I never had crazy-extreme, life-ruining breakouts, but I always treated my skin as if I did. Isn’t that what we all do? Go into panic mode at the first sight of a problem? By now we’ve all probably heard the evidence against such tactics—when you dry out oily skin, it just produces more pore-clogging oil in order to compensate, and acne is actually inflammation, so to heal it, you need to calm that inflammation. Which sounds all well and good, but when I have a breakout, I just want it gone STAT. So naturally, I would throw everything I had at it. Exfoliating face wash followed up with manual exfoliation, anti-oil toner, allover acne treatment gel, moisturizer loaded with salicylic acid, and one more layer of spot treatment to top it off. Every mask I owned had the words “purifying,” “detoxifying,” “oil-absorbing,” “pore-clearing,” and “decongesting” on it. With the exception of one moisturizing mask that I relied on to bring my skin back to life after burying it in clay masks, every skin treatment was geared at problem skin. But that’s the issue: When you focus on “the problem” and not the health of your skin, you never really address the problem at all. Oh how wise I’ve become in my old age. I wish I could take credit for coming to this realization all on my own, but alas, I cannot.
Keep reading to hear more about what changed everything for my skin!
During one of my “my skin is out of control—I can’t even” facials, my esthetician pointed out the error of my ways. She told me that my no-pain, no-gain approach was essentially doing the opposite of what I wanted it to do. (Okay, this conversation actually happened many times during my deep pore-cleansing facials.) Instead, she suggested skin-clearing ingredients like tea tree and antioxidants like green tea. I’m not exactly sure why the advice stuck this particular time, but for whatever reason, it did, and I could not be happier.
Let’s journey back. When you first get a pimple as a preteen, you rush to the drugstore and pick up any product with the word “acne” on it. Somewhere down the line, you may graduate to Sephora, looking out for ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. When all of that fails you, you probably turn to a dermatologist. And when the frustration of acne continues, you probably find yourself back at the department or drugstore. At least that’s how I ended up with a collection of prescriptions and a bathroom overflowing with products that all promised to do the same thing. Tretinoin and Differin both dried out my skin, but so did the benzoyl peroxide treatments I got over the counter. Sigh. In a nutshell, my skin was lacking balance. (Crazy how always using the highest concentration of acne-fighting ingredients doesn’t give you balance, right?)
Again, I knew that all acne-fighting products all the time wasn’t the best idea for my skin, but for some reason, it’s hard to give them up. I think what changed for me was how my esthetician explained her product recommendations that fateful day. It’s not that products without salicylic acid can’t be “acne-fighting” products. I just had to learn to approach skincare differently. I needed to look at the whole picture—how every product interacted with every other product. If I needed to use a spot treatment, I didn’t need to use three other layers of acne fighters. I also needed to be less aggressive. If the instructions on a mask indicated it was to be used for 10 minutes once or twice a week, I didn’t need to use it for 20 minutes three times a week.
Now, I focus on getting my skin clean, exfoliated, and properly moisturized. I traded harsh treatments for double cleansing with two gentle, non-stripping products. Most nights I use a soap-free cleanser like Renée Rouleau’s Purifying Face Wash ($37) followed by one with charcoal—the first ingredient in Michael Todd’s Charcoal Detox ($23) is actually organic aloe vera. I’ve always been diligent about removing my makeup at night, but when I started double cleansing, too, I noticed a positive change in my skin.
I also traded manual exfoliation for chemical exfoliation, and it’s made a huge difference. Especially when you have active acne, grainy exfoliators can aggravate your skin and possibly even make symptoms worse. Instead, I use a natural exfoliating peel—Sonya Dakar’s Nano Peel ($155) is one of my favorites—once a week. And I use glycolic acid pads every other night. I’ve tried a few, but Radical Skincare’s Age-Defying Exfoliating Pads ($75) are enriched with chamomile and safe for sensitive skin. For me, it was hard to part with the smooth, soft feeling you get from a manual scrub, but I’ve come to realize a good chemical exfoliator will deliver the same feeling.
Where I once picked the lightest possible moisturizer (often with salicylic or glycolic acid), now I don’t shy away from the real deal. I may not always use (or need to use) the one formulated for extremely dry skin, but I have La Prairie’s Swiss Ice Crystal Cream ($300) on hand for when I do get dry. In general, I try to choose products that are safe for sensitive skin, because I’d rather avoid the possibility of irritation as much as possible. When I do get an acne flare-up, I turn to tea tree.
Today my skin is balanced. I no longer deal with dry patches on my chin and an oil slick on my T-zone. It’s clear and bright, rather than red and irritated. My pores are small (it’s a blessing and a curse, people), so I get congestion from time to time. But as long as I keep my cleansing efforts thorough, I avoid major breakouts. That’s probably the single most important thing I’ve learned—clean skin is happy skin. It’s when I get lazy after a long day and can only muster up the strength to use a cleansing wipe that I notice clogged pores springing up a couple of days later. When I stick to my skincare regimen, I don’t even need those common acne fighters.
What do you do to care for your skin? Have you stepped back from the harsher ingredients? Tell me what’s worked for you!