Acne Cures Through The Ages
by Sarah Marshall and Michael Magnes
Part of a series about youth.
1. Urine has been used as an acne cure and everyday cleanser since at least the 17th century. The Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine reports that “rubbing [a] baby’s face with a recently wet nappy was practiced in the Highlands of Scotland to prevent the child developing acne later and give it a good complexion.” And in an article on natural remedies used by Kansan pioneers, Amy Lathrop quotes a seventy-year-old woman who claimed: “None of the girls in the family ever had acne. All retained fine skins until their deaths — complexions outstanding for their beauty and smoothness. My mother had the rosy skin of a baby until she died, and she only bathed her face in urine on occasion in later years.”
For the modern reader curious about bringing history to life, Folk Remedies That Work suggests that you take “your first urine of the day on a white washcloth and pat it around the acne area. Or, if there’s an infant around, use the baby’s wet diaper. Urine is said to have our body’s antibodies that are very healing. Be consistent. Do it daily. If you’re not too grossed out, do it more than once a day.”
2. A mixture of sulfur and blackstrap molasses (1:2) is a historical cure that has enjoyed slightly more modern success than urine. Enthusiasts also tout molasses’ ability to cure anxiety, constipation, anemia, arthritis, and cancer.
3.-10. The good people at MyHomeRemedies recommend Pepto-Bismol; a mixture of nutmeg, black pepper, and sandalwood; constant application of hand sanitizer (“it will burn for about twenty seconds”); honey, also used by ancient Egyptians (“when u have a blemish put honey and a band-aid on top of it and when u wake up it should most likly be gone”); abstinence (“If I go 2 weeks without sexual activity then I will not break… If I go 2 weeks WITH sexual activity, I break out pretty constantly. I am no scientist and my results are purely based on my own memories.); Crest toothpaste; and diaper rash cream (“the good stuff”).
11. Ancient Egyptians (and Greeks, who knew acne as “tovoot”) treated pimples with sulfur.
12. Ancient Egyptians also believed that acne was caused by telling lies.
13. Exposure to the sun is a modern, low-tech cure.
14. Röntgenotherapy, popular in the naughty aughties and named after the discoverer of X-rays, used the power of radiation to blast away acne. A contemporary practitioner wrote that “In order to determine the sensibility of the skin, we commence with a preliminary irradiation of feeble intensity. This is especially necessary in the treatment of acne, hypertrichosis, eczema, and folliculitis of the beard. After a few days’ interval we give a fairly strong exposure, in order to set up the desired degree of reaction as rapidly as possible.” However, excessive Röntgenotherapy could lead to radiodermatitis, whose effects included “atrophy of the skin, glands, hair and nails.” No accounts mention the treatment’s subjects gaining super powers.
15. “Cut a fresh leaf from a head of cabbage. Wash, beat the leaf to soften, and bind it to the affected area with gauze.” Svetlana Konnikova, Mama’s Home Remedies.
16. Ultraviolet radiation therapy was a popular cure during the 1930’s, when acne was also known as “chastity pimples.”
17. Arsenic tablets were popular in 1890s-era America, as well as sour milk and watermelon juice face washes.
18. A poster on a Wicca forum recommends placing a mixture of dirt, vinegar, and water on the affected area, and using the following incantation:
Cure my skin of zits and rash,
And make it smooth in a flash.
Blemish vanish, pot-marks too,
Magic make my skin anew.
19. Moroccan folk medicine calls for a mixture of powdered azurite, henna, tar, walnut root, and oil spread over the affected areas. (Mixed with iron, copper sulfate, and cow’s brains, it can also be used as a cure for anthrax.)
20. Chinese folk medicine calls for a (somewhat more pleasant) remedy, namely peach blossoms, which are “supposed to have some supernatural power in driving away the demon of ill health, giving a good color to the complexion, and rejoicing the countenance.” (Quoted in John Schiffeler’s “Chinese Folk Medicine.”)
21. A 1979 study of sex myths among students at the University of Connecticut found that 7% of them believed pimples were caused by masturbation. (However, 9% believed that boys “who masturbate excessively harm themselves by losing protein and blood through the semen which is ejaculated,” and another 7% believed that each “individual can have just so many sexual experiences in his life time, and when those have been used up, sexual activity is finished for that person.”
22. An 1878 article in The British Medical Journal recommends a “tincture of iodine” and a “sulphur-vapor douche or vapour-bath,” and that if “the sebaceous glands and follicles become overloaded, they should be relieved by pressure between the finger and thumbnail, and by frequent washings with warm water and oatmeal; after which a good rubbing with a flesh-brush will remove the contents of a number of the pimples,” followed by “a cooling zinc or calamine lotion, to be painted upon the face with a camel-hair brush two or three times a day.” To remove “troublesome redness,” the author says that he “generally [applies] the acid nitrate of mercury with care by means of a spun-glass brush,” and “divide[s] each engorged vesicle with the point of the lancet; and, should the hæmorrhage be much, I apply a small ring of silver or steel…I then insert a minute grain of nitrate of silver, which at once stops the bleeding…leaving only a small black discoloured spot, which may be easily removed by the application of a solution of iodide of potassium.” The author notes, however, that the “above treatment may appear somewhat heroic for so common an eruption.”