimic how your skin naturally sheds. Research has shown that LHA can work as well as benzoyl peroxide for acne treatment with better tolerability.


3. Probiotics

Many acne treatments work by killing acne-causing bacteria in your skin. The problem is that the good bacteria in your skin microbiota can get caught in the crossfire, causing harm to the overall health of your skin. An alternative way to fight acne-causing bacteria is to add health-promoting bacteria directly onto the skin, or probiotics. Probiotic bacteria can inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria, by competing with them for space and nutrients and producing growth-inhibiting molecules, while leaving the rest of the microbiome in tact. For example, studies have shown that Staphylococcus epidermidis, a type of bacteria naturally found on your skin, can produce succinic acid which prevents the growth of P. acnes, an acne-causing bacterium. Essentially, topical probiotics function by increasing the ability of your skin's own microbiome to overcome acne-causing bacteria.


4. CBD

CBD, or cannabidiol, seems to have become the new cure-all ingredient over the past few years. Derived from the cannabis plant (but not the part that gets you high), the CBD molecule has been associated with a myriad of positive health effects, from reducing anxiety to improving sleep to skin benefits. In scientific studies, CBD has been shown to prevent excess sebum production in the skin and reduce oiliness, which makes it a potentially interesting candidate for anti-acne treatments. In addition to this, it has anti-inflammatory properties, which could help reduce redness and improve the appearance of pimples.


5. Quercetin

Quercetin is found in a myriad of plant-based foods and drinks, from onions to green tea, and even red wine. It belongs to a family of molecules called flavonoids, which are well-known in super foods for their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Beyond providing a watertight defence for that extra glass of Merlot, quercetin could also find its way into your skincare routine. Studies have shown that this molecule can eliminate P. acnes and reduce inflammatory lesions by 78% when administered in a nanovesicle formulation. The nanovesicle helps to improve the stability of quercetin in the formulation and makes it permeate the skin better.


6. Bacteriophage therapy

Bacteriophages may sound like something that would be more at home in a science fiction film than in your skincare products, but they are actually as natural as willow bark or green tea. In fact, they are the most abundant biological entity on earth and they form a crucial part of your skin microbiome. A bacteriophage, or phage, is simply a type of virus that only infects bacteria. For acne treatment, bacteriophages that target P. acnes have gathered interest as a potential alternative to antibiotic treatments, specifically due to their ability to target specific strains of "bad" bacteria without disturbing the "good" bacteria in your microbiome. They are also effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria and are thought to be more environmentally friendly than chemical antibiotics.

While bacteriophages are a relatively new active ingredient in acne products, there are a few serums on the market containing probiotic phages. One study tested a product containing a phage that targets a strain of the acne-causing bacteria, Cutibacterium acnes, in 90 people over an 8-week treatment period. The product significantly improved acne, and the researchers found that the phage had killed off the "bad" acne-causing strains of C. acnes, while allowing the "good" strains to flourish in their place.


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