Today I’d like to talk with you about a topic that’s very near and dear to my heart: my vanity.

Specifically, my face. And the things that grow on it.

Zits. Acne. Blemishes. Pepperoni pizza. Connect-the-Dots.

I’ve long been blessed with temperamental skin. Once puberty hit and the ol’ hormone factory began hiring on extra shifts to meet demand, I was a “before” picture in a pimple medication ad just waiting to happen. That’s typical for a teenager, but it didn’t stop once I was in my 20s. I was recently rummaging through a pile of old photographs and found a JC Penney portrait1 of me at age 22. Girlfriend had learned to put product in her hair but hadn’t yet learned there was such a thing as “concealer.” 

At age 25, weary of the ongoing battle with my epidermis, I gave in and got a Proactiv subscription. And thus commenced my skin’s golden age. I still got acne, particularly in conjunction with my womanly times, but it was nothing like before. For the first time in a long time, my face was mostly clear.

Then, in 2011, I decided to quit Proactiv. It had chemicals in it, and someone had told me that chemicals were bad. Also, it stained my sheets and towels something fierce. So I went on a quest for natural products made of, I dunno, olive oil and crushed flowers and holy water.

That was two and a half years ago. So how has that little experiment worked out for me?

In a word: Terribly.

At first, it wasn’t so bad. I started getting more acne but it was manageable. Then at the start of 2012, I stopped taking hormonal birth control. That was a bucket of laughs! My skin started doing this fun stuff it had never done before, like breaking out on my neck. At first I thought it was a rash from hair care products, but no, it was just good old hormonal acne. I was chagrined to find that this shit never clears up. I constantly have acne along my jawline. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse, but it never ever goes away. 

And because that skin change wasn’t exciting enough, I then decided to up and move from a mediterranean to a semi-arid, continental climate. Oh man! I am still trying to figure that out. My skin is currently in the weirdest, most unpredictable state it’s ever been in. I don’t know how I can be both dry and flaky and oily and congested at the same time, but that’s totally happening.  

Things I’ve tried over the last two and a half years, in no particular order:

  • Orange blossom toner
  • Aloe juice as a toner
  • Diluted tea tree oil as a toner
  • The “oil cleansing method”
  • Washing my face with raw honey
  • Washing my face with “Forest Mint Gentle Foaming Cleanser”
  • Washing my face with “Geranium Sap Purifying Cleanser”
  • Washing my face with Burt’s Bees Salicylic Acid Natural Acne Treatment from Willow Bark Purifying Gel Cleanser
  • Washing my face with water
  • Washing my face twice a day
  • Washing my face once a day
  • Not washing my face
  • Crying 
  • Jojoba oil as a moisturizer
  • Sea buckthorn oil as a moisturizer
  • Rose hip seed oil as a moisturizer
  • Some expensive “primrose calming serum” as a moisturizer
  • Tea tree oil as a topical acne remedy (NOPE, my skin HATES it even when it’s strongly diluted)
  • A $28 natural “blemish stick” as a topical acne remedy
  • Cussing
  • Not touching my face
  • Not looking at my face
  • Leaving offerings for my face on a tiny makeshift altar; burning incense and chanting
  • Clarisonic Mia vibrating skin cleansing brush
  • Taking saw palmetto supplements around my womanly times
  • Pressing crushed peppermint leaves on my face
  • Lying in the middle of the kitchen floor as my spouse tries to make dinner, repeatedly encouraging him to divorce me

When I slam these together in list form, it makes it seem like I am simply slathering everything on my face all at once and then wondering what’s going wrong. Nope, I focused on one basic ingredient combination at a time, any change I made was gradual, and I gave every method a shot for at least 2-4 weeks. And for the record I try to take care of myself internally, too — heavy on water and exercise, and light on sugar/processed foods.

Looking back, it’s clear that I need something more. Something bigger, something stronger. The past two and a half years have been like trying to put out a fire with a teacup — the flames may die down where you pour the water, but the inferno rages on. I am treating existing acne, not future acne. I’m not really fixing the source of the breakouts.

I don’t know what to tell you. I feel like I’ve failed. All the literature I’ve read makes it seem like healthy, glowing, dewy skin is within me, waiting to reveal itself, if I just use this natural stuff. Well, I am using the natural stuff, and it is going off the fucking rails. I am happy that someone out there was able to find their perfect radiant skin remedy in a bi-monthly application of club soda, apple cider vinegar, and pinecone shavings, but for some reason that’s not working out for me.

Okay, look who’s riding their sarcasm pony through a field of clover. I’m not saying natural is bad — I’m just frustrated that after all this time I haven’t been able to find a fix. And it doesn’t help that over the last two weeks I’ve been sweating into a ventilator mask while working at the house, tracing a new track of zits across my cheeks and around my chin. Then I look at the beau’s glistening, dusty visage and there isn’t a single blemish in sight. Jelly much? That dude could wash his face with Crisco and sleep on a sheet of sandpaper and his mug would remain clear as Crystal Pepsi. Meanwhile, all I have to do is glance in the mirror and my face throws a snit fit, stomping out and slamming the door, then opening it and slamming it again. I am the concerned parent and my skin is the rebelling teenager. It is a sensitive soul and it’s so misunderstood.

I have no clue what to do or try anymore. I don’t even know what my face wants, I just know that it’s angry. Which is why I’m reaching out to you, I guess.

Do you have clear skin? If so, would you be willing to let me graft it onto my face? Ha ha! Just kidding, sort of! But really, if you have any tips or insight, send them on down. I am willing to entertain any acne treatment method at this point, whether natural or man-made.2 Seriously, anything. I have got two weddings to attend next month and I’m not willing to show up with a road map of red bumps, people. 

1 Yeah, that happened.
2 And yes, I know I should see a dermatologist, but I need to get my primary physician sorted first, slanty-face emoticon.

30 Responses to “about-face”

  1. Here is the least helpful comment ever: that sucks.

    And I am sorry I am no help to you.

  2. That is so terrible! I’m so sorry. I would recommend trying this soap for washing your face: http://www.amazon.com/Bee-Flower-Chinese-Sandalwood-2-65oz/dp/B000K74USQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=beauty&ie=UTF8&qid=1374754857&sr=1-1&keywords=sandalwood+soap

    and using this as a moisturizer/night cream: http://www.amazon.com/beauty/dp/B000HLH79E

    I honestly don’t know if they would work for everyone, but they work really well for my family. My mother is an ayurvedic practitioner, so we’ve always had lots of unusual Eastern Indian products in the house. 🙂

  3. Oh man, I’m right there with you, so I can’t offer a skin graft. Though I would, if I did. Because I like you. Ever since all that research was published about how the bacteria on a person’s skin might affect how clear it is, I’ve made it my life’s mission to be best friends with someone with perfectly clear skin. That way, it won’t be as weird when I ask them for scrapings of their good skin bacteria so I can use it to colonize my face.

  4. I think I’ve tried every single thing you listed, except the offering/chanting (I know what I’m doing tonight!). My skin is pretty much exactly as you described: sometimes better, sometimes worse, but never totally clear… and hasn’t been, since I was maybe 14? My sister, OTOH has skin like a porcelain doll. it GLOWS.

    The only time it’s every been acne-free was, incredibly, the few weeks before our wedding. I was sweating a ton (helping my mom move) and drinking GALLONS of water. But I think it must’ve been some cosmic fluke/present, because it’s never happened again.

    I’m using Aveda Botanical Kinetics “purifying gel cleanser” and “Skin by Ann Webb face and body cream” right now, for no real reason other than that things aren’t horrible right now and I’m afraid to switch and jinx it. If you ever see a derm, I’d be curious to know what they suggest. I’ve thought about going, but I’m not willing to go the super-chemical-y route again, and I figured that’s what they’d advise… but I could be wrong.

    • Yeah, I would guess a dermo would be ready with the super-chemical options, but I figured it was worth a shot. When I go I will definitely do an update.

      I will have to check out the Aveda stuff — thanks for the tip!

  5. I would like to go back in time and punch everyone who told me I would “grow out” of my acne. This was a lie! A terrible lie!

    Here’s what I’ve discovered: my skin does not like being helped. If I try to use any face wash or moisturizer that’s specifically anti-acne or promises amazing effects on “problem skin,” either nothing happens or it gets worse. My skin is clearest (not totally clear, but clearest) when I use Cetaphil Gentle face wash and moisturize (I use Clinique moisturizing gel) and do almost nothing else to it. Sometimes I use topical salicylic acid gel when I have breakouts, and I also use a Murad mask with some lavender and sulfur in it when my skin is especially oily/flaky/crabby.

    I also used to use a scary topical prescription called Benzaclin that bleached the shit out of every towel and washcloth I owned. If you’re really desperate that stuff will clear up your face in a hurry.

    Anyway, I have no idea if any of that is useful to you, especially since my products aren’t exactly all-natural-organic. But after I finally got my acne under control with a non-towel-bleaching method I’ve been too scared to switch to anything else!

    • When my mom was in her 30s my grandmother told her “aren’t you too old to have pimples, dear?”

      GEE, THANKS.

      I haven’t tried Cetaphil in a while — I think I’m gonna have to go back and give it another shot. Definite bonus that it doesn’t bleach towels!

  6. So, I have tempermental skin which is really dry. The oil cleansing method is working pretty well for me – my skin always has a few blemishes, and the texture isn’t great, but I don’t get many bad breakouts, though I do get pretty clearly hormonal ones. I feel you on the jawline zits and the random neck zits. I quit hormonal birth control for awhile because of cost, and one of the main reasons I went back was my skin.

    When I do get breakouts, I find that two things have worked for me. They both sound crazy – putting listerine on zits before bed (I’m sure this is all kinds of unhealthy, but I’m allergic to benzoyl peroxide so I can’t use typical spot treatment products) and when I have a bad breakout, I actually use neosporin to speed the healing process and avoid scarring if the zit is particularly angry/red/popped.

    Have you ever gotten a facial? Some people with problem skin swear by them, it turns out I’m too cheap to go get one.

    • I never have gotten a facial! I’m a little scared and leery that all the poking and prodding and extracting and new products will actually end up irritating my face MORE. Also, the cost factor.

      I think I have a travel-size bottle of Listerine sitting around somewhere — I’ll have to try it for spot treatment.

      • For spot treatment, sudocreme/desitin works really well (its the stuff they make for diaper rash, I don’t know which one you have in SA, but they kind of suck the oil out of the spots over night without drying them out)

  7. “Someone told me chemicals are bad” – I love you.

    I am going to quit hormonal birth control in the next few years and I am pret-ty terrified of what is gonna happen to my face.

  8. I love that the list included crying, because yes. My skin is much like yours, and I have finally settled on a “doesn’t piss it off TOO much” regimen of Purpose soap and moisturizer and time in the sun, but this still is a balance that is easily disrupted by stress or joy or sweat or hairspray….

  9. Ugh, I hear you. I had a similar sitch through my mid-20s, including the jawline stuff, and went through several iterations of the methods you listed. Here is the bizarre thing that fixed my face: washing my face with head and shoulders shampoo. I know, wtf?? But apparently (brace yourself for the gross): some people’s acne is maybe related to fungal growth? And there are even prescription antifungals for this, which I have never tried (and have no idea if a dermatologist would just laugh at me if I asked). But head and shoulders has an antifungal in it, and indeed, for whatever reason it is the only thing that has EVER successfully cleared up my acne.

    For context: I have the freak-out-at-everything skin type as well. The result of using any anti-acne product is my face burning, itching and falling off in flakes. This includes salicylic acid/willow bark products, proactiv, benzaclin, differin gel, tea tree oil, etc. As of my mid-20s it even got irritated by cetaphil, which just seems impossible. The regime I ultimately discovered was wash face about every other day with head and shoulders original formula (just like with a normal face wash, don’t try leaving it on like a mask or it will burn), moisturize with CeraVe PM (NOT AM which contains an irritating sunscreen) while face is still wet, use no other cleansing products on face, never touch face. Remarkably, my skin is now entirely clear except for the occasional invaders when I slack on the regime, during high stress, or during particularly bad PMS. I’m about 30 so it has been working for a few years now.

    Soooo, no idea if this would work for you or anybody else, but what the hell, you’ve already tried everything else!

    • WOW, Head & Shoulders, I never in a million years would have guessed. I’ve never heard of the antifungal thing! Hmm. I’ve only had the burning and itching with tea tree oil so far, but this may be an option to keep in my pocket. Thanks!

  10. I used accutane in my 20s and I have fab skin now. But that shiz is scary and you have to push the pill through the package showing a pregnant lady with a big X over her.

    • Yeah, I think I would have done it in my 20s, but now I feel too old/crunchy/close to reproductive times. I’m glad it worked for you, though!

  11. Uuuuggghhhhh….. skin graft for me too please!! Fuck, I’m over thirty and still dealing with this too. NOT FAIR (slams door and puts on loud music)

    I’m on the ‘all chemicals, all the way’ bandwagon myself. I basically use the regime described on acne.org (except I don’t go quite as crazy on benzoyl peroxide as he advocates because it dries my skin out). I used to just buy stuff from the drug store but last year I actually ordered his products and really, really love them. They are CHEAP (at least to the Canadian) and work better. I have the treatment (2.5% benzoyl peroxide), the AHA cream, and the jojoba oil and swear by all of them.

    Here’s my rationale for them all:
    – BP: proven to kill acne bacteria just as well as a prescription topical antibiotic. That’s what you need dead.
    – AHA: gently exfoliates dead skills cells from your face a bit faster than they would normally shed. That’s what you need off your face – dead skin cells combine with oil and bacteria to make monsters (and any other form of exfoliation is too aggressive for acne-prone skin. All rubbing is bad news bears).
    – Jojoba oil: essential for not making your face peel off after the above.

    This is working preeetty well for me right now (watch it all go to hell tomorrow), but I still get some monster hormonal zits now and then. I honestly haven’t written off taking accutane at some point in my life if it ever gets worse.

    • I was so sad when the acne.org regimen didn’t work for me – after buying all the official products and everything. Really thought that one might do the trick. :-/

    • I second acne.org — it worked when nothing else did! I don’t use his cleanser, though, as Cetaphil does the trick for me. But YMMV.

      • FWIW, this is my regimine:
        – remove makeup with Cetaphil
        – rinse face
        – every couple days, do Clarisonic with Cetaphil
        – rinse face; let dry completely
        – smooth on 2.5% benzol peroxide… not just spot treatment; use lots!
        – let dry completely
        – moisturize… again, use lots!
        – let dry completely
        – put on sunscreen, makeup, etc.

  12. Obviously a dermatologist would know way better than me, but in times when I’ve had lots of break outs I found that hydrogen peroxide helped a lot. I mean is that shit natural? Not really. But hey, it’s just water with an extra oxygen molecule, right? But I guess it can also bleach your skin so maybe this is a bad idea.

    • Hey, I feel like I used to use hydrogen peroxide a while ago, but now I can’t remember why I stopped? It might be time to revisit… I believe I have some in my cabinet right now.

    • I tried that for a bit, and it was okay, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea or not. I just was desperate. I don’t use it anymore because I have another thing that is working for me now.

  13. Blerg. Acne. I still have it.
    Funny story: when I was visiting home from college one weekend, I borrowed some benzoyl peroxide from my little sister to treat a zit, which I had done before, and woke up the next morning with my eyes nearly swollen shut. Somehow I developed an allergy to the stuff.
    In the year before my wedding, I did Proactiv (the sensitive skin stuff, with no benzoyl peroxide) and that kept my skin mostly clear except for the week before my period, when I got one or two zits. After the wedding, I switched to cheaper cleansers that had the same active ingredient (salicylic acid) and wash my face with that in the evening, followed by witch hazel as an astringent and an olay moisturizer. In the morning I use a non-salicylic acid facewash (Clean & Clear) but use witch hazel and then the Clean & Clear salicylic moisturizer before putting on sunscreen and makeup.
    I’d always had oily skin, so using a thick nighttime moisturizer took some getting used to, but I now get the same results I was getting with Proactiv, which are ok by me. Sometimes it still pisses me off to be 28 with not great skin.

    TL;DR: I don’t know if there’s much you can do to get perfectly clear skin. I got close and decided to live with it.

  14. I’ve had acne since I was about 8, and adulthood only seems to have made it meaner. I finally accepted around the time of our wedding that this is a medical problem and I’m just going the chemical route. I know it’s bad and big pharma and all that, but my combination of benzaclin and tazorac after washing with cetaphil keeps me much clearer than anything else ever has.

  15. I realized about 4 years ago when I ran out of my zit medicine (clean and clear zit stuff?) and stopped using it, that my face actually got MUCH clearer. I guess my face was so sensitive that the medicine was irritating it and making my face freak out and the zits get worse?

    I tried washing with olive oil about a year and half ago and it was just too think for me, so it didn’t really work and I didn’t have any of the stuff you are supposed to “cut” it with. Then I discovered that Aveeno Baby soothing relief creamy wash worked well for me. (I had been using Cetaphil before but then realized it was not rated so amazingly on Skin Deep, with the chemicals and all). The Aveeno was less chemical-laden according to Skin Deep. I liked it, but after using it my face was always very tight and dry and I had to get lotion on it right away so it didn’t hurt.

    And that seemed wrong. Like a cycle….wash….dry…lotion….oily later…wash…dry… Ugh.

    So then I decided to give washing with coconut oil a shot. My zits were bad and I thought that it couldn’t get worse. So I tried it for 2 weeks to see. And even though I started with a bad zit, the zit did not get worse and the rest of my face didn’t get worse either. Then the zit got better and the rest of my face improved. And I have kept washing with coconut oil. I’ve been doing that since the end of April and really really like it.

    What I love is that I am no longer in the oily-wash-dry-hurt-lotion-oily cycle. The oil somehow does not make me oily at all. I no longer use moisturizer on my face. I wash with coconut oil in the morning and at night, and occasionally one other time, if I have an event or something. And that’s it. My face doesn’t really get oily any more during the day. It’s just consistently about the same all the time. It’s weird, but I love it. And I still get some zits, but it is much better than it was before. I think my zits are hormonal. But I am also stressed now, so that’s another factor.

    Coconut oil is supposed to have some antibacterial qualities, so maybe that is why this works for me when olive oil didn’t? Or it’s just lighter?

    I have also used it as a moisturizer on all my skin after a shower. I did that for several weeks. I recently went back to my fav skin lotion for a few weeks because I was travelling and did not want to make someone else’s bathtub all sliippery. But I will go back to the coconut oil. It is WAY cheaper than buying face soap and face lotion and body lotion. A little goes a long way. And it’s more minimal. I mean….when I travel, 3 liquid products are now down to one. Ah.

    But obviously….this method won’t work for everyone. That’s what is so frustrating about trying to fine solutions for skin care. (Or hair….I am still looking for the holy grail of hair solutions. I am co-washing…)

    Good luck. I hope you find something that works well for you….. This is super frustrating, and I wish you the best.

  16. First off! Things NOT to use on your face (some of which I have seen suggested…sorry but please please don’t use them!): hydrogen peroxide, alcohol-containing products (including Listerine), baking soda, lemon/citrus juice. Despite conventional wisdom, the first two actually damage healing skin and are very drying, and the last two will absolutely F up your facial skin’s acid mantle.

    My skin is very similar to yours. Hormonal acne like ours generally needs a hormonal treatment: the right birth control pill (for you specifically, which may take experimentation…the only one that works for mine is Seasonique), which you’ve said you’re not taking anymore, AND/OR an androgen blocker such as flutamide, cyproterone acetate, or spironolactone (which is contraindicated for people who are or are trying to/may become pregnant). If the hormonal methods are out, and it sounds like they are, the dermatologist really is your best bet. They will probably give you a topical retinoid medication (example, Ziana or Retin-A) for nighttime use (use a sunscreen in the day if using retinoids), a topical antibacterial medication for day (example, Aczone), and/or an antibacterial pill. These various antibacterial medications will likely help (and if they don’t within a few months, tell the doctor so they can try a different one for you) but might not *completely* cure your acne, unfortunately, due to hormonal factors. I personally need birth control, an androgen blocker, and topical antibiotics so far to keep mine controlled.

    Besides all that, and until you can get in to the derm, I’d recommend cleansing products that won’t dry out your skin too much, to keep it from producing “rebound” oil and even more breakouts. Gentle cleanser: eg, Cerave foaming facial cleanser (or Cetaphil, but my skin doesn’t like it). Moisturizer: eg, Cerave moisturizing cream in the tub, or Cetaphil, and/or Vaseline (which is not comedogenic, if you’re afraid of using it like I was). Toners aren’t strictly necessary but if you do get one, stay away from the ones with high alcohol content. If you wear makeup, consider washing twice with the gentle cleanser, or taking makeup off with another product before cleansing…maybe that’s obvious, but it wasn’t to me, lol.

    As far as over-the-counter acne stuff… Spot treatments that are gentle but effective: something with sulfur (example, Murad acne spot treatment), a gentle clay (example, Queen Helene’s mint julep masque), or Neem oil (though… it stinks). Chemical exfoliation (AHA or BHA) might also be helpful. Build up from using chemical exfoliants about twice a week to ?? (whatever your skin ends up liking, maybe even once a day). AHA example (wear sunscreen if you use one): St Ive’s scrub-free pads. BHA example: Stridex in the red box (not the green box “sensitive” one; its pH is not low enough for exfoliation) or maybe a Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant if you are sensitive to the menthol or another ingredient in Stridex (as I am).

    Any products I mentioned *might* break you out, just because we’re all individuals, etc, so continue to spot test and introduce new products one at a time.

    Sorry for the info-dump…I am a regular reader but I never comment! In addition to my personal experience, many of my suggestions come from the subreddit skincareaddiction, which focuses on SCIENCE! and evidence-based recommendations. 🙂

    • Wow, thanks for all of this, Kay! I didn’t know about the sulfur for spot treatment. I’m going to have to look at that subreddit, too. I appreciate you taking the time to put all this together.

  17. I used to have horrible skin, but the stop washing it, occasionally moisturizing with olive oil &/or coconut oil worked real well for me. Also I never wear makeup which is a laziness/ignorance thing rather than a skin saving thing, but I suspect it helps. See also pregnancy & breastfeeding. I’m useless arn’t I?

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