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The Debunker: Can You Prevent Acne By Washing Your Face?

by Ken Jennings

Dispelling misinformation is tough when you’re up against the biggest liars of all: Mom and Dad. In his new book Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, Ken Jennings takes on generations of dubious parental wisdom. And this month on Woot, Ken will debunk four bonus parenting myths not found in his book, proving that Mother and Father don’t always know best.

Parental Myth #2: Dirt Causes Acne. Go Wash Your Face!

I’m turning forty in just over a year, which hopefully means my face will finally be clearing up soon. Eighty percent of young Americans have pimple problems, and their well-meaning parents often recommend all kinds of home remedies, from lemon juice to aloe vera to baking soda. But the one thing we can all agree on is the important of hygiene. Everyone knows you get acne from not washing your face, right?


Actually, this isn’t all that true, which explains the frustration of generations of zitty high school sophomores carefully washing their faces many times a day to no avail. Common acne (acne vulgaris) is caused by blocked pores, but bits of dirt aren’t usually the problem. The bacterial free-for-all that causes acne begins below the skin, and it’s caused by oil and discarded cells. “Blackheads and pimples are not caused by dirt,” says that National Institutes of Health. (It’s melanin in the blocked follicle that makes blackheads darker, not dirt.)

It seems reasonable that regular face-washing could flush away the problem oil and flakes of dead skin, but in practice, there’s no evidence that it helps much. “Surprisingly little evidence exists for the efficacy or lack of efficacy of… face-washing,” found a 2005 Australian review. “Much of the available evidence has methodological limitations.” A six-week study at Harvard in 2006 lent “slight support” to a normal, twice-a-day washing routine, but admitted that “no statistically significant differences were noted between groups” who washed their faces with different frequencies. Dermatologists today believe that acne is best addressed on a case-by-case basis, and some have even had success with a “caveman” regimen: curing acne by abandoning face-washing altogether. It’s true, the Flintstones always had great skin. So don’t be bullied into hourly scrubbings by the memories of a nagging Mom! When it comes to acne and facial hygiene, the decision may actually be a wash.

Quick Quiz: On what TV show did Joey Jeremiah’s band Zit Remedy repeatedly perform their only song, “Everybody Wants Something”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.