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Are Acne Face Maps a Help or a Hoax?

This ancient Chinese technique for treating acne is still used today, but traditional doesn’t mean reliable.

The French word for pimple is “bouton”. This also happens to be the French word for button. It presents a more positive image than the English word “pimple,” which originates from the old English “piplian” -- to break out into pustules. That conjures up disturbing images of pus! No matter what you call them, people are not fond of these blemishes. There are many possible treatments: face washes, patches, various medications that even include birth control pills for women. “Acne face mapping” is getting attention these days, but what does it actually do?

Originating in China, acne face mapping divides sections of the face and relates certain areas to organs that cause pimples to arise there. Some recurring examples: your liver and digestive system are supposedly tied to forehead breakouts; therefore, food consumption is the cause. The heart is linked to activity on the nose, so one should focus on blood pressure to clear this area. The stomach is to the cheeks what the liver is to the T-zone. While some maps label the jaw/chin as regulated by reproductive organs, many agree that acne in that area is caused by hormonal imbalance. The latter is the only claim listed here that is backed up by science. A rise in testosterone will cause sebaceous glands in the skin to produce excess sebum (an oily substance) that will clog pores. That said, hormone imbalances can be the culprit of acne in other spots of the face and body as well, hence the birth control treatment that lowers the number of androgens, especially testosterone, in the body.

Long story short – face mapping is largely a pseudoscience. There are some aspects of truth, for example, diet can influence breakouts, but the effect is quite small. Foods that are high in sugar can affect insulin levels and hence hormone levels. However, dietary alterations are not likely to have a significant effect on acne.

Quite apart from the lack of science behind “acne face mapping”, it is important to remember that each person is different. Changing what you eat might coincidentally clear up your forehead, but it may not do so for the next person. One size doesn’t fit all. Other common causes of acne are cosmetic products, genetics, pollution, and stress.

Some sources have attempted to update this ancient Chinese approach to be more aligned with facts. For instance, by claiming that cheek acne is caused by friction, such as by using dirty pillowcases. But everyone sleeps differently! What if you sleep on your back?

With all this talk of acne, it’s important to remind ourselves that it is nothing to be ashamed of. But we need to burst the bubble on pustules – face maps are a dead end. There are plenty of other options that will help. Just talk to a professional instead of referring to colour-coded maps mired in pseudoscience.


Haleh Cohn just finished her first year at McGill University and is interested in the health sciences.

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