The History of Acne Treatment

The File

We'd love it if there were a be-all, end-all acne treatment, but, truly, it all depends on the type of acne you have. For example, hormonal acne responds mostly to internalВ remedies (change in diet, probiotics, prescription pills), whereas bacterial acne caused by dirt, sweat, and oil is treated topically. But while today's acne treatments are streamlined, easy to use, and sometimes even enjoyable (especially when they work quickly), that certainly hasn't always been the case.

Diving into the many methods humans have employed to combat acne, we were shocked to learn of their remedies of choice, some of which are true head-scratchers. Below, we've compiled a timeline ofВ the evolution of acne treatments that venture from strange to tame. Take a look below!

1776 B.C.: Cooling Remedies and Peach Blossoms

Stevens and Sons

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM), acne is related to body temperatureВ in that heat accumulates from poorly digested rich foods, which then translates to heat in the digestive tract, later traveling to the bloodstream. It's believed that when the blood is heated, your internal organs need to be treated (the theory is that the liver detoxifies the blood, but when heat is manifested here, it translates to emotional irritability in the form of a flushed red face and red papules). Thus, proponents of TCM believed that body-cooling foods and herbs like echinacea, burdock, and dark leafy vegetables would help fend off breakouts.

TCM also employed a skin remedy of peach blossomsВ to nourish and brighten the skin. TheyВ were believed to have supernatural powersВ that fought off the "demon of ill health," which, in this case, was blemished skin.

1332 B.C.: Patchouli and Sour Milk

Media Bakery

Even pharaohs weren't exempt from skin flaws: It's been documented that King Tut displayed acne scars and was even buried with remedies like patchouli. The leaf's natural medicinal properties were employed by ancient Egyptians for more than just acne, but its antiseptic properties, as well as its ability to strengthen skin tissue while balancing oil production,В made it the perfect treatment for breakouts.

Ancient Egyptians also believed sour milkВ to be an acne remedy. If this sounds gross to you, know that lactic acid is derived from sour milk, as fermented lactose from raw milk turns into lactic acid. This ingredient is an amazing exfoliant that helps reduce breakouts and signs of aging.

(Not into the idea of putting expired milk on your face? Try Sunday Riley Good Genes, $105, a creamy lactic acid treatment that brightens and plumps the skin).

753 B.C.: Sulfur Baths

The Roman Baths

Ancient RomansВ were the first group to utilize baths as a form of acne treatment, believing that pores could be cleared by soaking in a hot mixture of water and sulfur. They were on to something, though: NYC dermatologist Dr. Jessica Weiser tells us that sulfur is an excellentВ acne treatment because it "decreases bacterial count on the skin and reduces inflammation."

379 A.D.: Falling Stars


Even today we still have to sift through beauty remedies and decide which ones are more outlandish than curative, but this remedy from ancient Roman physician Theodosius the First is perhaps the most laughable we've ever heard: To rid the skin of acne, he suggested individuals wipe their face with a cloth while looking at a falling star. Then, like the star, the blemishes would fall from the body. If only…

794 A.D.: Nightingale Feces

Birds of the World

During the Heian period (794 to 1185 A.D.), Koreans introduced the Japanese to the feces of nightingales (an important bird in Asian culture) as aВ way to heal acne. Unlike most animals, birds have one opening (the cloaca) from which all of their waste is deposited-as such, their feces are made up of nitrogen-rich urea (also a component of urine) and guanine, an amino acid, which are believed to help contribute to brighter, clearer skin. Believe it or not, bird poop facialsВ are still popular today (though we can't guarantee it'll be pleasant).

1600: Black Velvet Patches

Fine Art America

Worn mostly by women who suffered scarring due to the smallpox epidemic in Europe, women of the 1600s cut tinyВ pieces of black velvet or silkВ into shapes like stars and moons to cover their blemishes, including pimples. However, some women decided to wear the patches as a fashion statement, placing them on the corners of the eyes and mouth or wherever they saw fit. They were even seen as a status symbol in that those with more beautiful, appealing patches had greater social stature.

1902: X-Rays

Geary History

In 1902, American researcher W.A. Pusay first published on the use of X-rays as a successful remedy for the treatment of acne. He wrote that localized X-ray emissions would help manage overactive sebaceous glands, bacteria, and inflammation. This treatment method became more widespread in the 1940s; however, in the '60s, after the bombing of Hiroshima, individuals grew much warier of utilizing radiation as a means of treatment. Today, a safer light-emission remedy is used to combat blemishes: LED light.

1930: Laxatives

Nature's Remedy

Because breakouts begin around the time of puberty (thanks, hormones), some believed acne to have a correlation with virginity: The theory was that virgins were unable to eliminate pimple-causing toxins by way of intercourse, so they needed another means by which to release the built-up toxins in their system (thus, pimples were known as "chastity pustules").В It was because of this that laxatives were used to increase waste removal as a way to clear the skin.

1950: Antibiotics


Penicillin was the first available antibioticВ and thus used to treat acne after the discovery that bacteria areВ present in acne lesions. However, researchers found that penicillinВ circulated in the bloodstream rather than making its way into the skin and was eventually deemed ineffective at treating breakouts. Shortly after, tetracycline (another antibiotic) was found to have far better efficacy and was widely prescribed to acne patients.

1970: Vitamin A Acid


Vitamin A acidВ (commonly known as Retin-A, a more potent form of retinol) was discovered as an ingredient that loosens the dead skin within a follicleВ to help clear clogged pores. It increases cell turnover, thus making it a wrinkle remedy as well.

1980: Accutane


Belonging to the sameВ retinoid class as Retin-A, AccutaneВ was created as a powerful oral medication to heal chronic acne. While countless trialsВ have found the pill to be a miracle solution for painful, cysticВ breakouts, it's not without its major side effectsВ and should be thoughtfully discussed with your physician.

1990: Lasers


Unlike X-rays, lasers aren't as high on the electromagneticВ spectrum and are used to target porphyrin-skin pigment produced from bacteria-to treat acne. In the '90s, doctors used lasers to destroy the acne bacteria, however, researchers say itsВ efficacy is short-lived.


As mentioned previously, different types of acne respond to different treatments, so today's doctors (both Eastern and Western) will suggest varying treatments depending on your personal skin needs. What's interesting, though, is that many treatments from decades (or even centuries) ago are still effective today, such as sulfur, lactic acid, LED light therapy, benzoyl peroxide (used by dermatologists in the 1920s) retinoids, and Accutane.

We may have a come a long way since wishing our acne away on a falling star, and surely we have more strides to make, but as a whole, our ancestors have certainly paved the way to sound methods for clearer skin.

Up next: Learn howВ Olivia Culpo cleared her acne.