Conventional wisdom states that oily skin is the sole villain. It’s easy to make assumptions; your raging hormones first give you acne during puberty and that’s when your face becomes like a BP oil spill too.
High sebum production certainly plays a big role in blocked pores, p.acnes bacteria overgrowth and inflammatory acne. Any strategy that lowers sebum production whether it’s getting more vitamin A, increasing vitamin D or exercising more is an excellent one for acne patients.
But there’s one overlooked player which is just as important: keratin, a protein that blocks pores by binding dead skin cells together.
A dodgy diet is the biggest cause of persistent acne by far (about ten times as important as poor hygiene), and deregulating your keratin production is one reason why.
What is keratin?
Keratin is a fibrous family of proteins, and the main protein in the outer layer of your skin called the epidermis. Almost all of this epidermis consists of cells called keratinocytes. Keratin has many other roles in the body; for example, it strengthens organs like the tongue.
Your nails and hair consist almost entirely of keratin. Human nails consist of 77% keratin, 18% water, and 5% oils. Nails contain 100 layers of super compressed, densely packed keratin. Human toenails contain 150 layers. Hair consists of 80-90% keratin, 1% pigments and oils, and 9-19% water, but hair can be up to 95% keratin depending on the hair’s dryness. Keratin is found elsewhere in the animal kingdom; dog claws and horse hooves are nearly entirely keratin.
As you can see, keratin is a highly effective binding and adhesive protein; it solidly glues cellular structures together. Alongside chitin, keratin is the strongest tissue found in nature. Keep that strength and stickiness in mind for later.
Keratin is a protein that we live with in peace for much of the time. Clearly it’s critical for health as your organs and skin would fall apart like Lego if you stopped producing it.
But there’s one nasty condition known as hyperkeratosis, where your body fails to regulate keratin production and it goes into overdrive. The immediate symptom of hyperkeratosis is an abnormal thickening of the outer layer of skin.
Hyperkeratosis can also lead to eczema, and palmar and plantar keratosis. That’s a congenital, often hereditary, thickening of the horny layer of skin on the palms and soles, sometimes with painful lesions resulting from the formation of fissures.
In rural villages of Bangladesh, contaminated water has led to an epidemic of arsenic keratoses, unsightly dark protein growths which progress to cancer in many cases. Keratin overgrowth can cause a massive variety of skin conditions all over your body.
For those reasons, your body keeps an extremely tight control on your keratin production, since a build-up can lead to so many problems.
How keratin causes acne
You might have guessed that one of the biggest such problems is acne. Human skin cells are constantly dying and regenerating. The dead ones float away into household dust, but when they die they first separate and fall into your hair follicle.
In a clear-skinned human, the gradual growth of the hair pushes dead skin cells out of the follicle and onto the skin’s surface. From there they are simply washed away by sweat or water…
…but during hyperkeratosis this grinds to a halt. Keratin has a bonding and adhesive effect on human skin cells. Its potent gluing powers are exactly why keratin forms 79% of human nail tissue. Instead of dead skin cells leaving your pores, keratin prevents the initial separation and glues them together into large clumps.
These clumps remain in your hair follicle. It is here that keratin kicks off the entire pore-blocking process.
Next, the acne patient’s typically very oily skin comes into play. The thick clumps of dead skin cells created by keratin trap sebum in your pores and hair follicles. The result here is dead simple – keratin glues more dead skin cells into your skin pores, more sebum gets trapped, and skin cells build up. You now have a comedone AKA a blocked pore.
From there the process behind acne kicks on in the way we’ve discussed elsewhere on this website. P.acnes bacteria has a low oxygen environment to multiply in, this overgrowth stimulates an immune system response, and that response inflames and swells the clogged pore. Acne is born. It can be a pimple, a whitehead, a pustule, or any type because keratin simply acts through blocking skin pores.
Basically, excess keratin and hyperkeratosis are equally important as high sebum production for causing blocked pores.
In fact, scientists believe that dead skin cell build-up forms the very first acne lesions, called microcomedones. They only progress to the fully fledged open comedone (blackhead) or closed comedone (whitehead) later, when sebum appears.
It’s easy to see your face looking an in-use frying pan and assume that oil is to blame for acne. But you should NEVER ignore keratin. It could be the missing link for you if lowering your sebum production hasn’t yielded results.
Your job is to keep your keratin regulated, not to crush it. You simply need to avoid massive overproduction. Some other signs of hyperkeratosis include…
- A thick and tough outer layer of skin.
- Dark coloured growths of protein.
- Corns, calluses, warts and eczema.
- Seborrheic keratoses. Small, noncancerous skin growths. Can be tan, brown or black.
- Actinic keratoses. Flat, rough, red, sandpaper-like spots or patches of skin. Can be as tiny as a few millimetres.
Look at your hands and arms rights now. If you’ve got the signs and symptoms then reducing keratin is critical.
However, all acne patients can benefit hugely. Hyperkeratosis is common; consider hyperkeratosis pilaris, a disease characterised by hard protein masses and bumps with a yellowish tinge on the surface of the skin. This disease affects 40% of adults and a massive 60-70% of adolescents.
Unlike my other recommended strategies like increasing magnesium, vitamin D, etc., reducing keratin is widely recognised by mainstream dermatologists. Salicylic acid is a key ingredient in many facial cleansers, targeted pimple soothers, and face washes. Salicylic acid has keratolytic properties; it works by breaking apart the keratin bond between dead skin cells. Apple cider vinegar is another topical treatment with keratolytic properties. Accutane succeeds (with side effects) partly because it’s a hyper concentrated form of vitamin A, which combats hyperkeratinisation.
The acne patient’s guide to controlling keratin
So how exactly do you control keratin production? This is where Supernatural Acne Treatment and mainstream dermatology disagree. It’s totally unnecessary to blast your face with topical treatments or risk depression, inflammatory bowel disease, and hair loss with Accutane.
In a healthy human, keratin is tightly regulated. Hyperkeratosis is only an epidemic because of the lunatic modern diet which is totally lacking nutrients like zinc, and because of common environmental toxins like arsenic. Every human alive has the power to constrain keratin already, you just need to improve your diet and lifestyle:
Vitamin A – by far the most verified tactic. It’s an accepted medicinal fact that vitamin A downregulates production of keratin and the turnover of dead skin cells. Again, that’s why Accutane works so well for many. It’s a similar story for topical retinoids like retinoid acid, which act directly on your keratin producing cells to reduce their activity.
How vitamin A lowers keratin production is not fully understood. But vitamin A affects the proliferation of a wide variety of cells in humans. It achieves this by binding to retinoid receptors, some of which inhibit keratin production directly.
Vitamin A, or retinol, also works through acting as an antagonist to Activating Protein 1 (AP-1), which is a well-established regulator of keratinocyte production (study). It isn’t completely simple as vitamin A can actually increase many keratin types, like K4, K6, K13, K16, K17 and K19. But overall, vitamin A has a strong controlling effect.
Zinc – this mineral’s main benefit for acne patients with high keratin activity is simple: zinc is critical for the production of retinol binding protein. All vitamin A in your body must be delivered through the blood to your skin and organs by retinol binding protein.
Hence, taking zinc dramatically increases the delivery of vitamin A to the cells where it can reduce keratin, and thus zinc works largely indirectly. Zinc is critical for controlling the immune system as well, and this study found that 54.1% of acne patients are deficient in zinc.
As far as I’m concerned, the greatest zinc supplement yet invented by mankind is this New Chapter Zinc Food Complex. This supplement has everything an acne-clearing enthusiast could want; the zinc is food-based and well absorbed, there are no inflammatory additives, it’s still reasonably cheap, and there’s even a bonus digestive blend. A much cheaper but still pure and well-absorbed supplement is this NutraBio L-OptiZinc.
Vitamin E – this is where we get into some deep and complex science which the majority of acne patients haven’t heard about yet. A massive proportion of keratin overexpression is actually caused by a little known condition called sebum oxidation. We discussed sebum oxidation at length in this article, but basically it’s when squalene, a fatty acid that forms 12% of the lipids in sebum, is exposed to free radicals and oxidises. This creates a by-product called squalene peroxide, the most comedogenic substance on earth.
Squalene peroxide is far more potent at blocking skin pores than intact sebum; in one study scientists could induce acne simply by applying squalene peroxide to a rabbit’s ear. Important, the power of squalene peroxide that blocks your pores so well its stimulating effect on keratin. This study found that squalene peroxide causes both inflammation and hyperkeratinisation. In this interesting review on the role of hyperkeratosis in acne, scientists commented that “lipoperoxides… are capable of inducing alteration in keratinocyte proliferation and differentiation”.
It’s important for all acne patients to prevent squalene oxidation, and your main weapon in doing so is vitamin E. Your sebaceous glands gift all your new sebum with vitamin E, the main fat soluble antioxidant in your body, to protect it from oxidation. The problem is that vitamin E deficiency is rampant in acne patients. Acne prone skin samples generally contain less vitamin E.
Hence, you almost certainly need more, and by doing so you will keep your sebum intact and prevent it from inducing keratin overdose mayhem. Squalene oxidation is perhaps the most overlooked cause of overly ramped up keratin production.
How obtain to more vitamin E? You have two choices: 1) use the information in this article to arrange a diet full of the richest food sources. Or 2) arrange a diet with good amounts of vitamin E, and top it off with a natural supplement, with the best one being the natural food-derived Garden of Life Vitamin Code Vitamin E.
The rule to remember is: any strategy which keeps your sebum intact against external pollutants and free radicals is a good one for lowering keratin production.
One example is lycopene, the famously healthy antioxidant from tomatoes that gives them their red colour and may protect the heart. Lycopene is known to build itself into your skin cells; one healthy effect of this is protection from UV rays.
Similarly, lycopene consumption from the diet can have a positive effect on lipid peroxidation on the skin, AKA the oxidisation of sebum. The famous resveratrol from red wine and red grape also enters and strengthens your skin cells. Cocoa polyphenols in chocolate do the same.
Furthermore, any antioxidant can indirectly prevent squalene oxidation by inhibiting free radicals across the rest of your body. This prevents those free radicals from spreading to skin tissues, and leaves the most critical antioxidants, like vitamin E, with more room to protect sebum.
Glutathione – humans manufacture some antioxidants on their own, and glutathione is the main one. This study found that 20% of acne patients are deficient in glutathione, so increasing your levels by eating Brazil nuts or taking magnesium is smart. As far as I know, glutathione does not appear in sebum itself, but it is definitely built into the skin and scavenges the free radicals which later attack sebum.
Air pollution – the ozone found in city air is not a free radical itself, but generates tons when it reacts with your skin. Hence, air pollution is potent at causing squalene oxidation and higher keratin output. These free radicals are partly why people living in cities have grey and lifeless skin with premature winkles and no radiant glow.
Cigarette smoke – tobacco is a weak plant that is highly prone to oxidation. It’s estimated that with a single puff on a cigarette, you can ingest over a trillion free radicals.
These free radicals deplete vitamin E and other antioxidants in your body and prevent them from preventing squalene oxidation. Furthermore, simply inundating your face in all that smoke wafting around can oxidise your sebum directly.
For example, arsenic contamination is often found in drinking water sourced from deep wells, since arsenic is a metal in the earth’s crust. There’s been big charity projects in Bangladesh to build deep wells so that children don’t have to drink dirty monsoon water with parasites, but there’s been a side effect: arsenic poisoning…
…and the biggest side effect of that has been arsenical keratoses, the unsightly growths of protein on the skin which we discussed earlier. It’s so bad that doctors visiting Bangladeshi villages now look specifically for keratin overgrowths to identify cases of arsenic poisoning. Arsenic is a toxic heavy metal, so avoid it all you can. Find out how in this article.
As for my specific recommendations, taking zinc is an excellent starting point because zinc is so important for controlling chronic inflammation and for wound healing as well. I recommend that all acne patients fix zinc, regardless of keratin.
Dietary vitamin A is also critical. Most Westerners do consume enough vitamin A, but because our gut bacteria is so compromised, our ability to convert the plant form of vitamin A called beta carotene into the active retinol form is impaired.
An acne patient’s vitamin A strategy is thus quite complicated, and we discuss it in depth in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne.
Avoiding arsenic from rice, fruit juice and drinking water is also a must because it causes cancer and brain damage anyway and so is not a substance you want near your body. If arsenic has this power, then it’s possible that many other chemicals and heavy metals whether it’s BPA or phthalates have the same power.
There’s little research into the effect of pesticides, for example, on keratin specifically, so it’s prudent to lead a clean lifestyle with organic foods and natural cosmetics where you can. In fact, environmental toxins and contaminants are a huge cause of acne full-stop, a cause that few people know of. That’s another topic we discuss in depth in my eBook.
Lowering keratin production has big potential for almost all acne patients, since alongside sebum production, it’s the key player in clogging your skin pores and hair follicles. If you’ve just been focussing on sebum in the past then you now have a whole new avenue of opportunity.
As with any strategy for unblocking skin pores, it might take a few weeks for acne to fall, since it takes time for the dead skin cells to degrade and get pushed out.
Also remember that blocked pores aren’t the only factor behind acne; it’s chronic inflammation that starts the reactions which actually create acne. Keratin and blocked pores only set the stage. Anti-inflammatory strategies like avoiding sugar and eating green vegetables can yield very fast results too.
If you combine a reduction in keratin, sebum production, chronic inflammation, and also get extra antioxidants and less free radical exposure, your acne will be doomed.
Thanks for reading!