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Light At The End Of The Tunnel
New Acne Therapies Harness the Power of Light

February 16th, 2004

By Louis Wittig :eCureMe Staff Writer
February 11th, 2004 : Physician Approved

Acne is a reality for up to 80% of Americans between the ages 11 and 30. And while unattractive blemishes are hardly a serious health concern, bad acne can have dire consequences for one’s self-image. A recent poll of acne sufferers in England revealed exactly how excruciating chronic pimples can be. 73% of those polled said that if they had to choose between having clear skin and having almost $2 million, they’d take the clear skin.

Help is on the way, and from an unexpected quarter; lasers and light-based therapies are driving a new wave of treatment for bad skin.

Acne’s Origins

Just underneath, the skin is dotted with tiny canals, called follicles, that each hold a fine hair. The opening in the skin through which the hair grows is called a pore. Below the pore, on each side of the follicle, are sebaceous glands. They produce an oily substance, known as sebum, which coats the hair and empties out onto the skin through the pore.

Acne forms when the sebum, instead of emptying onto the surface of the skin, plugs up the follicle. Bacteria then begin to grow in the oily mixture. The bacteria growth attracts white blood cells, which cause the plugged up follicle to become red and swollen. If the plugged up follicle (known to dermatologists as a comedo) swells, but stays beneath the skin, it produces a white bump on the skin called a whitehead. If the swollen follicle bursts, spilling oil, dead skin cells and bacteria onto the skin, the lesion is a blackhead.

Exactly why follicles become plugged with sebum isn’t completely known. Certain drugs - such as lithium - are known to cause it, and genetics plays a role as well. However, most physicians believe that hormones are the key culprits. When more male sex hormones (known as androgens) are in a body’s system, the sebaceous glands become enlarged and produce more sebum. This is why most cases of acne occur during adolescence’s hormonal free for all, and why, among women, it can often come along with pregnancy and hormone regulating birth control pill cycles.

Up Until Now!

…treatment for acne has come primarily in two forms: topical creams and oral medications. Whether they’re over-the-counter or prescription, topical creams (which can be applied in the form of lotions, soaps or pads) use chemicals to break down the outer lining of pimples and kill bacteria. Many oral treatments are also aimed at killing the bacteria. Others attempt to reduce the size of the sebaceous glands.

Further hope for acne sufferers is riding on a beam of light. ClearLight, a new treatment system, is slowly finding it’s way into doctors’ offices across the country. It looks like a portable tanning bed. Patients lie down, don protective eyewear and bathe in high intensity light for 15 minutes at a stretch.

The intense light penetrates the skin and kills the acne causing bacteria that are gathering beneath. So far, manufacturer’s tests have shown that light can do the job just as well as creams and pills. Patients who received 16 ClearLight sessions over the course of a month saw the number of acne lesions on their face, chest and back drop by some 60% to 70%. Dermatologists have noted that ClearLight therapy avoids a roadblock that can be associated with other antibiotic treatments. Whereas acne-causing bacteria can develop a resistance to drugs, it doesn’t seem able to become more resistant to light.

ClearLight isn’t the only light-based, acne-fighting tool on the market. In November, the Food and Drug Administration approved SmoothBeam laser treatment - originally designed to combat wrinkles - for use against acne scarring.

Even after acne is treated, it can leave disfiguring scars across its victims that are often as damaging and more permanent than the original pimples. Just like ClearLight, Smoothbeam works by penetrating the skin. Smoothbeam patients recline, and put on the same eye protection as ClearLight patient. Technicians then apply the laser to scarred area. A cooling spray protects the surface of the skin while the beam penetrates deeper. As the laser moves across the problem areas, it simulates injury to the skin, which in turn causes the skin to produce new collagen. The extra collagen - a gluey protein substance that holds tissue together - is what mitigates the acne scars. Doctors have also noticed that the treatment tends to inhibit the formation of new acne as well.

Neither treatment has any substantial side effects, and because both are relatively quick and non-invasive, acne sufferers can easily work the therapy into their daily routine. And while both are still relatively new and small-scale, the future of millions of acne sufferers is getting brighter.

Contact Louis Wittig at

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