By the time those laugh lines start to show up, acne should long be a thing of the past, right?

Not exactly. While acne during the teen years is no picnic, adult acne can actually be more persistent and troubling. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne affects more than half of all women between the ages of 20 and 29, more than a third of women between the ages of 30 and 39, and over a quarter of women between the ages of 40 and 49. Even more, late-onset acne, also known as adult-onset acne, has become increasingly common in women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s over the last few decades.

Acne and wrinkles? Talk about adding insult to injury. Especially when you consider that the effects of acne can penetrate far deeper than the surface of the skin and extract an emotional and psychological toll that exceeds any physical impact. A study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology revealed that reported depression was two to three times more prevalent in acne patients than in the general population, with the largest percentage found among women aged 36 to 64.

Despair not. It turns out that the answer is as clear as the (not so oily) nose on your face. Although it appears counterintuitive, scientific studies—some recent, others stretching back 50 years—offer an intriguing look at using a variety of natural and nontoxic topical oils to cure acne. 

The ABCs of Acne

First, however, a bit of background. Breakouts occur when sebum—an oily, waxy substance produced by the sebaceous glands that serves to lubricate and waterproof skin and inhibit the growth of microorganisms—is trapped within a hair follicle. When operating as it should, the follicle, or pore, does an excellent job of moving that protective oil to the surface of the skin and clearing away dead skin cells and any other gunk that comes along for the ride; look at just about any child and you’ll see pores working exactly as they should. But when the self-cleaning system goes awry for whatever reason—hormonal changes, genetics, medication, lifestyle, stress, the clogging effect of waxes found in many beauty products—instead of being swept up the hair shaft to the surface, oil and dead cells are trapped in the follicle, the sebum acting as a glue for the debris. Things only get worse as the gland continues to produce sebum, creating even more of a blockage and an environment where bacteria can thrive.

A plugged pore that causes the follicle wall to bulge results in a whitehead. One that is partially obstructed at the surface of the skin forms a blackhead, the congested bacteria and oil turning dark when exposed to air. Pimples present as raised red bumps, often with a white center, and develop when congestion causes the follicle wall to burst and white blood cells rush in. The more oil that builds up, the more likely it is that bacteria will multiply and lead to inflammation. Sensing trouble, the immune system kicks into gear to fight the infection and the pimple becomes red and inflamed. The most severe form of acne comes when blockages form deep within hair follicles, resulting in inflamed, cyst-like bumps.

Busting Acne Myths

Conventional wisdom holds that breakouts are caused by an excess of oil. As a result, most people with persistent acne treat facial oil as a mortal enemy, believing that all traces must be eradicated from the surface of the skin. Cleanse the skin of oil, the thinking goes, and your acne will disappear.

In fact, the opposite is true. Strip your skin of its replenishing oils and the sebaceous glands will work overtime to replace it, according to Dr. Jeannette Graf, a dermatologist and the author of Stop Aging, Start Living, in an profile on CBS News. At the same time, scrubbing and exfoliating the skin too much or using harsh soaps or chemicals compromises the skin’s protective barrier, which results in sensitized, dehydrated skin that is more susceptible to environmental damage and breakouts. And while the beauty industry has long hailed oil-free moisturizers for the blemish-prone, it’s important to understand that such products are emulsified with pore-clogging waxes, which are major contributors to skin congestion and breakouts. Natural oils, on the other hand, nourish and protect skin while keeping it hydrated and pimple-free.

Although many acne sufferers would sooner walk barefoot across hot coals than risk further breakouts by applying oil to their faces, an increasing body of evidence suggests that is exactly what they should do. Using oils to treat blemish-prone skin is “based on the premise that like dissolves like,” Dr. Sejah Shah, a New York-based dermatologist, told BuzzFeed Life in an interview about replacing harsh cleansers with oil. The article concluded by noting that “an oil filled with antioxidants, vitamins, and anti-inflammatory properties will dissolve the sometimes pore-clogging oil produced by your face.”

Under the Microscope

As the body’s largest organ, skin plays a crucial role in protecting against oxidative stressors, such as ultraviolet radiation, ozone and chemicals, all of which contribute to aging and disease. Our bodies are pretty good at producing antioxidants that balance the effects of oxidative stress, but that ability lessens as we grow older as our skin produces less of the oils that protect it and provide a healthy glow.

In brief, oxidative stress represents the imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to use antioxidants to counteract their harmful effects. Healthy skin produces antioxidants that interfere with the process by which a free radical atom or molecule, which is missing an electron and is thus rendered unstable, attacks the nearest stable molecule to “steal” a replacement electron—a form of biological burglary that results in damage to all components of a cell including DNA, proteins, lipids and its membrane. The attacked molecule, now minus an electron and itself suddenly unstable, is transformed into a free radical in search of yet another electron, setting off a chain reaction of cellular disruption. Antioxidants neutralize that damage by offering up one of their own electrons, thereby helping to prevent cell and tissue breakdown that can result in further damage and disease—everything from wrinkles to cancer to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

To illustrate, think about what happens when you cut into an apple. Within a short time, the exposed flesh begins to brown as free radical damage (oxidative stress) takes its toll. But spray those apple slices with antioxidant-rich lemon juice and they will remain fresh looking for significantly longer.

Antioxidant-rich sebum works the same way to protect the skin from free radical damage, which is why you should think twice about attacking breakouts with alcohol and other acne-fighting chemicals such as benzoyl peroxide, which can be too harsh for adult skin and may compromise its protective barrier, opening the door to further breakouts and rendering the skin more vulnerable to environmental damage (sun, wind, central heating, etc.). In fact, according to a study published in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, benzoyl peroxide promotes tumor growth when applied topically to mice, possibly as a result of free radical generation. Another study, reported in the journal Experimental Dermatology, showed that benzoyl peroxide combined with UV radiation resulted in increased mortality in animals.

Still another report, this one published in the Journal of Dermatological Science, indicated that benzoyl peroxide also reduces skin antioxidant levels, including vitamin E, by 95 percent, and vitamin C, by as much as 70 percent. “Given that the sebaceous gland represents the major physiologic route of delivery of one of the most protective agents for human skin—vitamin E—its near elimination by [benzoyl peroxide] should be, at the very least, cause for concern,” the study authors wrote.

And there’s more. A recent paper in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology noted that acne patients on a regime of topical salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide showed even greater improvement after only two weeks when their treatment was expanded to include vitamin E-rich sunflower oil. The study’s authors also found that when the sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, the vitamin E reserve is overwhelmed, resulting in a diminished antioxidant effect and an increase in oxidative stress—a good reason to stick with that sunflower oil whether or not benzoyl peroxide is involved. 

An Alternate Theory

Just as the idea that excess oils in skin cause acne has been turned on its head, the same appears to be true of the belief that plugged follicles and resulting bacterial colonization automatically precede inflammation and acne. According to an article published in the scientific journal Lipids and Health Disease, research indicates that not only do acne-prone individuals show signs of increased oxidative stress systemically (including lower blood levels of antioxidant vitamins like A and E), but also that oxidative stress—specifically free radical damage to sebum—may actually serve as “a match that lights an inflammatory cascade in acne.” In other words, oxidation might not simply be a result of acne; instead, it may be the starter gun that helps drive it.

Although little known, the idea that free radical damage might trigger acne isn’t exactly new; studies suggesting that very possibility go back fifty years. In 1978, in fact, a report in the International Journal of Dermatology noted that “that the administration of an antioxidant might be a logical and effective means of controlling the inflammation by preventing oxidation of lipids” and “the subsequent release of irritating free radicals into the tissues.” 

Oil to the Rescue

Whichever comes first in this acne chicken-or-egg scenario, there appears to be a clear role for the right topical oils in the treatment of blemish-prone skin in order to boost antioxidants and help fight bacteria by clearing pores. Oils containing loads of antioxidants include hemp, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame, most of which are also high in linoleic acid, which has been shown to protect the skin’s protective barrier and balance sebum production by helping to restore optimal pH consistency. Other beneficial oils include green tea seed oil, black cumin seed oil, helichrysum oil, and sandalwood oil.

Still nervous about topical oils triggering rather than helping acne? Consider that Dr. Albert Kligman, the renowned University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who in 1967 invented the acne medication and collagen booster Retin-A, was widely known for telling patients to use Vaseline at night to remove their makeup, wipe away the excess and leave the remainder, which he said created a protective barrier and kept the skin moisturized.

While Dr. Kligman may have had a point about Vaseline’s ability to maintain the protective skin barrier, there’s no getting around the fact that no matter how highly refined and purified, Vaseline is still a derivative of petroleum. Much better, then, to look to other natural oils that do the same job—and offer a great deal more.