Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Zits the Size of Mt. Fuji

You’ve finally settled into your apartment and your new routine in Japan. You’re in the euphoric peak of culture shock, where everything is perfect and wonderful. Until one morning, as you wash your face, you feel slight pain underneath the surface of your skin, indicating an emerging zit. “Whatever, it’s no big deal,” you tell yourself as you head out to work. However, later in the day, the zit finally pops its ugly head, causing you to rush to the bathroom to pop it. “Problem solved.”
However, the following morning you notice three more giant, Mt. Fuji-esque zits have appeared on your face. You decide it’s best to ignore the problem but every day more zits appear on your face while older zits take a long-drawn-out time to disappear. Sooner or later, it looks like Godzilla has wreaked havoc on your skin, forcing you to feign illness and wear a surgical mask at work in order to hide the blemishes. Despite sympathizing with your pubescent students, your confidence has plummeted and, in a foreign country, you are unsure of your options.

Don’t panic! Instead, let’s talk about acne and learn about some of the options available to you in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Here’s the Deal about Acne

Your skin in the largest organ on your body and many factors can contribute to acne. Acne is a disease of the skin not a skin type that affects a wide range of people of various ages. In other words, your teenage students aren’t the only ones who can suffer from acne. In fact, there are many people who suffer from skin-related issues, like acne, after their arrival to Japan – you aren’t alone! The important thing to remember is that you do not have to put up or “deal” with acne. Nevertheless, if your acne is serious, see a dermatologist (legal disclaimer: done).

Identifying the Cause of Your Acne

Scientists are stumped at the exact cause of acne (you know, since it’s your largest organ) but recent research has identified certain factors that may worsen acne in someone who already has the skin disorder. These factors can be broken down into stress, diet, hormones, and genetics.

Photo by Jpellgen

Whether you’re upset when automatic doors in Japan won’t open fast enough or frustrated when someone uses difficult-to-understand 敬語 over the phone, research has shown that moments of heightened stress can cause your acne to flare up due to the increased production of sebum, an oil secreted from the sebaceous glands, which mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria to clog pores. Life in Japan is full of daily stressors, but it is vital to relax and unwind at the end of the day. Meditation is a great way to destress and if you’re new to meditation or can’t get out of your own head (like me), the app, Headspace, offers a wonderful guide to assisted meditation. Exercise is also a great option for those who like to actively unwind — just make sure you wash your face. Another app, Pocket Yoga, offers an inexpensive way to get a great workout at home. Tie that in with medication, and you’ll be Gandhi in no time!

Unfortunately, a modern-day Gandhi (or Dōgen — if you want to get Japanesey) can still suffer from acne. Nevertheless, in a moment of stress, the worst thing you can do to your face is to pop your zits. Unsightly blemishes are stressful, but resist the urge to scan your face and pop a zit. This is especially difficult when the craters of Mt. Zitville are staring at you, but it’s best to leave them alone. When you pop a zit, you inadvertently spread bacteria and oils from your hands to you face, causing small gashes that can lead to scarring. In short, keep your hands off your face.

Photo by Mie Imanashi

There is no solid evidence that links poor diets with acne, but research has shown that high glycemic diets and high glycemic foods, which increase insulin production, are associated with worsening acne. Binging on Japanese sweets since your arrival? Maybe that fifth box of コアラのマーチ wasn’t the best idea. I’ll admit Ghana chocolate by Lotte is amazing but if you notice a correlation between eating sweets and acne, then it’s time switch to healthier options like fruit. You may also need to lower your consumption of processed carbohydrates, such as rice and breads (yes, even melon pan). Milk in Japan, usually whole milk, is high in lactose, which is a type of sugar. Therefore, a low-sugar or lactose-free option, such as Blue Diamond’s Almond Breeze, is a healthier alternative.  Everyone bodies react to foods differently, but eating healthier could help your complexion. Sayonara 給食 milk!

As you age, your hormones change and this may cause an increase in testosterone that could lead to acne. My dermatologist lovingly refers to it as a “second puberty.” Therefore, someone with relatively no history of acne can have a sudden and aggressive outbreak due to hormonal changes. These zits usually appear on the lower part of the face around the mouth and jawline. Also, unlike whiteheads, they are profounder, red, and painful — almost like cyst. Only a dermatologist, who may prescribe a combination of antibiotics or recommend birth control, can treat hormonal acne.

You’re grandparents had acne. Your parents had acne. Your older sibling had acne. Now, you have acne. You were born that way (#LadyGaga), but you don’t have to live that way — visit a dermatologist.

Other factors
Call me crazy, but I have a strange theory that there is something in the air or water that can also trigger acne or other related skin issues. My friends and I noted that our acne would go clear up when we visited our home or other countries, but would emerge once more when we returned to Japan. I’m not sure if it’s pollen or hard/soft water, but that may be something to look into.

Acne Products in Japan

It’s difficult to know what Japanese products to use because everything is unfamiliar. Therefore, you could spend an exasperating amount time at the store trying to read labels in order to figure of if the product is a face or hand wash. Nevertheless, here are some products you can try:

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil, commonly found in grocery stores, superstores (like Don Quixote), and Aeon (a.k.a. Jusco), is a wash that removes dirt, clears impurities, and dissolves makeup while nourishing the skin. Ladies and Gents: it’s important to develop of nightly cleansing routine that consists of removing makeup and/or washing your face — no excuses.

For a cheaper alternative, try Kose Softymo Deep Cleaning Oil. Looking for a natural solution? Try extra-virgin olive oil!
Mentholatum Acnes Medicated Cream

If you’re looking for an everyday acne cleanser, look no further than Mentholatum Acnes Medicated Cream. This product’s active ingredient, isopropyl methyl phenol, sterilizes skin in order to prevent acne. You’ll be able to spot this product with ease at grocery stores and Aeon – just look for the word “Acnes.” Despite its great reviews, this product can cause peeling and redness in those with dry or sensitive skin. I recommend using minimal amounts of this product, every other day, along with an oil-free moisturizer. If your skin feels tight after using the product, you have inadvertently stripped the necessary oils from your face. This will cause your glands to produce more oils, which can clog your pores and cause acne. Remember, you want a clean feeling, not a tight feeling. Also, avoid exfoliates, as they can irritate the skin and worsen acne.

This company offers other acne products such as spot creams and medicated BB cream.

Strawberry Nose Medicated Concealer

Are you covering your pimples with foundation? Stop that immediately! Covering your strawberry nose full of the redness of pimples or blackheads and/or large pores with makeup only makes the situation worse. Care for your face by covering those pimples with our medicated concealer, while wearing your makeup as usual! The medicated agent kills germs, suppresses inflammation and prevents the formation of pimples! The cute design of the bottle will cheer you up, too.

The only downside is that the concealer is only available in light skin tones and it’s mostly found in stores with a large makeup selection, like Don Quixote.

Manuka Honey
Need a mask for spa night? Try a mix of Manuka honey and cinnamon. Manuka honey is produced from bees that feed from the manuka tree in Australia and New Zealand. As you may not know, honey and cinnamon are natural antibiotics, and Manuka honey is the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of honeys. Manuka honey is found in stores like Max Value or online at iherb.com.

Dermatologist Visit in Japan

The best solution for acne is to see a dermatologist. This can be a bit daunting in a foreign country, but don’t fret - it’s painless. Search “Dermatologist” or (hifuka) on Google Maps for a local clinic or ask a close friend/coworker for a recommendation. Generally, dermatologist’s office hours extend into the late evening and weekends, but you don’t need an appointment - just visit the clinic, present your insurance card, and let them know you are there for acne (ニキビ; nikibi). You will be asked to fill out a general medical form while you wait. Be prepared to wait at least an hour before seeing the dermatologist, as they are in high demand.

Once you are called, you will be presented to the dermatologist who will quickly examine your face (sans makeup, ladies). There may not be much of an exchange between you and the dermatologist because this is a fairly common disease. Depending on the severity of your acne, the dermatologist may proscribe a combination of medicines:

  • Antibiotic creams, such as clindamycin
  • Oral Antibiotics
  • Vitamin B12 and E
  • Kampō, Chinese traditional medicine, for detoxification

Be sure to use the medication as proscribed, but here is some insight: the antibiotic creams can cause drying, irritation, peeling, and redness. Make sure that you are using a gentle face wash (not medicated) before applying antibiotics. Moreover, avoid spreading the cream on the bags of your eyes, as your skin is thin and highly sensitive in this area. Also be forewarned that your acne may temporarily worsen before clearing, so be patient. Nevertheless, if you do not see result by the second week, visit the dermatologist once more so that they may prescribe a different medicine or additional treatments.


There is no simple solution for curing acne and it’s not an overnight fix. Try to identify what factors in your life, whether stress or diet, have changed since you’ve arrival to Japan, familiarize yourself with Japanese products and if your acne worsens, visit a dermatologist who can prescribe the necessary medications. It’s a hard battle — one that I am still battling — so to everyone fighting acne in Japanland, 頑張っれ!