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Treat your Acne with Science, at Home

by Brian Dunning, Sep 29 2011

My laptop's power adapter hovers right around the temperature needed to kill acne bacteria

Amazing new all-natural acne treatment! Just get out your credit card, and…

Oh, wait, no. You don’t need a credit card for this. In fact, you can be treating your pimples (assuming you have some) in the next five minutes, and you don’t have to buy anything. The application of a little home science is all you need.

Acne is caused, mainly, by the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes. Commercially available acne treatments focus on killing this bacterium with things like benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics, and antibacterial treatments. But there are other things it’s also sensitive to, such as ultraviolet light. If you want to give yourself a facial sunburn twice a day, you can probably reasonably expect to avoid acne. But there is one very common, and less destructive, form of energy that also kills P. acnes.


And not very much of it, either. About 120°F/50°C will do it. A study by the makers of a commercially available device found that applying something hot for about 3 minutes a couple of times a day will make most pimples vanish within a day. But their device is expensive and, for some goofy reason, only works 80 times and then must be thrown away. Who needs to buy heat? It’s everywhere. Even in your own home.

I went poking around with an infrared thermometer checking all sorts of objects in the house that get warm, including out-of-the-box ideas like a spoon run under hot tap water or a hot coffee mug, and eventually found the perfect solution. It so happens that the power brick for my laptop hovers right around the perfect temperature, and if I were to find myself in a pimply state, the brick is perfectly convenient to press onto the affected area for three minutes. Next morning, presto, zits gone.

The heat kills the bacteria, and your body’s immune system is no longer compelled to react with red inflammation and a mass of white blood cells. Avoid squeezing, which increases the inflammation. Just apply the heat, kill the little bastards, and let your body do its work. Note that this works best with new pimples that have not yet formed a head. It will not work with cystic acne or serious outbreaks.

There is a pretty big range between 120°F/50°C and a temperature that will burn you, and the hotter you can stand, the worse for the bacteria. 120°F/50°C is not at all painful, and if you find something hotter it will work too. A small alarm clock and a coffee mug were the other two common items I found that are always available and convenient to use.

Note that is a treatment, not a cure. P. acnes is endemic and will always be on your skin, and if you tend to get acne pimples, that trend will continue if all you do is treat them as they appear. This is a pretty effective way to do it, by most accounts; and costs nothing to try. Just please don’t be careless and burn yourself. Enjoy…

56 Responses to “Treat your Acne with Science, at Home”

  1. Jarvis Puttinghet says:

    This may kill the bacteria, but it won’t whisk your zits away. Zits / pimples are caused by an overproduction of sebum which clogs the sebum glands.
    If the bacteria then invade, it will get worse of course, and you get the typical red discolouration.

    • David H. says:

      True, it probably won’t cause a self-respecting zit to disappear. But it will dilate the blood vessels and, perhaps, increase the effectiveness of the white blood cells in their quest to kill the bacteria, through increased enzymatic activity. The build-up of sebum may be an initiating factor, but the white blood cells (i.e., the pus that they become) actually produce the zit or whitehead.

      Then again, the heat may allow for more efficient clearing of the sebum from the follicles and sebaceous glands, via physical effects on the sebum itself, dilation of the various structures involved, etc. Perhaps it’s a reasonable preventive measure rather than merely a treatment.

      I can hear the fringe element now, complaining about increased skin and brain cancer from holding various power supply units to the face.

      Facial steam devices have been around for many, many decades, for just such purposes.

    • Non Sequitur says:

      I think you should look up “Trolling” and Non-sequiturs. Your post DOES NOT FOLLOW. Now whether or not Brian Dunning has engaged in illicit, amoral, immoral or illegal activity, that does not change the nature of his message, nor relate to the content of his post. In fact, what you post here is a link to your blog. Other posts there include things like this: , where you declare, and I’ll paraphrase, If you aren’t seriously considering voting Green, then you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution. Now, I could get into the nature of how your site is personal opinion mongering and demagogic, though often insightful, and how you are about as far from impartial as can be, but I realise that’s off topic.
      When one of the writers on this blog makes a post about Brian Dunning, or his Legal troubles, that is the time to post about it.
      (By the way, while I may agree with you about the goodness of voting Green in some aspects, labelling everyone else as a problem is ad hominem, a false dichotomy, demonstratably false, an attempt at poisoning the well against any who don’t support your position, and basically just such a poor arguement that reading it in itself is offensive.) – Great, now I’m a troll too.

  2. beanfeast says:

    How about washing your face with hot water?

  3. tmac57 says:

    The hottest point on my laptop brick (Toshiba) was only 106F. The range was 95-106F and the hot spot was very limited. (I also used an infrared thermometer) Good thing that I don’t have any zits!

    • Marcel Kincaid says:

      Looking Ahead
      “The popularity of laptop computers will likely increase this diagnosis in the future,” the authors write.

      Um. not real savvy about the future of computer technology, those authors.

  4. Max says:

    I poked around with an infrared thermometer, and measured ice temperature to be 38 F. I should put out a press release that Fahrenheit was debunked.

    • tmac57 says:

      Try it while the ice is still in the freezer piled in a heap.I got between -1 to + 4F that way,while the general interior of the freezer was registering 15 to 17F and stored food was reading around 31F. When I tried to read the ice out of the fridge,it was giving me some really high readings. Interesting…

    • MadScientist says:

      That’s one of the pitfalls of an infrared thermometer; to measure accurately you need to know the effective emissivity of the material being measured and you need to know the background temperature. The energy you measure will be coming from the object of interest as well as the background (and even from the instrument itself).

    • Max says:

      I pointed the thermometer at the ice build-up in the freezer compartment of a mini fridge.
      The thermometer’s battery was dying, but its room temperature readings agreed with several other thermometers.

      • MadScientist says:

        Readings of the room temperature will usually be accurate because the background is the same as the temperature you want to measure. If you point the thermometer at the radiator you may read a value quite a few degrees lower than what the radiator’s temperature actually is. If you want to read the freezer temperature accurately, just open up the freezer a crack and point the thermometer somewhere inside and at some angle to the walls.

  5. Fredeliot says:

    Generally 120 F is the point of discomfort for most of the body and 140 F for the mouth. I normally carry a small IR thermometer. It’s real handy in restaurants to check soup, pizza and coffee (the 3 food groups). I’ve wondered about heat as a treatment for things like toenail fungus.

  6. John Powell says:

    Out of the freezer you are probably measuring the temperature of the water vapor sublimating off the ice, rather than the ice itself.

    • MadScientist says:

      No, it’s just a reflection of the heat energy from the room which makes the apparent temperature higher. Holding the thermometer at different angles will give you different measurements and some idea of the reflectivity of the ice at various angles.

  7. Nick Johnson says:

    One of those ‘magic heat packs’ ought to work pretty well for this. It has all the required criteria: Hot but not too much, stays warm for a while, and conveniently available.

  8. Sheila says:

    Acne is caused mainly by what you are eating. Wheat being the biggest culprit.

    • Max says:

      The American Academy of Dermatologists says that’s a myth.

      Myth #2: Acne is caused by diet. Extensive scientific studies have not found a connection between diet and acne. In other words, food does not cause acne. Not chocolate. Not french fries. Not pizza. Nonetheless, some people insist that certain foods affect their acne. In that case, avoid those foods. Besides, eating a balanced diet always makes sense. However, according to the scientific evidence, if acne is being treated properly, there’s no need to worry about food affecting the acne.

      • Mario says:

        You couldn’t be more right Max, the sebaceous glands activity and the bacteria colonizing them are not influenced by diet.

      • Sheila says:

        Sure whatever you think, lol.

      • Are you a denialist? says:

        You aren’t a skeptic, that’s for sure. If someone presents you with evidence which proves their case and refutes yours, you must either prove your case or discredit yours. In case you hadn’t noticed, declaring victory by refusing to accept reason is also a logical fallacy. And if you aren’t interested in proof, or testing and improving your beliefs, why browse a skeptical website?

      • Sheila says:

        No one has refuted mine with any scientific evidence.

      • Crazy People says:

        They just posted one: . Now, the American Academy of Dermatologists is a pretty reputable source. If you didn’t read that, then of course you could get away with feeling like no-one has proven you wrong. That’s like the logic which ID proponents use to support the irreducible complexity of a flaggellum, which has been disproven.
        Go on, send a link to an appropriate study or an article written by a reputable organisation proving your old wives tales, or else, know that your are proven wrong, and also in my mind, proven to be the lowest form of self righteous scum.

    • Zooey says:

      Just in case you needed proofs: I am allergic to wheat. I don’t eat any at all, and haven’t for a year or two now. Still have pretty severe acne. Clearly, wheat is not the culprit. Unless you meant “starch in general” (e.g., rice flour), but as what you said was “wheat”, I shall take you at your word.

      • Sheila says:

        No I meant the dioxin in the wheat. Are you eating other food with dioxin in it?
        Dermatologists have less than 6 months training in nutrition, so how would they know? Plus if it were the food, would dermatologists tell you that or would they rather have a busy practise?

      • MadScientist says:

        Wheat has dioxins? Since when? Where do you get your wheat – farms built over abandoned slag pits?

      • Sheila says:

        Shut the hell up because you obviously have no clue how your wheat is harvested.

      • MadScientist says:

        Hey Sheila, we’re still waiting for evidence of your previous claims:

        1. putting your own blood plasma into you accelerates healing

        2. evil deadly chemicals are going into hydraulic fracturing fluids and poisoning everyone

        3. there are dioxins in wheat

        It can’t be hard – for example, just find those journal articles that show an assay of wheat with dioxins in them.

      • Sheila says:

        Sure I’ll address your concerns:
        1. Since I posted about the great effects of prolotherapy you have been unable to prove that the person I know would have been better off being deaf and with migraines. You lost.
        2. Can you find a river close to you that you can drink out of, without using your city’s water filtering system? Do you even have any sources of water in your country that are not polluted? Run off from farming and from the oil patch are the biggest culprits. That is common knowledge (even my 99 year old grandmother knows that, lol). And you will be the biggest loser if you don’t take your head from your ass and realize this.
        3. Why would I look at your government approved sites like USFDA for example? That site is full of propaganda. At least in my country I bitched enough that my province issued a statement on the pamplet that was handed out for HPV – 90% of woman can fight this off on their own within 2 years. What would Rick Perry have to say about that? Is it any wonder your country is so drugged up and watching Dancing with the Stars?
        Look up dioxin on your good old google. If you think that dioxin is sprayed on your food and doesn’t become inbedded in the plant while it’s growing, you madscientist, are delusional.

      • MadScientist says:

        Wow – Sheila is 100% Pure Woo. Naturally she has to be anti-vaccine and promote death by cervical cancer by wailing about the evils of the HPV vaccine and how people with the virus can magically ward it off in 2 years.

      • Max says:

        So when the AAD says, “Extensive scientific studies have not found a connection between diet and acne,” they’re lying because they want people to develop acne, right? Then why do they say to avoid skin care products that contain oil to prevent acne?
        Plus if it were not food, would naturopaths, lawyers or whoever you trust tell you that, or would they rather have a busy practise?

        By the way, do you know the origin of the word “acne”?

      • Indeed says:

        I wonder, how does simply denying the knowledge of a dermatologist about skin help make one seem more intelligent. A dermatologist may have less than 6 months training in nutrition, but I wonder, has Sheila been fully trained in both disciplines? Because, by her logic, she need to be to criticise any of their findings. Moreover, a knowledge of nutrition is not necessary for the test, you simply need to sample the diets and skin conditions of many people, and manipulate those diets in a study. That sort of thing doesn’t require a fundamental understanding of the science of food.

        I can test similar things on myself, I could apply different treatments to different areas, eat different foods for periods, and look for a correlation between acne and the different causes/treatments. None of this requires me to be a nutritionist.

      • Jarvis Puttinghet says:

        Sheila probably thinks the AAD is in the pockets of Big Wheat.

      • Sheila says:

        It’s not so much that they are lying as they really don’t know, as I said before, lack of education in nutrition. Do you want me to list all the foods that do affect health?

      • Sheila says:

        ADHD can be cured by using niacine and proper nutrition. But please continue putting all YOUR family members on ritalin because it’s so much easier, you don’t have to change a thing.

      • Sheila says:

        Does the origin of the word acne really matter, Max? If a person drinks too much milk they develop acne on the backs of their arms. Ah, caught you checking, didn’t I? Well it’s true no no amount of blogging can change that fact.
        The fact is dermatologists don’t know because they are busy and only have time to listen to all the good things the latest drug does and get free samples. They aren’t bad people, they just don’t have time to look into this aspect because there are too many allergy clinics around so they don’t have to do the leg work anymore. Ever hear of those allergy clinics where they test people for what foods they are allergic to? But somehow you think that the skin and nutrition have nothing to do with each other? Good job, skeptics!

      • MadScientist says:

        I think it’s hilarious that Sheila subscribes to every woo imaginable. She’s got a good double-whammy there by believing in “ADHD” and then believing it can be cured with “niacine” (I just have to put that in quotes – as an ancient chemist I’ve never run across the word and it’s not in my books). I think it’s clear though that Sheila is a Troll rather than a Poe.

      • CJG says:

        Sheila is just a troll. Teenagers need attention too :)

      • Sheila says:

        It was a spelling error, it’s niacin. But of course you weren’t smart enough to figure that out :)

      • Sheila says:

        You madscientist an ancient chemist? Crap that makes me laugh. Give me a break, my master herbalist knows more than you do. Hell you don’t even know what niacin does. But somehow you are an ancient chemist, LOLOLOLOLOL.

      • MadScientist says:

        Well Sheila, you’re obviously absolutely clueless about how the world works. You’re an imbecile and woomeister. I’ll throw a party when you’re suffering from your woo.

      • Crazy People says:

        Madscientist: ADHD is a disorder:
        Unless of course, Novella is misinformed about Neuroscience…
        And the American Medical Association supports this and the decision to treat this with medicine:
        Sheila: Non-Sequitur. Of course food can affect health: But you don’t need to understand food to understand how it affects health, you can find the associations without knowing how it works: Nutritionists don’t need to know how it works either, that’s a metabolism problem better suited to Human Biologists. And the way you cling to stupid and irational beliefs is quite amusing. “master herbalist”-Do you mean Chemist, or Phamacologist? Because if you don’t, then you’re referring to an idiot. Aspirin was natural: it was seen to be efficacious, and so it was concentrated and approved by the FDA. Similar things can be said for Penicillin and Morphine. The “Herbalists” of this world would like you to believe that the pharmacuetical companies have no interest in taking a simple natural remedy, making it better and selling it, making millions. This is not true. And remember, the Herbalist has a stake in this: You believe him: You buy his garbage thinking that “Big Pharma” has no interest in selling things which work better than the natural state. Nonsense.
        And if you claim that you can “Cure” ADHD with Niacin, then prove it. Post a link: I’d like to see this. I haven’t yet found an AMA, ADA, FDA or similar, approved study demonstrating this. From this, I must conclude that either google has failed me, or that there is none.

  9. John Myste says:

    I cannot help but notice that this gem of advice is posted to a skeptic’s blog. Perhaps you are testing us and you will soon announce that all of us who have third degree burned pimples fail.

  10. Lysis says:

    First, while the paper you linked to seems scientific, remeber that it is a commercially produced trial (=bias!) and not peer-reviewed.

    Second, how about the handy free at-home steam facial? Pour hot water into a basin or bowl, keep your head 6 inches above the water level and drape a towel over your head to create a steam tent. Enjoy for 3 minutes.

    • True says:

      I think the point he’s getting across is that it’s unnecessary to use their device, while supported by science, since the same science supports pressing the power pack to your face.