Acne breeds a special kind of hysteria. From mild to psychotic, our reactions to pimples too often lead to desperate, reckless attempts to vanquish the offending skin disturbance.
Sure, the experts tell us to leave it alone. We know they are right, but when we feel that prickly, itchy sensation, it taunts our fingertips into action.
The professionals are not entirely unsympathetic.
"Acne is not life-threatening," explained dermatologist Sandra Lee, who practices in Upland, Calif. But she said that she's worked with plenty of patients who perceive blemishes in terms of life and death.
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She said that women are more likely to be "pickers" than men.
"We just want to do something ... have to do something and have to do it now," Lee said.
Acne is more often associated with youth, but women in their 30s and 40s, who never had acne problems before, can experience mild but persistent flare-ups for years, if not decades.
The worst part of acne is not the three to seven days of waiting for it to run its course; it's the potential for long-term scarring or hyper-pigmentation. Those with darker skin tones are at greater risk.
"Most of us think, 'How can I be a grown woman and be a slave to my hair or my weight or a zit,' but that kind of thing really can leave you heartbroken for the whole day, no matter who you are," said St. Louis dermatologist Madhavi Kandula.
Should it? Obviously not. A bad hair day, an extra pound on the scale or acne should not drive us crazy. We know that consistency and good habits matter more than an arbitrary day of misfortune.
But the reality is that it matters because it does.
"Sometimes people just need something to relieve the stress; it's hard not to do something," said Caroline Mann, a dermatologist with the Washington University School of Medicine.
We want to do the right thing, but when the right thing (do nothing) is unsatisfying, we'll settle for doing the wrong thing (pick, pick, pop).
Kandula, Lee and Mann chalked it up to human nature.
I will admit to many a day of irrational bargaining with the gods of complexion to just take this or that skin affliction away. The Latin name is "acne vulgaris," and I can't think of anything more apt.
So the day the Tanda Zap ($49) arrived, I secretly dreamed that perhaps it would be an acne miracle cure. The device's LED lights simulate the blue in the UV spectrum that penetrates the skin and targets the bacteria that cause acne. It was discovered and refined because sunlight does wonders for acne, but the accompanying sun damage is not so admirable.
After consulting a handful of experts about whether this thing actually works, here's what I learned: At its best the device will destroy the most common acne-causing bacteria under the skin before the bacteria can achieve critical mass (i.e., no zits). At its worst, the device will have no effect on your pimple.
But everyone recommended it anyway, sight unseen and untested.
Madhavi said that even at its worst, the product has one crucial benefit: It gives you something to do.
But she warns it may simply offer a placebo effect. I was a little embarrassed to confess that I'd been carrying this device around in my purse for three days and subconsciously using it much like a pacifier. The pamphlet recommends two to three treatments a day to an area (each treatment is a steady stream of blue light, vibration and mild heat meted out in timed, two-minute intervals), and I used it diligently morning, noon and night.
The quarter-sized treatment area required moving the device five to eight times (that takes 10 to 20 minutes) along my acne-prone jawline. It felt therapeutic, but people in control groups have said the same. I continued to use it, and by day four, I had to replace the three AAA batteries that power the gizmo. And 10 days later, I'd been through three sets of batteries.
It's almost always best to do less, not more, when acne flares up, Mann said, but she understands why many patients find this level of inaction to be nearly impossible to achieve. So having a device on hand to administer emergency, proactive spot treatment is not such a bad idea. "And the best thing is that it might work," Madhavi said.