In a viral trend, users are taping raw potatoes to their faces to treat their spots, with seemingly miraculous results – but does it actually work?
Whether you chock it up to circumstantial ingenuity, the security of not having to be seen in public, or sheer boredom, there’s no doubt that lockdown has transformed 2020 into the year of experimental at-home beauty.
As salons closed their doors, two-for-one L’Oreal hair-dye kits welcomed us with open arms, turning our social media feeds into a sea of bleached barnets. While some started going Euphoria with their make-up, others all but ditched it completely for new kinds of skin-restoring self-care.
But there’s one beauty trend that’s a bit more mystifying. A bizarre – though not entirely new – at-home acne remedy began going viral at the beginning of lockdown: taping half a raw potato to your face for hours on end, in a desperate attempt to eradicate a giant zit. As with everything this year, it all started with a TikTok video. In April, @sierrastyless shared a clip of herself demonstrating the remedy, which was soon imitated in viral videos by @queen_of_queifs and @livkayg.
The question of whether this technique works is difficult to discern with personal research, as there are currently no clinical trials investigating the efficacy of potatoes on spots, besides one 2013 study on anti-inflammatory properties in rats.
To find out more, I spoke to clinical dermatologist and trusted TikToker, Dr Muneeb Shah AKA @dermdoctor. “Ultimately, there’s no science to say that it would be effective,” he explains. “That’s not to say that it’s not effective; there are plenty of things that we don’t study. A lot of that goes with the fact that it would be difficult to market a potato. Nobody’s going to be very invested in putting the money and resources behind a clinical study studying potatoes being taped to your head.”
Shah does shed some light on why people think it could work, though. “Potatoes have a high salicylic acid content in them. We know salicylic acid is beneficial in treating acne,” he says. “Plus, when something to your head, you’re putting pressure on your pimples, which may help to soften them out and break down the skin’s surface a little bit. The starches may also have a little bit of a drying effect.”
“Potatoes have a high salicylic acid content in them. We know salicylic acid is beneficial in treating acne” – Dr Muneeb Shah
Ultimately, it’s not something he recommends. “I don’t think it really is beneficial, in my personal, professional opinion. And it’s not really practical. You have to assume this person is going nowhere and seeing nobody.” While this is generally true for now, it’s not so appropriate post-pandemic.
“Why would you even resort to this when we have perfectly good, safe, relatively inexpensive salicylic acid products that you can buy at any drug store?” Shah asks. “They’ll have a guaranteed, reliable amount of salicylic acid in them, and will be formulated for your skin.” What he does recommend is a good skincare routine, which includes a retinoid – like those by The Ordinary or Paula’s Choice – to treat your face before breakouts occur. If they do occur, pimple patches can treat the area with salicylic acid, while cosmetically camouflaging the area. Starface and Peace Out are good options.
“As long as people understand that social media is not the be all and end all, I think it’s OK to get your information there,” Shah continues, “as long as you are fact-checking and using trusted sources.” This is why having qualified professionals in the space is so important. “Dermatologists on social media can combat misinformation where it’s happening, and I think that’s really powerful,” adds Shah.
As a giant spot began to rise on my forehead, and with no on-camera Zoom calls in sight, it was time to ignore these hard truths and test the trend out for myself. As we didn’t have any potatoes in, I had to go out and buy a bag full with the sole purpose of strapping one to my forehead, which was a privately embarrassing experience.
I sliced a potato in half and wrapped some XL brown packing tape around my head to secure it in place. About 10 minutes in, I was surprised to feel a soothing sensation, as the pain eased slightly and the area cooled. But that’s about it. After leaving it in place for seven irritating hours, I cut the packing tape and made the big hair-tearing reveal. It looked pretty much the same.
“Besides being impractical and making me look a bit stupid, it had actually made the situation worse”
In many of the TikToks, people tape the potato to their head overnight, so in a last-ditch attempt, I put it back on before bed. This is where it went south. I woke up on the hour all night long from either the rustling of the packing tape, the pain from the pressure, or the pain from rolling over onto the potato and whacking the spot. At about 5:30am, I bolted downstairs in a fit of rage and cut the potato off for the second time. The spot had turned into a sort of a soft blood blister, and the area around it was quite irritated. Besides being impractical and making me look a bit stupid, it had actually made the situation worse.
Really, you’re probably better off just eating the damn potato. Giulia Rocca, a nutritionist at London’s @cromonutrition explains: “In holistic medicine, we always say that you need to find the root cause of the problem, and using potatoes or potato juice topically is not going to resolve things long term.” But, she says, incorporating them into your diet might help. “(Potatoes are) extremely rich in antioxidants. They have vitamin C – the best-known antioxidant – so they can have an effect on acne, but also general health, especially on the immune system.”
Rocca goes on to explain that these immune-boosting properties can help with acne inflammation, and that potatoes are rich in fibre, which helps balance insulin. “With acne, one of the causes is blood sugar balance,” she reveals, “so in order to stop your blood from going into a spike, you need to have fibre in your diet – but (the potatoes) need to be eaten with the skin.” Potatoes are also packed with a whole spectrum of other healthy nutrients. However, as they can be grown with a lot of pesticides, which are absorbed into their skin, she advises buying organic if you can.
Social media can be a great tool in making skincare advice more accessible and relatable, but it’s rife with misinformation (which can spread up to six times faster than facts online). This can fill us with false hope, make problems worse, or be outright dangerous – all of which can negatively impact our mental health.
Putting a potato on your face probably isn’t going to hurt, but collectively, these trends are representative of a tendency to embrace the anecdotal over science. Fortunately, the numbers suggest that while fads come and go, the majority of people on social media are putting their longer-term trust in professionals and responsible content creators who do their research. And you should, too.