Every woman, no matter her age, has likely had a morning when, after a long, blissful stretch of clear skin, you wake to a pimple that’s bewilderingly big and inflamed. You don’t have your period, so you can’t blame hormones, and you haven’t majorly changed-up your skin-care routine—all which leaves you wondering, what gives?
Star facialist and holistic skin-care expert Elena Rubin calls the phenomenon the “zit bomb,” and says the culprit is likely something you ate within the last 12 to 24 hours. “Skin is very connected to the digestive tract,” she explains. It’s an idea which has growing support from MDs, too.
Perhaps unfairly, the people who are most prone to zit bombs are generally the cleanest eaters day-to-day, she says, because when you go off the rails, your system is caught off guard, causing your body (and skin) to rebel—big time.
Here’s everything else you need to know about the dreaded zit bomb—and how to vanquish it.
Understand your gut-skin connection
“You have to understand that there is a connection between food, the gut, and the skin,” says Susan Blum, MD, functional medicine expert and founder of the Blum Center for Health. “Part of that is because so much inflammation can come from your gut.” That, in turn, sets into motion a system-wide inflammatory response that quickly shows up on your complexion.
Unfortunately, no matter how careful your skin-care routine is, you can’t outdo poor food choices, says dermatologist Howard Murad, MD (and founder of the eponymous skin-care brand). “Those who take good care of their skin may still experience a breakout if they are sensitive to the foods they’ve eaten,” he says. “Think of the skin as a looking glass into the health of the rest of the body.” (Dr. Murad also notes that while binges can exacerbate breakouts, in his experience “these zits will likely pop up after a series of bad food choices,” he says. Not necessarily one meal.)
Beware the food combos that cause a full-on facial freakout
The foods that upset a particular person’s system can be pretty personal, but Rubin says she’s noticed three qualities that make up the perfect storm for a full-on facial freakout: something fried, full of low-quality animal protein, and lots of spice. Went out for hot wings recently? Voilà. Zit bomb.
But don’t forget sugar and dairy, Blum warns, which can cause almost immediate flare-ups in some people. “You have a little yeast in your sebaceous glands,” she explains, “and yeast loves sugar.” If you eat food that feeds the yeast, the yeast just multiplies and causes inflammation. Dairy also has an ingredient that attracts yeast, which is why it’s known to be an epic acne instigator.
Five fast-acting ways to retaliate against the dreaded zit bomb:
1. Don’t pick it: And while you may be tempted to squeeze that sucker, please don’t. “It can lead to a secondary infection which will take a much longer time to resolve and may lead to scarring,” Dr. Murad says.
2. Treat it: Instead, use targeted anti-blemish products twice a day, and apply a powerful spot treatment directly to the zit before bed. “Use a medicated treatment that contains salicylic acid or sulfur,” he recommends. Both have studies behind them.
3. Calm it: Rubin recommends using a washcloth as a hot compress, holding it in place for 20 to 30 seconds, and following with a clay mask to help draw out the impurities. This can lend immediately calm to an especially angry zit.
4. Just give your system a break: “Eat simple foods. Have a veggie day or two with lots of fiber, and eat some salads,” Rubin says. “Just let things kind of chill out.”
5. Eat digestive enzymes. Make sure to load up on pineapple, papaya, and yogurt—all of which have digestive enzymes and good bacteria to support gut health, she adds.
Into all lives, a few zit bombs (and chicken wings) must fall, but now you know what to do.
Now that you’re all smart on zit bombs, here’s what not to do after a facial…
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