The Zest for Curing Zits: What Acne Victims Should Know

I have been trying to get rid of my pimples for the past two years. It has gone worse and I have tried multiple acne removal products. I was using one product in Shanghai and when I went to India for Christmas break, I switched my acne gel again. My grandma, who claimed that she had never experienced acne breakouts in her life, told me that I’ve been putting too many products on my face and this is actually making things a lot worse for my skin. For the first time, it hit me. I was putting way too many products on my face and didn’t even think about what I was putting and how much I was putting.  That got me thinking about what are truly in these products and how they are affecting my skin. I thought about Laurie’s blogpost about petroleum jelly and realized that many of us have a lot of misconceptions about face cream and gel. I wanted to clear things up for myself, so I did my own research. I found out that most acne products have this chemical called benzoyl peroxide. My question is to what extent is benzoyl peroxide effective for acne treatment?

Acne is caused by the overproduction of sebum, which is an oil produced by the sebaceous glands in our body. The oil travels from the sebaceous glands to the follicle, where the skin hair grows. When there is too much oil in the follicle, the pores on your skin gets blocked and forms a bump on your skin. This area becomes an ideal place for bacteria to grow, exacerbating the bump on your skin. (Chase, B.).This bump is known as a pimple.

I’m sure some of you have heard of brands like Neutrogena, Ponds, and Garnier. They offer topical products to help fight those acne on your skin. If you’ve used some of these products, your skin has definitely been exposed to a chemical called benzoyl peroxide or BP (May, E. 2013). You’re probably wondering, how does this chemical work to remove pimples? BP works like an antibiotic as it kills the bacteria in your clogged pores. When BP comes into contact with your skin, it decomposes into benzoic acid and oxygen (Chase, B.). This is because the oxygen-oxygen bond in the structure has a very weak bond and can easily break when it comes into contact with the skin. When this bond breaks, free radicals form from the oxygen atoms. These free radicals are then attached to the sebum lipid. The bacterium that causes acne is called Propionibacterium Acnes and it is known to be anaerobic, which means it can only thrive in the absence of oxygen. The oxygen derived from BP causes the bacteria to die as it provides an oxygen rich environment within the infected area  (G, Susan 2010). Pimples grow because the sebum blocks the pores, and therefore, oxygen and allows for these bacteria to infect the pimples.

Molecular Structure of Benzoyl Peroxide
Molecular Structure of Benzoyl Peroxide

Looking at the mechanism of BP surely tells us that it is an effective chemical for killing the bacterial growth within our pimples. However, I’ve been using products that contain BP but am still not experiencing any changes in my skin. I still get pimples. With that being said, I realized that perhaps it’s not about how much BP and what brand I need to put on my skin. I must understand my skin characteristics and what my skin needs in order to fight acne. Since every skin is different, not everyone can cure his or her acne with BP.

BP can cause skin irritation, dryness, and peeling which are some of the things I have experienced but have just ignored because the problems were so minor. Regardless, they did happen and never solved my acne problems. I recently experimented the amount of acne gel I put on my skin and how much dryness it would cause. I found that when I do put more and more acne gel, my skin would feel even dryer. This tells me that BP isn’t entirely bad, but I just needed small amounts of it to protect my skin from getting too dry. This speaks to some of us who naturally have dry skin. Do not use too much acne gel (ones with higher BP concentrations) if you have dry skin! If you don’t have skin that is too dry, BP can be an ideal medication for your pimples since it does remove the mixture of sebum and exfoliate the dead skin cells (Chase, B.).

It’s crucial for us to truly get to know the types of skin products we use as they can have a significant impact on our skin. I was simply putting on lots and lots of BP on my skin and causing my skin to experience unnecessary stress. One thing I learned for sure is that during puberty, which a lot of us are still experiencing now, our hormonal changes encourage sebum production and thus pimples are quite inevitable. However, getting to know your skin type is the first step to solving your acne problems.


Chase, B. (n.d.). Salicylic Acid vs Benzoyl Peroxide for Acne. Retrieved from

G, S. (2010, September 6). The Chemistry of Acne Medication: Benzoyl Peroxide. Retrieved from

May, E. (2013, May 21). Why Benzoyl Peroxide is Bad for Acne Skin. Retrieved from

Okamoto, L. (2013, February 23). You put WHAT on your face?!. Retrieved from

Puusa, S. (2013, January 23). Why You Should Not Be Afraid Of Benzoyl Peroxide – And My Experience In Quitting. Retrieved from

3 thoughts on “The Zest for Curing Zits: What Acne Victims Should Know

  1. Since a young age, I’ve always been fascinated with trying out many new skin products. After reading Vrishti’s blog post on acne, it reminded me how I also had the same problems a few years ago. After reading many articles on the Internet, and trying many new products, I came across the idea of exfoliation. Ever since I started exfoliating, it has helped the conditions on my skin tremendously, but I’ve never really thought about the chemistry behind it. So my question is: How do exfoliants work and how do they affect our skin?

    Firstly, I have to know how exactly exfoliants work. After researching, I found out that there are actually two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants have a gritty texture, and physically scrubs away the dead skin cells (BreBeauty, 2014). Chemical exfoliants, however, use alpha hydroxy acids (most commonly glycolic and lactic acid) or beta hydroxy acids to exfoliate away the dead skin. These acid molecules are small enough to penetrate the top layer of the skin to shed these cells. As these cells are removed, the newer, younger skin is being uncovered, hence, may diminish the appearance of fine lines, allowing one to look younger (Real Beauty, 2014).

    After knowing all this, this leads me to the second part of my question: how does exfoliation affect our skin? After some more research, I learnt that new skin cells are created in the lower layers of the skin called the dermis. Over time, these cells slowly migrate to the upper layer and become saturated with keratin, which protects our skin from outside elements. However, with exfoliation, it helps remove the upper most layer, where all the dead skin cells are, revealing the newer skin below (Wikipedia, 2014). This helps unclog pores, keep the skin clean, reduce acne breakouts, reduce age spots and allows skin care products to absorb better (BreBeauty, 2014). Exfoliation isn’t only for women though, for men, it helps expose the fair follicles on their face, allowing shaving to be easier (Wikipedia, 2014). However, even though there are many benefits to exfoliating our skin, one could also easily over exfoliate. This causes the skin to dry out, and may lead to the formation of wrinkles, hence, it’s important that we do not over exfoliate and also moisturize our skin after exfoliation (Wikipedia, 2014).

    In conclusion, although exfoliation is good for our skin, we should always be careful as to how many times we exfoliate a week. This is to ensure that we do not over exfoliate our skin and damage it in the process. Exfoliating twice to three times a week is enough to give our skin a fresh appearance (Rouleau, 2014). After learning about all this, I now know why exfoliation is helping my skin conditions, and also know that too much of anything good can be bad for us.

    – Exfoliant Basics. (n.d.). Real Beauty. Retrieved January 15, 2014, from
    – Q & A with BB: Smoothing it Over with Exfoliants. (n.d.). BreBeauty. Retrieved January 15, 2014, from
    – Wikipedia. Retrieved January 15, 2014, from
    – The Importance Of Skin Exfoliation. (n.d.). Renee Rouleau. Retrieved January 15, 2014, from

  2. Everyone hates pimples! Personally, I find pimples extremely bothersome, and I’ve always admired people with perfect skin. In Vrishti’s blog post, she explored the chemistry and uses of benzyl peroxide, a common ingredient in pimple medication. I found this very interesting because just last summer, after an intense conversation about skin problems, a friend from my summer program recommended that I buy Clean & Clear “salicylic acid solution” from the drug store. She claimed that it was “cheap” and “super effective” in getting rid of pimples. She also told me to apply it every day, even if I didn’t have pimples, as a means of prevention. Seeing that my friend had flawless skin, I followed her instructions. The product was called “deep cleaning astringent, salicylic acid acne medication.” On the label, the active ingredient was “salicylic acid 2.0%.” After probably one week, indeed, my skin became better (although ever since, I haven’t been steadfast in applying it every single day ☺). Vrishti talked about benzyl peroxide, so I’ve decided to use this opportunity to do some research on salicylic acid, and find out what the chemistry is behind the acne-fighting power!

    According to Vrishti, benzyl peroxide is known for its antibacterial properties. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, “belongs to a group of medicines known as keratolytics” (DermNet New Zealand Trust, 2005). According to the Oxford A-Z of Medicinal Drugs (2014), keratolytics are “Drugs that cause softening and swelling of the cells at the surface of the skin, so that the outer layer of the skin peels off or can easily be removed.” When we’re talking about acne, salicylic acid basically works to “prevent clogging”. It is also interesting to take note that the acid “breaks down blackheads and whiteheads” (Univer, 2013). If you look at the chemical structure (I’m not sure how to post pictures here), you will find that salicylic acid has an alcohol group and a carboxylic acid. This makes it have lipid solubility, which is “central to its ability to penetrate pores” (Kavi skin, 2014). According to dermatologist, Whitney Bowe M.D. (2013), “the cells in the lining of the hair follicles of people with acne tend to multiply quickly, and stick to one another. Salicylic acid works by dissolving this cement that holds those sticky cells together in the clogged pores.” The word salicylic comes from “salix” in Latin, which means, “Willow tree” (Brown, Ford, n.d.). From reading lots of acne product labels (I love labels!), I knew that salicylic acid was found naturally in willow bark, so it was a nice connection to make!

    One special property of salicylic acid is its anti-inflammatory properties. It also has the benefit of decreasing inflammation! From our IB Chemistry medicine and drugs unit, we learned about aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid: notice how the words “salicylic acid” are in there). When I went back to the textbook we used, I was amazed to find a section about salicylic acid and aspirin! Just like salicylic acid, aspirin reduces inflammation. It turns out that starting from 400BC, people would chew willow bark to give relief to pain. Later, in the early 1800s, it was discovered that the active ingredient in the bark, salicin, was converted to salicylic acid in the body. It tasted awful, however, and people would throw up from the taste. Then in 1890, Bayer Company came to the rescue by making “an ester derivative of salicylic acid,” called aspirin! “More palatable and less irritating to the stomach,” aspirin became one of the first drugs to entre into common usage. (Brown, Ford, n.d.) It’s pretty amazing how these common chemical products are connected, isn’t it!

    Overall, salicylic acid seems like a good acne medication! It is always important, however, to consider the disadvantages to different types of medication. Personally, I found salicylic acid to cause peeling, similar to the dryness Vrishti mentioned about benzyl peroxide. This makes sense because as mentioned before, the function of salicylic acid is to cause the outer layer of skin to be removed. One solution I have found is using a non-comedogenic moisturizer after my acne medication has dried.

    I think that by understanding how the medication works, chemically, we can figure out the most effective way to utilize it. Often, we figure things out from what we experience, such as physically seeing our skin peel. By learning about the chemistry, however, we understand why our skin would peel and can therefore find the best way to deal with our acne. Finally, discovering the relationship between salicylic acid and aspirin was very interesting; it proves that chemistry is connected and truly in every aspect of our lives!

    Brown, C. & Ford, M. (n.d.) Pearson Press. Chemistry developed specially for the IB Diploma.
    DermNet New Zealand Trust, (2013). Salicylic Acid. Retrieved from:
    Kavi Skin (2014). Salicylic Acid. Retrieved from:
    Martin, E. (n.d.). Keratolysis. Oxford University Press An A-Z of Medicinal Drugs. Retrieved from:
    Univer, E. (2013). Salicylic Acid vs. Benzoyl Peroxide: How to Decide Which Acne Fighter Is Right for you. Retrieved from:

  3. The other day as I was going through my nightly face washing routine, my mother by chance walked in and asked to borrow my hand cream because she had finished hers. While she was using the cream, I began to apply the same brand of face lotion I’ve used since I was a child. The face lotion was fairly generic, and had no age prevention, acne prevention, etc… prevention additives, and was simply for the purpose of preventing moisture from leaving my skin. My mother recalled a time when a good friend had told her the secret to their supple, clear, moisturized, and youthful skin. She stated that perhaps we should both try using this additive, hyaluronic acid, to improve the quality of our skin – her for her aging process, and mine for moisture.

    A few weeks later, I chanced upon a skin cream which advertised itself as a hyaluronic acid based cream for extremely dry skin. Given that we were in the middle of Thailand and constantly entering cold, air-conditioned buildings, my skin became very dry. On a whim, remembering my mother’s words about the acid, I purchased the cream and began to use it. Despite my skepticism and much to my surprise, I noted that my skin didn’t feel dry anymore, and its texture was actually improving. This made me recall Vristi’s blog post regarding acne products, and prompted me to wonder how an acid (based on the name hyaluronic acid) could possibly be what my mother stated as, “the best means of moisturizing your skin to keep it clear and soft” given that cosmetic acids are typically associated with the removal of skin for exfoliation, softening, or even anti-acne purposes, certainly not for hydration.

    Hyaluronic acid (HA) is actually a compound found naturally within the body that is “a gel-like water holding molecule that is the space filler and cushioning agent in all mammals.” It is present in most parts of the body, but particularly in the joints, eyes, and skin as it attracts and binds to water (Daya, n.d.). The molecule itself is composed of a chain-like structure of alternating glucuronic acid and N-acetyl-gulcosamine, with each glucuronic acid molecule containing a carboxylic acid, several esters and ketones, and each N-acetyl-gulcosamine molecule containing several hydroxyl, ester and ketone groups. This enables the molecule to become a “gel-like water holding molecule” in that the molecule has both permanent dipole interactions and can form hydrogen bonds with water molecules. (Image found at HA molecules can in fact hold 1000 times their mass in water within skin cells, the most of any known biological molecule (Daya, n.d.) This capacity to hold water leads to several uses with the body, and is an essential component in many parts of the body.

    In terms of joint care, many individuals take glucosamine to aid in the lubrication and maintenance of their joints. HA is a member of the same glycosaminoglycan family as glucosamine, and is critical in the composition of healthy joints as one of the main components in synovial fluid (a fluid that fills a kind of sac-like cushion between the joints) along with various other molecules, including a variation of collagen. It’s capacity to hold a large amount of water makes it an effective shock absorber in the joints, as well as a kind of lubricant to prevent the bones from rubbing against each other (Lipowitz, n.d.). Also, HA is used as a means of removing wastes from bone cartilage, which contains no blood vessels, and is used in the extracellular spaces of cells to separate tissues. In nearly every part of the body containing a large quantity of fluid (relative to the rest of the body) HA is present as one of the main function molecules. For example, HA is present in the vitreous humor of the eye, and helps the eye retain its shape and moisture. (Cushion Joints with Hyaluronic Acid, n.d.)

    With respect to skin care, HA is one of the key components of skin cells in that it helps the cells retain their elasticity and moisture. As HA can hold nearly 1000 times its weight in moisture, it along with collagen and elastin (proteins in the skin) is essential for moisture retention and helps smooth skin to a youthful appearance.

    However, while HA is produced by the body, and is essential to bone health, eye healthy, and young, well-hydrated skin, the HA in both the dermis and epidermis is broken down within a day of production; contrastingly, within the cartilage, the HA is broken down after anywhere from 2-3 weeks. Additionally, with age, HA production in the body decreases, creating wrinkled, lackluster skin and joint problems. However, HA can be applied topically to the skin to enhance the moisture retention in the skin, or, can be injected directly into the dermis to “fill out” wrinkles and lines and improve hydration from the inside of the dermis. When used as a filler, HA needs to be re administered approximately twice a year, lasting nearly three times as long as other collagen injections which need to be re administered several times a year to achieve similar effects. The purest form of HA is extracted from rooster combs and can be administered through parenteral, topical, or through oral means as a supplement. In terms of providing the best overall effect on the body, including the eyes, joints, and skin, the oral supplements are the most effective and will improve these to some degree. However, if seeking immediate results that will alleviate ailments such as joint pain, or wrinkles, then parenteral application is most effective and will provide more cushion to the joints and aid in creating the appearance of youthful, hydrated skin. (Cushion Joints with Hyaluronic Acid, n.d.)

    In terms of implications for the use of HA in the cosmetic and medical industries, I think the availability of rooster combs is not entirely practical given the sheer number of individuals with joint pain or wrinkles. However, having said that, HA supplements are readily available at most health stores at very reasonable prices, suggesting that there are either other means of extracting HA, or there is a plentiful source of roosters to de-comb. In terms of my own body, I think I will consider taking HA supplements to help improve the shock absorption in my joints as I already have a permanent injury; hopefully supplements will aid in alleviating some of the pain I experience with vigorous exercise, and if by chance, the moisture content in my skin happens to improve, then I’m certainly not complaining.

    Cushion Joints with Hyaluronic Acid. (n.d.). Rejuvenation Science . Retrieved March 1, 2014, from
    Daya, S. (n.d.). Hyaluronic Acid: the anti-ageing nutrient? : Editorial Features : Victoria Health. Victoria Health. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from
    Hyaluronic Acid . (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from
    Lipowitz, A. (n.d.). Synovial Fluid. Textbook of Small Animal Orthopaedics . Retrieved March 1, 2014, from
    Ogbru, O. (n.d.). Hyaluronic acid (Restylane, Restylane-L) for Wrinkles and Lips, Side Effects – MedicineNet. MedicineNet. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from
    Swann, D., Radin, E., Nazimiec, M., Weisser, P., Curran, N., & Lewinnek, G. (n.d.). Role of hyaluronic acid in joint lubrication. Annals of the Rheumatic Disease: The Eular Journal . Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

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