By Anura Logan
Our resident beauty editor spills some of the truths about dealing with acne over a long period.
Acne has been a feature throughout my life. Even though I have pretty clear skin now, it's been a long and tiresome journey just to reach that point of reasonable skin with occasional hormonal breakouts! When I was a teenager, I experienced whiteheads, oily skin and a lot of texture (especially on my forehead) that made me avoid mirrors at close range. I caught a glimpse of myself in one of those hotel bathroom mirrors that magnified your face when I was about 15 and almost burst into tears because I hated the reflection so much!
Acne can impact even the most confident people
Now when I think back to those times and reflect on how poor my self-esteem was, it makes me feel sad at the excess value I ascribed to the way I looked, despite growing up in a very supportive environment where both friends and family would positively reinforce my worth. But, as is so often the case, we can be our own harshest critic. I wouldn’t come too close to others during particularly bad breakouts, paranoid they would be studying my “imperfections” as closely as I did. What I wish I knew earlier is that most people are far more focused themselves to care about what you look like (it’s true).
I felt like I tried it all
My family would notice how down I’d become after a rash of pimples would emerge, and would try to purchase different products for me to try. Back in the ‘90s, there certainly wasn’t as much choice or education about various skincare ingredients as there is now. The internet was only just beginning, and the most common acne treatments were supermarket offerings packed with chemicals (Johnson & Johnson’s Clean and Clear was everywhere) or equally dubious passed-down tips (“put toothpaste on your pimples”).
I tried some weird things to combat acne
I remember back when I was 18 and tried an “apple cleanse”. This involved eating 10 Red Delicious apples per day for 3 days, and nothing else. Apparently, your skin would then miraculously clear up. Needless to say, I didn’t make it past the first day and my family was stuck with trying to consume the remaining 22 apples before they went off! But I think that’s when it hit me – we can go through ridiculous lengths to find the silver bullet for acne, because our self-confidence can hinge on our skin’s appearance.
Diet matters, but it isn’t always practical to switch up your diet
Around that time, I went on exchange to France and lived in a small country town for a few months. All of a sudden, my skin began to clear up rapidly. I then realized that the foods I was eating (locally sourced, organic and with virtually no processed ingredients) made a huge difference to my skin’s health. You really are what you eat. But, it’s not always possible to eat like you’re living in a quaint French country village. Even today, organic and local produce is expensive, and not always accessible. Most of us barely have time to order Uber Eats, let alone slow cook a 3-course meal. When I returned to Australia, I was out drinking, clubbing, eating kebabs at 4am, and just generally enjoying life. Of course, the acne came back with a vengeance. But by then, I was having too much fun to let it limit my activities.
Benzoyl peroxide worked on my teenage acne – with a caveat
Luckily, my anti-acne prayers were soon answered when Mum suggested trying a well-known benzoyl peroxide range. Honestly, at that stage I felt like I’d already tried everything and almost didn’t want to bother. But, the lesson was that trial (and error) is needed to find that “Goldilocks” skincare routine that’s juuust right. There will always be something out there that’s novel and worth trying – so don’t give up! The benzoyl peroxide worked like a charm: soon my skin was as clear as a sheet of copy paper. I could hardly believe my luck. But there were some side effects. Although my skin looked good, it felt as dry as sandpaper. The supporting ingredients in the formula weren’t that skin-friendly and probably harmed my acid mantle. Because I was young and young skin seems to shrug off everything, I just ignored it (and the bleached pillowcases).
What worked when I was younger stopped as I became older
Fast forward 15 years: my skin is now older and thinner – and far less tolerant. One morning, I woke up and could barely put water on my face without it burning. Two red clown circles appeared on my face and I was horrified. When I went to the derm, I learned that sun overexposure and unsuitable skincare had sensitized my skin. I was advised to drop the benzoyl peroxide straight away, as well as any other actives to heal my skin barrier. Going back to basics also meant going back to acne. Within a week, the texture returned. Like, come on!! I’ve got to deal with fine lines AND acne now? And that’s when my skincare journey really began.
Treating acne can be a long journey – don’t be discouraged
I had to go back to the drawing board, and try ingredients that wouldn’t attack my barrier, but would be effective on subclinical acne. Retinol, niacinamide and BHA all came into the mix. I had to test the frequency of use of these ingredients too (an important factor), and add counterbalancing ingredients like propolis and ceramides to keep my skin happy. I learned what my skin liked in summer but hated in winter and vice versa. I also had to accept that sometimes, hormones get in the way and will give you a zit no matter how tight your routine is, or how much water you’ve been drinking.
The goal is to feel good in your skin
Ultimately, it led to a greater acceptance of my skin and its vulnerabilities – as well as a grudging respect for its strengths and how it’s managed to protect me over the years despite my lack of sunscreen (the regret is REAL) and using almost detergent-level cleansers to feel “clean”. While I’m still trying new products because my skin is constantly evolving, I’ve found what works for me in various skin-tuations. The right BHA toner went a long way to calming subclinical acne. Combining it with a propolis serum and a rich cream protected my barrier. Adding a hydrating, pH-adjusting toner in the mix took it to the next level. Using retinol as a spot treatment worked really well on cystic acne, but whiteheads needed a low pH cleanser and an acid exfoliant. My skin embraced vitamin C in humidity, but didn’t want a bar of it when the weather became cooler. I’m still learning, and not forcing my skin to love a product before it’s ready or if it just doesn’t want to. And I gotta say, it’s a much healthier and loving relationship.