I've already mentioned here and there on the blog that unexpectedly, my skin has been gradually clearing up for about six months now. I've been struggling with acne half of my life, and for all the lotions, potions, elimination diets and frequent trips to the dermatologist, the only thing that has ever worked to dramatically improve my skin were antibiotics; however, as soon as I stopped taking them (as you should after about a year long course), the problem was back with a vengeance, including painful cystic breakouts mostly along the jawline, upper neck and chin.
Yes, one would easily diagnose my acne must have been hormone-related, but hormones are stubborn, complicated buggers. No standard prescriptions worked for me, and as I was not willing to agree to more invasive methods, I pretty much gave up hope and tried to learn to accept the breakouts, oilies, redness and uneven skin texture. What I did focus on instead was improving my skincare routine, which is what I'll be sharing with you today - but while I absolutely believe that incorporating these steps helped to balance and heal my skin, I have to admit that I also think something must have changed inside my body, without any interference from outside factors. I'm 28 now, and I've heard in the past that a lot of women experience skin changes in their late twenties. For many, that change may mean new problems with dryness or the appearance of first fine lines, for me, it has meant significantly clearer and more even skin, and a less oily/ more balanced T-zone.
At any rate - if you're still struggling with acne, these are the five most important and effective changes I've made to my routine for happier skin. I've talked about these on the blog in the past, but I thought it may be more helpful for you to have everything in one place; there's lots of links to other skincare posts in each section, should you need more information. Alrighty then!
After about three years of using mostly cream and balm cleansers on my skin, I'm a firm believer in avoiding any and all foaming face washes. I've used both really harsh, sulfate-based ones (in my teens), as well as the more gentle, soap-free options (in my twenties, after I came to my senses), but to be honest, I find both types significantly inferior to just about any cream, balm or oil cleanser I've tried so far. Not only are the foams way more drying, as well as potentially disrupting your skin's acid mantle, they're just not that great at actually cleansing the skin - my face just feels so much better after a nice massage with a creamy/oily/balmy cleanser, properly removed with a warm wash cloth. No squeaking, no tightness, no residue, no irritation; seriously, why would I even want to go back to foaming cleansers?
I try new cream, oil and balm cleansers all the time, but so far, my favorites are the REN Evercalm Gentle Cleansing Milk ($28 for 5.1 fl oz./ 150ml, full review here, currently using), TATCHA One Step Camellia Cleansing Oil ($48 for 150 ml/5.1 fl oz, full review here, used up but haven't repurchased yet because of the higher price), Emma Hardie Amazing Face Moringa Cleansing Balm ($63 for 100ml, full review here, also haven't repurchased due to the price/ availability) and Alaffia Facial Cleanser Antioxidant Rooibos and Shea Butter ($13.95 for 3.4 fl. oz; reviewed here - I used it a very long time ago and kind of forgot about it... it's been repackaged into a tube now).
If you've been thinking about giving cream/ balm cleansers a try but have been hesitant because of the high price tag of the most hyped-up ones, there's a lot of affordable options now from The Body Shop and many natural skincare brands (including Alaffia). I believe it's more important to simply stop using foaming washes rather than worry if you have the absolute best cream/ balm cleanser available on the market. I'm currently trying out a new-to-me inexpensive cream cleanser from Andalou Naturals, look out for my review in a couple weeks' time.
Oh no, we're not finished with cleansing yet - because a properly cleansed face is the basis of your entire skincare routine. I always double cleanse my face in the evening if I'm wearing sunscreen and/or make-up. Seriously. Even after a thorough massage with your first cleanser (usually an oil or balm for me), you'd be surprised at how much gunk still remains on your face - but then again, those SPFs and foundations aren't meant to be removed easily.
I know there are subtleties here and some will debate which products are more suited for each step of the cleanse, but essentially, the most important part is simply to cleanse twice, and remove the cleanser each time with a warm wash cloth (I always do several passes, rinsing the cloth in-between) - you could use one and the same cream/ oil/ balm cleanser for this. I like to use a basic cleansing oil first, and follow with a more luxurious cream or balm, but again, you don't have to. Just cleanse twice - any time you're wearing make-up or sunscreen.
I couldn't possibly omit the acid tone from this round-up; it's a step I do twice a day, every day, no exception. In short, I think there are three most important factors to a successful acid tone, be it in the form of an AHA/ BHA or even LHA/ PHA toner, or exfoliating pads:
a) gentle but effective formulation (no alcohol, preferrably lower percentage of the acids, sufficiently low pH level),
b) consistency of usage (at least once a day - obviously I'm not talking here about folks who can't tolerate acids on their skin...),
c) following up with hydrating products and SPF during the day (to counteract possible dryness and prevent hyperpigmentation).
I've also mentioned in the past that I like to mix up my acids by rotating a couple different products in the acid toning step and sometimes using exfoliating masks (recent overview here) or an exfoliating serum, but that's not strictly necessary - you could just have one acid product on hand and use it both morning and night or just at night, depending on how your skin handles chemical exfoliation. So far, my favorite products for this step are the First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads ($30 for 60 pads, repurchased multiple times, review included in my overview of acid toners and pads here) and the Pixi Skintreats Glow Tonic ($29 for 250ml/ 8.25 fl oz, full review here).
reviewed here) and the Andalou Naturals Clarifying Lemon Sugar Facial Scrub ($$11.99 for 1.7 oz/ 50 ml, reviewed here).
4. Hydration Sandwich
I briefly spoke about sandwiching hydrating products in my review of the Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Lotion, but here's the gist: layering hydrating toners/ essences/ lotions with serums and moisturizers helps to balance your skin, even out its tone and texture, and prevents surface dehydration as well as fine lines/ wrinkles in the future.
this old post), I would never try that again - even (or especially) oily and combination skin types need some hydrating, but not necessarily moisturizing, products. I mean fine, you don't want to use a typical creamy moisturizer, especially in the morning when you wear an SPF anyway - go ahead, I have no problems with that. Just make sure you're using a hydrating serum (preferrably, with lots of hyaluronic acid), or, better yet, a hydrating spray toner followed with a serum, and monitor your skin for signs of dryness; you could always add a more nourishing moisturizer or face oil only at night if you don't like heavy layers on your face in the daytime. Your nicely hydrated face will feel and look softer, plumper and more even, your blemishes will heal quicker, and hopefully in due time, your sebum production will subside at least a little bit.
My favorite lightweight hydrating products include the above mentioned Rohto Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Lotion ($11- 20 for 5.7 fl. oz/ 170ml, full review here), Reviva Labs Hyaluronic Acid Serum ($22 for 1 0z./30ml, reviewed here) the Bioderma Hydrabio Serum Moisturizing Concentrate (around $20 for 40ml, mentioned here) and Andalou Naturals Probiotic + C Renewal Cream ($19.99 for 1.7 oz/ 50 ml, reviewed here), preceded by various water-based spritzes such as natural hydrosols (rosewater and rock rose/ Cistus flower water are my favorites), thermal spring waters (Vichy, Avene, you name it) or more complex toners like Nature Republic Bee Venom Mist Essence ($19.90 for 3.38 fl. oz/ 100ml, full review here) or the Dermalogica Ultracalming Mist ($34 for 6 fl oz/ 177 ml, reviewed here). Hydrating masks also work a charm when my skin needs an extra boost, my favorites are various Asian sheet masks as well as the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask ($23 for 80ml/ 2.7 fl oz, recently reviewed here) and the Andalou Naturals 1000 Roses Rosewater Mask ($14.95 for 1.7 fl oz, reviewed here).
5. No picking
As a long-standing skin picker, this last point is something I struggle with the most. While I don't really get whiteheads or larger breakouts any more, I still have a lot of blackheads and quite a few clogged pores, and the urge to get them out of my skin is sometimes too strong to resist. I believe that the internal motivation of a picker and the reasoning behind attacking your own face is that you're 'helping' your skin by getting rid of a stubborn clog, and that once removed, it should heal much faster. And yes, sometimes that's true - but please think about all the other times your picking caused the breakout to get much worse, or to spread into more breakouts in the same area, or it scarred badly and you're still bearing the battle marks today.
Do whatever it takes to minimize, and hopefully completely stop, your picking habit - get rid of magnifying mirrors, don't step too close to a mirror, use lower lighting in the bathroom, set a timer for how much time you're spending at the sink, get artificial nails - doesn't matter, just do it. Picking is a bad habit but habits can be changed, even when they're coping mechanisms. Be present and be mindful for your skin, and it will thank you.
Aaand... that's it! Hopefully, this long and wordy post was helpful to you; please let me know if you have any questions and I shall do my best to answer them. We all wish for better skin, and sometimes what works for one person won't do a thing for the next - but if you're looking to change your routine, these may just be some basic ideas worth considering. Now tell me, regardless of your particular skin struggles - be it irritation, dryness, breakouts - what was the single thing you introduced into your routine that has given you the best results? I'd love to know!