Thursday, August 20, 2015

My 5 Basic Principles for Clearer, Happier Skin (with Product Recommendations)

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!
1. Cream, Milk, Oil and Balm Cleansers
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.
2. Double Cleansing
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.
3. Acid Toning
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).
For my somewhat sensitive skin prone to redness, I definitely prefer frequent chemical exfoliation over manual exfoliation once every couple days. However, if you're not seeing results from your acid toning and/or you've noticed that your serums and moisturizers are not absorbing properly into your skin, try a gentle (no apricot kernels please!) physical scrub once or twice a week - I like to lightly massage my face with a scrub and then follow with a mask for a more effective treatment. My current favorite manual exfoliators are the TATCHA Classic Rice Enzyme Powder ($65 for 60 g/2.1 oz, 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.
Even though in the past, I thought NOT using a moisturizer on my very oily skin could be a good idea (see 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!


  1. Awesome post! Sounds like we have similar skin, so I'm pinning this!

  2. I've recently had to invest more in my skincare but for excessive dryness! I'm fairly young, but I have some dry-ass skin! I actually had a breakout of psoriasis around my nose and it was spreading. fast. Scaling, tense, red skin...not fun! I invested in some natural brands like Andalou naturals and Kensington Apothecary and some natural creams targeted towards dryness. The summer's almost over and my patches are essentially gone!

    1. You know, I'd always been jealous of people with dry skin, because at least in photos and videos, their skin always looks so perfectly smooth and poreless. That is until I started getting more and more eczema flare-ups on my hands with dry, peeling and cracking skin. Now I know it's not fun at all :(

      Maeve, what have you tried from Andalou? I'm still eyeing quite a few of their products, so I'd love to hear what you're liking from them. Everything sounds so appealing for some reason, lol.

  3. We have very similar skin and skincare philosophies! I recently picked up a regular cleanser (the Fresh one) just to try, because it'd been such a long time, and was totally disappointed. Never again! I don't use acids every day, mostly because I'm lazy, but it's at least every 2-3 days. I do think I need to start incorporating more retinoids though -- at the moment I've only got Differin and just don't particular enjoy using it.

    I'm still a terrible picker. But now that my skin has cleared up there's less to pick, at least on my face. My legs though... Work in progress.

    1. I know that a lot of people swear by that Fresh cleanser, but I used a sample a long time ago and thought it smelt like rosey pickles - actually, a lot of their line has that same scent.

      I've used prescription retinoids in the past (I think I tried Differin too), but in hindsight, I don't think they agreed with my skin all that well. I would get very, very red and peeling, but still had breakouts at the same time :( Maybe it was just too strong for me. One helpful tip from my dermatologist was to use it over moisturizer (she recommended the CeraVe PM and I really like that one!) to minimize dryness and irritation.

      Yeah, I struggle with picking all the time too. If I don't pick my face, I start picking my scaly cuticles or biting my lips... I guess I need to find other outlets for my daily stress, lol :D

  4. Seriously though, could you be any more helpful?! I have gotten into a bit of a funk with my skincare lately and this will help to kickstart me caring for my skin once more - I didn't see any improvement with the FAB pads sadly, but am looking to try that Clarins toner (I just wish I could get my hands on that Pixi Tonic :( so hard to find!)
    I need to work out a routine and actually stick to it, that is what I'm struggling with now

    1. Thank you for the kind words Emma, I'm really happy you found this post inspiring! I think maybe if you didn't get on with the FAB pads all that well, you wouldn't like the Pixi one all that much either - it's pretty gentle. You know, the Clarins is alright but not all that amazing for the price; I've heard a lot of people use something like the Stridex alcohol-free pads with better luck, and Rae from theNotice is swearing by the Nip+Fab Dragon's Blood ones; not sure if those are available in Oz, but they're next on my list of acid toning thingies to try.

      Ha, I'm pretty good sticking to routines - I guess otherwise I'd get really overwhelmed!

  5. Monika, you hit all the great points about caring for skin, I can't think of anything else! I agree on not to think too much about the "best" product out there as much as to just switch and try, e.g. doing without foaming cleanser. I actually use coconut oil for my first-cleanse before using my regular Clinique balm for second cleanse (in effort to make my cleanser go a long way) and it works just as well! I also agree in sandwiching moisture, especially important if one has dry skin like mine.

    I noticed you use quite a bit of Andalou, I must try this out when I have a chance to do so!

    1. Claire, thank you for reminding me about coconut oil - I still have my giant bottle of Shu to go through before I need something new for make-up removal, but I love coconut oil for so many things that I should really just try it at some point.

      Does the local Whole Foods carry Andalou? I don't quite remember, even though we used to shop at the Bellevue one weekly :) But if they do, they're super nice about making little samples, so you could try before you buy!

    2. Yes, Whole Foods carry Andalou, samples are great idea, too! They are so generous with it..

  6. Great post! I also found my skin behaved better once starting a cream cleanser! Balmy ones are too much (hassle) for moi in the summer now :P also stopped picking on the skin. Greasing up before bedtime also did wonders on the skin. It's by no means perfect now but obviously in a better state than before.

    Can you do an into on AHA/ BHA or even LHA/ PHA toners/lotions? I read product recs often from blogs but never know what are their differences, which one will be a good start, and how many % concentrations, etc lol. The closest I've come to using was Alpha H Liquid Gold, but that was before the major skin episode (dermatitis), i didn't know what that was, obviously...

    1. Hi Jennifer! I know what you mean, cream cleansers just seem a bit lighter for the summer - and that REN Evercalming one actually feels nice and cool on the skin; great on my morning beetroot face after I'm done working out :) I haven't used a facial oil in a couple months, but I need to get back to it!

      I've done a post about a whole lot of different acid toning pads and liquid exfoliants about a year ago, here's a link:
      Since then, I've tried a couple more products, separate reviews for those can be found under the 'Exfoliation' label on the right here ------>

      Be careful with that Alpha H Liquid Gold; I haven't used it myself but tried their pads, and from what I understand, it shouldn't be used more often than once or twice a week because it's really strong. It may have contributed to your dermatitis; I came up in an itchy red rash on my cheeks after overdosing on the Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid toner (also too strong for my skin). I definitely think the First Aid Beauty pads are the best product to start with, but then again, some people find them too mild and uneffective. It all depends on your skin I'm afraid!

  7. Thank you so much for this helpful post! Andalou naturals seems very good brand, I haven't tried anything except a hand cream, but if my memory serves me right they have quite favourable reviews in Paula's Beautypedia. I'm def. re-checking your reviews and adding a couple of things in my wish list. Have you tried their Enlighten Serum Turmeric + C or Luminous Eye serum?

    I'm using BHA and a retinoid treatment, so my skin flakes when I apply makeup or sunscreen. I've found a cure from CURE natural aqua gel (pun intended). It feels very light and gentle peel, I'm not sure what kind of exfoliant I'd call it. You massage the water like gel onto your skin, and the extra flakes gently peel of. Gross, but so satisfying. I'm trying to let go of my foaming cleanser, although I was a follower of Japanese cult product Perfect Whip. I left it home when I went on a holiday and switched to Dr. Hauschka's cleansing cream. It has some exfoliating bits, I think, but feels so gentle on the skin. I think my break outs have reduced a lot since!

    I love your blog, keep up the great work <3

    1. Hi Laura, I'm so glad you found it helpful! You know, I don't know how much I trust those reviews on Beautypedia anymore; seems to me that they review ingredients more than the actual performance of a product (there's an upcoming review where I mention why I think that). You know, I haven't tried the Turmeric Serum or the Eye Serum yet, but I was seriously considering getting that eye cream after I'm all done with my various samples!

      I've heard amazing things about that CURE Aqua Gel; I think it's one of the best-selling skincare products in Japan. I have a different peeling gel from Laneige in my back-up stash, but need to work through some other exfoliants first. But you've definitely piqued my interest!

      I know people who swear by Dr. Hauschka products, but they scare me a bit personally because there's a lot of alcohol in their formulations :/ Also, quite pricey compared to a lot of American green beauty brands.

      Thank you for the compliment, I really appreciate it!!! <3

    2. Hi, Monika, Agree with Beautypedia comment. I have had great results from products they rate negatively. Really turned off when they didn't publish a negative review for a Paula's choice product that broke me out. (however, do love PC 1% retinol)

  8. Fantastic recommendations! And I follow almost the exact same routine for my skin, though in the summer I skip the moisturizer except around my eyes (but I do use a hydrating toner, which also makes makeup apply more smoothly), and I also prefer to use an oil at night vs a moisturizer.

    1. I've been more skimpy on the moisturizer too but then again I use both the Hada Hyaluronic Acid Lotion and a pretty moisturizing serum - so adding a moisturizer and then a separate SPF would be total overkill in this blasted humidity.

      Maggie, why do you prefer a facial oil at night versus a cream? Does it moisturize better for you?

    2. Maybe it's counter-intuitive, but I find oils feel lighter on my skin while doing more work, at least in the case of the Luna oil from Sunday Riley.

  9. Great post! I follow a very similar routine after discovering Caroline Hirons. My skin has never been better and I finally now rarely break out. When I do, the spot is usually gone in 12 h with the combo that I zap it with!

  10. I follow these steps as well, mostly, although I use a gentler toner and rely on a deep cleanser every now and again instead for clarifying action. I also swap in various serums at night and in the morning, depending on what I've got on hand and what I think my skin needs. I keep telling myself I need to do another skincare post again soon, BUT THEY'RE SO MUCH WORK. Beautiful post here, Monika! I applaud you, lol!

  11. Nice to read your article! I am looking forward to sharing your adventures and experiences.