Skip to main content

Should You Self-Treat Your Acne or Go See a Dermatologist?

Here's what you should know.

According to a press release that just arrived in my inbox, only 10 percent of Canadians seek medical help for acne and other skin issues.

And you know what? I totally understand why. As I discovered during The Great Oil Cleansing Method Disaster of 2010, there's a lot to be skeptical of when it comes to acne practitioners and their standard advice for this skin issue. A quick re-cap for those of you just joining us: Since I'm always game to play beauty guinea pig (or at least I used to be), I decided to give OCM a go last year based on the hundreds of online testimonials about how it softens skin, erases pores and wrinkles and generally makes complexions look as close to flawless as it gets. OCM involves cleansing your face with a blend of castor oil and either olive, jojoba or some other type of oil.

Never has the term "epic fail" been so appropriate. (Which is why there is ALSO a lot to be skeptical of when it comes to folk treatments!) Even though I hadn't any serious skin issues to start with, the infection that it caused—after just three or four tries—was so severe that I self-treated AND sought medical advice... AND frantically Googled in hopes of finding someone, anyone, who knew how to fix whatever it did to my skin.

Thankfully, things are pretty much back to normal now (more on that in a sec) but what remains are some pretty strong opinions on the whole subject of conventional versus mainstream acne treatments. Let me share.


Just because a study doesn't exist doesn't mean it doesn't work.

Doctors love studies. I can't tell you the number of times I've interviewed a dermatologist who has dissed the ingredient du jour just because there hasn't been a published peer-reviewed paper in the Annals of Dermatology. Okay, mostly they're right—there ARE a lot of sketchy things in the beauty industry. Hope in a jar and all that. But at the same time, it costs money—a LOT of money—to run a study, and if there's no cash to be made off the subject then guess what? The study ain't happening. This is why we still don't know that much about how (non-patentable) natural ingredients affect the skin. To my knowledge, there is no study on cod liver oil and acne, but I'm constantly receiving testimonials about how much it has helped people's skin. If you haven't seen it yet, check out this post for more deets.

Doctors love to prescribe you The Pill.

This is just my personal opinion here, but I feel like oral contraceptives are WAY over-prescribed. It seems like the solution for everything. Bad skin? Menstrual cramps? Irregular periods? Here—try The Pill. There was a great article in Macleans a couple of years ago about the backlash and how many women are seeking alternatives. For skin, I know it can really help with acne, but it certainly isn't a long-term solution—and because it also comes with some rather serious side effects, going on it should be a last (not first) resort.

Many of them also love Accutane.

This one drives me insane. If I may share my experience? During the worst of my OCM disaster, I was seeing an MD (not a derm, mind you) at one of Toronto's top acne clinics. After a couple of weeks on antibiotics, when I told him I wasn't seeing any improvement yet, he told me that "if they were going to work, they would have by now"—and that my only other option would be a six-month course of Accutane.

I was speechless. Who knew they threw in the towel after just two weeks and just handed the stuff out like candy? Meanwhile, the risks and side effects are so serious that class action lawsuits in the U.S. have been successful. Like The Pill, I think it's a last-resort treatment, and thankfully, the next doctor I went to (a real derm this time) agreed. He told me I hadn't been on the antiobiotics long enough—six weeks is the normal timeframe to see results—and under his care, the OCM thing is just a bad memory now. I can't believe the other doctor would've prescribed it to me for a self-induced short-term skin infection... and I'd STILL be taking it if I hadn't ran out of that clinic!

Other oral medications have unpleasant side effects too.

Besides the two big scary ones I mentioned above, there are antibiotics and a diuretic drug called Spironolactone, which is prescribed off-label for acne because of its anti-androgen effects. Their side effects can be manageable in the short-term, but I'm not so sure that being on them for many months is a good idea. Antibiotics destroy your good bacteria along with the bad... and the diuretic properties of the Spiro deplete essential minerals and nutrients from the body.

Topical solutions can irritate and dry out your skin.

The Skincare Edit Recommends

I can still remember yet another doctor's advice to me, years ago, when I'd asked what I might do to tackle the handful of breakouts I'd get like clockwork to coincide with my menstrual cycle. She advised applying a thin layer of benzoyl peroxide over my entire face, which I argued made my skin very dry and flaky. "Well, you'll just have to be flaky then!" was her response.

Um, what? I don't know about you, but I'd rather just have the two or three pimples. The same thing goes for prescription treatments like Retin-A. I've even tried a flake-inducing, sulphur-based medication called Sulfacet-R, which was completely useless according to the derm that ended up saving my skin. When your infection is very deep in the pores (thanks OCM!), topical solutions simply can't reach it.

Lots of these treatments are expensive—and may not produce permanent results anyway.

If you have a good drug plan, then any prescription treatments shouldn't put too much of a ding in your pocketbook. (Us self-employed types aren't so lucky.) But has anybody noticed how many of the new breed of skin doctors tend to push expensive laser treatments along with products from their own skincare lines? It's possibly a bit shady if you ask me. Laser treatments especially. While I know first-hand that they can work miracles for other skin issues (keep reading and I'll tell you how), for active acne I'm just not convinced that the results will last. At least one top dermatologist who also teaches at a Canadian university has confirmed this for me.

None of these things get at the underlying cause of acne.

And this brings me to my main gripe about medical solutions. The industry's bag of tricks doesn't include anything that actually cures the problem; it's all about "managing the disease." And I think that's an unfortunate way of looking at it because my view on acne is that there's ALWAYS an underlying reason for it.


Natural options can only do so much.

As most of you know, I'm a raving lunatic when it comes to cod liver oil. I can't recommend it enough—and as long as you are taking the right brand (Green Pasture) and in the right amount (about 1-2 tsp is what the Weston A. Price foundation suggests) then I believe you WILL see an improvement in any skin issues.

But that said, even upping my dosage wasn't enough to combat the vile powers of the OCM-induced skin infection. Nor were the dozen other home remedies I tried via places like (Yes, I'm a closet beauty hippie.) That's when it really is time to see a professional. Just make sure that you see an actual dermatologist, not just an MD who tells you he/she specializes in acne. I still regret visiting that acne clinic and receiving such poor advice.

You're experiencing psychological suffering from your acne.

This one I totes understand. Is anything worse than feeling like you have to hide because of your skin? It just plain sucks. The problem with pursuing natural options is that it can take longer to see results. Cod liver oil takes at least a month or two to start producing a gradual improvement, and doing things like pinpointing suspected food allergies via an elimination diet also takes time. But some people are desperate for a fast fix NOW. I get it. Even in my sitch I wasn't prepared to wait it out, so there was no question that I'd take antibiotics along with my cod liver oil. So I think short-term meds definitely have their time and place, in order to get you to a level where you can explore other (safer) options.

You're at risk of scarring.

The worst present that acne leaves behind with some people are those deep ice-pick scars. Even though resurfacing lasers are getting better and better at dealing with them, it's best to not add that problem to your life in the first place... so I fully support medical intervention to prevent the problem from getting any worse. In my case, I had a different problem: post-inflammatory pigmentation, which is just a skin colour change instead of a real scar. The laser solutions for this are QUITE fast and amazing. I did a couple of rounds of the Vbeam vascular laser with my derm and it really made a difference.

Tell me:

Are you a self-treater when it comes to acne and/or other skin issues?

Or do you prefer to head straight to the dermatologist's office?

What acne treatment has worked best for YOU? (PS: If you haven't tried cod liver oil, this is the time in the post when I push that on you. Just because I want to help.)

Read Next

Are Facials Good For Your Skin?

Not really—and here's why.

Is Low Thyroid Causing Your "Hormonal" Acne?

Probably—and here's what you can do about it

How the "Do Nothing" Regimen Can Help Your Acne

The best pimple protocol might be—surprise!—to do nothing at all.

Why You Should Never Take Cod Liver Oil For Acne

There are safer, more effective ways to heal your skin from the inside out.

Should You Be Exfoliating Your Skin Daily?

Here's why I'm suddenly scrubbing again.

Why You Might Want to Use Retin-A

So many benefits in one little tube.

Why You Should Exfoliate Before You Use a Face Mask

Peel, mask, moisturize—maybe you should make this your new skincare mantra.

How Cod Liver Oil Can Clear Up Acne and Create Flawless Skin

The single best product ever for your skin is not, in fact, an actual skincare product... it's something you ingest.