Have you struggled with sensitive, acne prone skin for years? I thought I was in the clear after my skin struggles in high school and college. Then, I hit my late 20s and my skin was ravaged with "adult acne". After years of trials and errors, I can tell you the do's and don'ts to help you with troubled skin.
It's typical to have an irregular surge of hormones when you reach the age of puberty. I'm sure you've seen plenty of classmates suffering from acne. I was definitely one of them. It started around sixth grade and continued on until my freshman year of college. But when I thought my skin was finally in the clear, I hit my late 20s and adult acne arrived.
It was some new terror that was riddling my skin with painful cystic acne and awful scars. On top of the physical damage acne was causing, it also caused psychological damage. I didn't feel beautiful and I was constantly worried about how awful my acne looked.
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The American dermatologic recommendations always aim to dry out the oil on skin first if you have oily skin, which I have been blessed with, instead of looking at underlying causes. I know this firsthand because as a pharmacist, that's what I recommend. Since an overproduction of sebum mixed with the natural bacteria on your skin's surface is what clogs pores resulting in acne, the way to fight this is initially drying out the skin. If that doesn't help, then you move on to treatments to balance the bacteria including antibiotic creams, ointments and pills.
I've taken all of those recommendations. Starting with salicylic acid topicals and washes that dried out my skin, making it constantly flaky no matter how much moisturiser I applied. Then, I moved on to benzoyl peroxide cream that dried and thickened my skin which worsened the cystic acne. After those failed recommendations, I moved on to prescriptions such as clindamycin-benzoyl peroxide gel, tretinoin cream, and doxycycline oral capsules. Does this sound anything like what you went through?
These harsh products damaged the healthy parts of my skin more than it benefited my troubled skin. So, I started going to a medical spa once a week for treatments and advice to turn my skin and ultimately, my life around. Here's what I've learned from years of experimenting with my troubled skin.
1. Don't Touch Your Face.
Whether you've heard this before or not, this tip is key and may solve a lot of your skin issues. Since acne is a result of an overproduction of sebum (oil) with a mix of bacteria clogging your pores, those are the two things you want to tackle: sebum and bacteria. And you're going to find a ton of bacteria on your hands.
When I started seeing an aesthetician at the spa, she asked me about my work environment. I explained that I tend to work mainly at a desk in front of a computer. She explained that often times people who are desk jockeys tend to touch their face throughout the day without realising it. It's just a natural habit people do when they're deep in thought.
I was so sure that I trained myself not to touch my face for years. But I started to be mindful of my actions at work and I noticed that I do touch my face! I would lean my chin on my hand when I was thinking or scratch my jawline. Figuring this out. I mentally tied by hands by my keyboard at work, not allowing myself to lift my arms above my shoulders for the time being except to stretch. I found a decrease in acne and blackheads around my jawline. I guess I needed that reminder, like I am reminding you, to be mindful of your actions and retrain yourself not to touch your face.
2. Do Double Wash.
I've had friends question the need for double washing, which is a new trend in the beauty world. It sounds like a lot of work and an extra added step to your daily routine. With a busy life, we try to minimise everything we do. We opt for quick 30 minute HIIT gym session instead of a full one hour moderate workout or drink a smoothie instead of a full sit down meal in order to get an extra 30 minutes of work done in the day. We're all doing our best at being efficient. But you don't want to cut corners when it comes to your skin's health because it'll show.
My test to see if I needed a second wash or not was this: I used the best oil-based makeup removers of various brands for my initial removal of makeup. Then, I washed it off with water and wiped toner on my face with a cotton ball to see if there was any residue left on my skin. There was!
First off, I highly recommend taking the time and effort to search for a great makeup remover. There are big differences between cheap makeup removers and good quality removers. They are not all created equal.
Secondly, make sure your makeup remover is oil-based. Likes attract. That's simple chemistry. Like removes like. Makeup is oil-based so only oil-based makeup removers will properly do the removal job. But you also need that second face wash to remove the residue that your makeup remover missed. It stinks to have another step added to your routine but it's only an extra minute to your 24-hour day. It's made a huge difference for me and your skin will thank you.
3. Don't Manually Exfoliate.
It seems like a great idea to exfoliate with face washes that have bits of rough exfoliants in it. Or the use of a battery-powered brush may feel like it's leaving your skin squeaky clean. But in addition to removing unwanted dead skin cells, you're also scratching the surface of your healthy skin cells creating damage. It can also lead to overly drying your skin as well.
Ideally, you want to use a chemical exfoliant. There are many varieties out there including BHA (beta hydroxy acid), AHA (alpha hydroxy acid), lactic acid, enzyme powder, vitamin C and so forth. Personally, I love using a three-step Vitamin C exfoliant called PowerBright from OleHenriksen but I'm careful to only apply it to my troubled skin areas which is my T-zone instead and avoid my sensitive areas such as my cheeks. The difference between this and a manual exfoliant is that I'm sloughing off the dead skin to prevent my pores from clogging, but I'm not damaging my healthy skin. So, I'm left with beautiful healthy skin all around.
4. Don't Let Your Skin Dry Out.
Drying out your skin with harsh anti-acne chemicals such as benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin, without keeping your skin hydrated may worsen the health of your skin. Dry skin leads to flaky dead skin cells that can further clog neighbouring pores, just perpetuating the problem.
Ideally, you want to leave the harsh chemicals behind because they may be doing more damage than good. Great alternatives would be tea tree oil, which is a known natural antimicrobial meaning it works to fight fungus, bacteria, and viruses. Try a tea tree oil mask, which will both hydrate and kill off unwanted flora.
But if you feel you cannot live without the harsh chemicals, then make sure you deeply moisturise. In the morning, I use a cream-gel moisturiser that really hydrates and creates a barrier around my skin to soak in the moisture. In the evening, I add on an oil-based serum, yes even to my oily skin, to heal my skin from the harsh environment it has been in all day (ie. forced dry air, dust, etc). Then, I add on a spot treatment of salicylic acid if there's a stubborn pimple that won't see to go away on its own. Make sure to spot treat and not use it all over your face.
5. Do Hydrate.
If you have an overproduction of oil on your face, often times, it can be because it's not hydrated enough. Seems counterintuitive, I know. If it's oily, don't you want to dry that area out? The problem is that the more you dry out your skin, the more your skin will try to hydrate itself the only way it knows how: by producing more oil. That can further cause more acne, which will make you use more harsh products to dry it out. It's a negative cycle. How do you break this cycle?
Oil serums. I started to use oils, specifically a grapeseed-based oil serum that has Vitamin E. The first couple of days I tried it out, there were more mild breakouts and I was worried that this was a poor choice. But it was one of those situations where things get worse before they get better. After about a week of continued use. I found my oil production on my skin regulate itself and reduce while the acne subsided. My skin overall looked healthier, hydrated, and smooth. People around me said I was glowing. Basically, my skin was retrained to produce less oil because it was no longer starved of hydration. And it made me realise that I must have not been giving it the moisture it desperately needed all this time.
Another key action to hydrate your skin is to hydrate from the inside out. Make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day. Many sources recommend eight 8-ounce glasses a day (8 x 8) while others recommend drinking half of your body weight in ounces (ie. if you weigh 160 pounds, you should drink 80 ounces). Personally, I aim for the first option, which comes out to 64 ounces. If you don't drink enough water to begin with and you take on this challenge, you'll see a drastic difference in the health of your skin.
6. Do Protect.
SPF is key to protecting your skin. I didn't care much for it in my teens and early 20s until I realised the damage that occurred with just day to day exposure to UV rays. Harsh UV rays can dry out your skin and ultimately, age it faster. Remember, dry skin leads to more clogged pores and wrinkles.
Whether you're having an all-day beach day or you're going outside for a short run, applying an SPF lotion is absolutely essential for skin health and even more so if you have troubled skin. You don't want to irritate your skin further especially if have the option to protect it.
The maximum SPF you need is 50 to protect you from 98% of UVB rays. I don't recommend anything higher because you're paying a premium for nearly no added benefit. With troubled skin, you also want to look for SPF lotions that are labeled "for sensitive skin". My go-to for years has been Elta MD and my newest one discovered is Dr. Jart+. I have no affiliation with them, but these two brands have helped me out the most especially when travelling to areas with harsh UV rays like Cabo, Mexico.
7. Don't Add Sugar.
This one is a tough one because I have a major sweet tooth that sometimes has a mind of its own. After talking to my very experienced aesthetician, she told me that the little balls of oil around my jaw that weren't necessarily pimples (since they weren't infected), were probably caused by added sugar in my diet.
The added sugar in my food was creating a surge of oil production around my jawline. I thought this was made up. But when I cut out sugar from my diet, including baked goods, unhealthy carbohydrates, and sugary drinks, I saw a majority of my acne vanish. I know it's a tough commitment for some.
One of my colleagues just can't seem to kick the sugar despite knowing it directly affects her acne. It's tough, but give it a try. Just try it for 7 days at first. You'll see a major benefit in your skin and overall health.
Remember that any changes you apply to your skin routine takes a few days for your skin to adapt and respond appropriately. So be patient. If at any point, you feel burning, redness or any other irritation with new regimens, you have to quit it and move on. It's not worth trying the newest trend or brand when your gentle, sensitive skin is telling you, "I don't like this".
If all else fails, do not be afraid to ask for help. I was desperate. What I knew about how to treat adult acne problem from medical textbooks were not working or me and dermatologist recommendations weren't helping but were rather hurting my fragile skin. So, I turned to a medical spa. With their physical interventions and my own changes to my skin routine that I figured out on my own, it really changed my life. Use these steps to heal your troubled skin even if it seems counterintuitive. I hope it changes yours for the better and you find some relief with these tips.
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