If you’ve ever had acne, you know that sometimes it seems like a terrible battle. I think that I tried just about every home remedy in high school because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But I’m older and wiser now, if precious few other things, and I realize that products formulated for your skin will almost certainly work better than products that are not formulated for your skin. That said, occasionally, there are home remedies that do work.
So, today, I’m taking some of the top acne remedies I’ve read about in magazines and doing the research to tell you if they work. This post will look into neosporin, toothpaste, and aspirin as acne-fighters. You might just be surprised by what I’ve found.
Myth: Neosporin Treats Acne
Acne is caused by bacteria and Neosporin, or triple antibiotic ointment (TAO), fights bacteria, ergo TAOs fight acne, right? Wrong. Actually, TAOs could worsen acne and even create some pretty big problems in the long run. To understand this one better, let’s take a look at the ingredients in TAOs to see why they wouldn’t work to combat acne.
Acne is most commonly caused by the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes, but the antibiotics in Neosporin, and many other TAOs, aren’t the kind of antibiotics that fight that infection — meaning that for most people, the ingredients are ineffective. Polymyxin B Sulfate works against gram-negative bacteria — too bad P. acne is gram-positive (CDC). Bacitracin Zinc does fight gram postive bacteria, but it’s really only effective against S. aureus and streptococci (MedScape). In fact, because it doesn’t penetrate the skin well, it’s really only good for superficial infections, not going deep enough to attack acne. Neomycin works a little differently by interferring with protein synthesis, meaning it can be used against gram-postive and gram-negative bacteria, but it’s still not very effective against acne (JAMA). In fact, here are the bacteria that TAOs like Neosporin are meant to stand up against: Staphylococcus aureus; streptococci, including Streptococcus pneumoniae; Escherichia coli; Haemophilus influenzae; Klebsiella/Enterobacter species; Neisseria species; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Daily Med).
Here’s the unfortunate part: TAOs include ingredients that are meant to moisturize, like olive oil, but can actually clog pores, meaning that over time they can worsen acne. Worse still, it’s possible to overuse TAOs, which can cause resistant strains of bacteria to form — and that’s a really big problem.
If you know someone who’s benefitted from TAOs for acne, it’s probably because the moisturizing and wound healing ingredients helped to add some much needed hydration to their skin and heal any damaged areas. But, overall, TAOs are a lousy choice for treating acne because the ingredients aren’t effective and regular use can actually create some pretty big issues.
So, what should you use instead? If you want to treat acne, look no further than benzoyl peroxide, which has been shown to kill P. acne. Use it as a spot treatment, since it can create free radicals, and you’ll see your acne start to go down. A great drugstore find that’s as cheap, if not cheaper, than TAOs is ZapZyt ($1.49, amazon.com) with 10% benzoyl peroxide.
Myth: Toothpaste Treats Acne
Ah, the old toothpaste as spot treatment in a pinch. I actually tried this one out in junior high after reading about it in many a teen magazine, which were reputable sources of advice on all things growing up (e.g. “You should definitely tell him you’re into him on IM.”). That said, it really didn’t do much but dry out my skin. That’s because most toothpastes contain super drying and lipid-striping sodium laurly sulfate (SLS) (Cosmetic Dermatology). Right? I know! That same bad guy that companies are tossing out of your shampoo like a bad boyfriend is just chilling out in products that you put in your mouth — but that’s a whole different issue. On your face, this, along with irritating partner-in-crime triclosan, can cause some serious dryness and irritation, and while I understand the desire to dry the bejesus out of oily, acne-prone skin, it will actually only serve to further exacerbate the lesions from acne (Contact Dermatitis).
It’s possible that toothpaste can do a little something-something because it contains calcium carbonate, which will help to dry out excess oil (sebum) and, thus, acne; but the drying and irritating effects of SLS and triclosan overall definitely don’t make it worthwhile.
If your grandma remembers a time when this one worked, it could be because toothpaste once contained zinc (International Journal of Dermatology). But today, the ingredients in toothpaste just don’t do enough to fight acne to make it worthwhile as a spot treatment. In fact, you risk drying out your skin, which can be a problem on top of the acne.
So, what should you use instead? Try something like Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment ($22, amazon.com) with 10% sulfur, which helps to reduce acne by acting as a keralytic agent, meaning that it softens dead skin cells and cleans out dirt from pores. In fact, a combination of benzoyl peroxide and sulfur in a treatment increases the effectiveness of both ingredients (though be careful, because this can also dry out and irritate skin more) (Canadian Medical Association Journal).
RELATED: Is It OK to Use Toothpaste on Skin?
Myth: Aspirin to Treat Acne
It’s not totally outlandish that aspirin could help to treat acne. The main ingredient is a esterfication of the popular acne treatment salicylic acid, acetylsalicylic acid, which means that it’s weaker than salicylic acid; otherwise, it would cause some unpleasant stomach issues when you took it (Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery). Once in the body, the acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin is hydrolyzed, or reacts with water, to break down into salicylic acid in the intestines.
So, in theory, mixing acetylsalicylic acid with water can create salicylic acid, which is an ingredient that helps to clean the dead skin and dirt out of pores that causes acne. It essentially does this by dissolving the glue that holds the cells together on the top layer of skin, the stratum corneum, allowing the cells to be shed more easily.
Verdict: Technically True
This one has some truth to it. You can, in fact, get acne-fighting ingredient salicylic acid by mixing water with aspirin. But just because you can use aspirin to make salicylic acid doesn’t mean you should. In OTC acne treatments, 2% is one of the highest concentrations that you can find for regular use. There are higher-concentration salicylic acid peels, but those are formulated so they don’t damage your skin. Hydrolyzing aspirin to make salicylic acid is technically possible, but you probably won’t know the percentage you’re putting on your face, and that could lead to some irritation.
There are a lot of medicine cabinet remedies for acne, but many do more harm than good. Neosporin or other triple antibiotic ointments can clog pores and actually cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop, which is a whole new and serious issue. Toothpaste contains harsh sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) much of the time, which can cause irritation to skin. Aspirin mixed with water can be turned into salicylic acid, but I’d suggest sticking with pre-formulated options for the least risk of irritation. It’s possible to get a great acne care routine without spending too much or dipping into the medicine cabint.