Acne Cured by Self-Experimentation

In November, at Quantified Self Europe, Martha Rotter, who lives in Ireland, gave a talk about how she cured her acne by self-experimentation. She summarizes her talk like this (slides here):

When I moved to Ire­land in 2007, I began to have skin prob­lems. It began gradu­ally and I attrib­uted it to the move, to stress, to late nights drink­ing with developers and cli­ents, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was mul­ti­plied by the anxi­ety of being embar­rassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ire­land involved me being on stage in front of large audi­ences con­stantly, often sev­eral times a week. A year later my skin was per­petu­ally inflamed, red, full of sores and very pain­ful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.

Frus­trated, I went to see my homet­own der­ma­to­lo­gist while I was home for hol­i­days. He told me that a) this was com­pletely nor­mal and b) there was noth­ing I could do but go on anti­bi­ot­ics for a year (in addi­tion to spend­ing a for­tune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.

I was not inter­ested in being on an anti­bi­otic for a year, nor was I inter­ested in Accu­tane (my best friend has had it mul­tiple times and it hasn’t had long term res­ults, plus it can be risky). What I was inter­ested in was fig­ur­ing out why this was hap­pen­ing and chan­ging my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insist­ence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.

I began sys­tem­at­ic­ally cut­ting things out of my diet to see how I reacted. First chicken and soy, based on a recom­mend­a­tion from a food aller­gist. Over the course of a year I cut out sugar, glu­ten, carbs, starches, caf­feine, meat, fish until finally the magical month of Decem­ber 2010 when I cut out dairy. My skin was my own again by New Year’s day this year.

It took a year to fig­ure it out. It was com­pletely worth it. There’s noth­ing wrong with Irish dairy, it just doesn’t work for me. I drink Amer­icanos instead of lattes now, I don’t eat cer­eal; none of that is a huge deal. For what it’s worth, I can drink goat’s milk.

A great example of the power of self-experimentation compared to trusting doctors.

At the end of her post she makes a very important point:

Quan­ti­fied Self isn’t for every­one, but every­one should feel they have the power to change things in their body and their life for the better.

I agree. By learning about examples of people who have done just that — such as Martha — we will come closer to having that power. Right now, as far as I can tell, most people feel helpless. They do what doctors or other experts tell them to do, even if it doesn’t work very well.

Long ago, hardly anyone could read. This left them in the grip of those who could. But eventually came mass literacy, when the benefits of reading finally exceeded the costs (e.g., because more books were available at lower prices). Reading is primitive science: if you read about things that happened, it is information gathering. It resembles doing a survey. Nowadays, almost everyone (in rich countries) reads, but almost no one does experimental science. This leaves them in the grip of those who can do experimental science (e.g., drug companies). I think my work and Martha’s work suggest we are close to another turning point, where, for nonscientists, the benefits of doing experiments exceed the costs.

Thanks to Gary Wolf.

Seth Roberts is a professor of psychology at Tsinghua University and an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley. This piece is reposted from his blog. He is looking for other stories like this one, where people use science or data collection to improve their own health. His email is twoutopias (at) gmail.com.

9 replies »

  1. You are so right. The best knowledge is really self knowledge. Noone knows you better but yourself. Even the greatest mind on earth “Einstein” was self taught. Nowadays most doctors only care about your insurance card. I wouldn’t put all my trust on my doctor.

  2. Always remove makeup before going to bed. If you sleep with your makeup on, you increase the likelihood you will get acne and blackheads. Makeup can trap dirt and oil on your face. Clean and tone your face every night. Don’t forget to add moisturizer when you are finished cleaning.

  3. Over-the-counter medications can really help acne, but it’s up to you to experiment with them until you get the right one. Start with only a small amount on your skin and test your reaction to it. Increase and decrease the amount and frequency of use until you find you have the right amount of acne control with a minimum of dry skin.

  4. You instinctively did what every one that has acne problems should do. Acne is a condition that can be controlled as long as we are willing to work for it: a proper diet, a cleaned face and lots of water.

  5. I have also suffered from mild acne all the way to somewhat a severe form.
    Even though I had the opportunity to be helped to deal with it naturally, I believe that an intake of Vitamin A and Zinc could have helped me better. Could I ask, what sort of foods have more Vitamin A and also zinc?

    Acne is mostly caused by stress as well….


  6. rbaer, you were on fire for a paragraph. Then you Romneyed.

    Doctors are in the advice business. Some of it is good and some is bad. Ignore it if you wish. You bought it. No warrantee or guarantee. And there are no doctor’s orders unless that is the excuse one hides behind at their convenience.

  7. Yeah, that evidence based medicine thing and considerations like “return to the mean”, “spontaneous remission”, “placebo effect” is just what gives a fig leave to these latte-sipping, Volvo driving elite scientists. Just google and do experiments, never mind minor problems like observer bias and an n of 1.

    OTOH: as long as the experiments result in eating a healthier (but still balanced) diet, I am among the first to give it my blessing.