So, some time ago I posted a picture on my Instagram stories. It showed a three month progression of how my acne had improved. As someone who struggles with acne prone skin, this process is annoyingly familiar.
This isn’t my first bout with acne, nor is it the first time I’ve been able to improve my skin. And while I have routinely hinted at my failsafe process; I feel that it’s time for a proper rundown.
With that said, let’s get the mandatory disclaimer out of the way. I am not a dermatologist, cosmetologist or skin specialist. Whatever I mention here, is based on my own personal experiences. So, please don’t take this as skincare advice, but rather just as a recollection of what worked for me.
The Never-ending Cycle Of Acne Prone Skin
I was sixteen when I went through my first bout of acne. It was, to put it mildly, terrifying. Since then, I have gone through periods of absolutely translucent skin, and periods of the exact opposite.
In my experience, my acne is usually triggered by my lifestyle choices, the products that I’m using, and my stress levels. More often than not, it is a culmination of all of these factors. That’s certainly what happened earlier this year. I had started using some new products, and gotten a bit too familiar with sugary foods. Simultaneously, it was a rather stressful time. And the declaration of a global pandemic, I’m sure, didn’t help.
So, as has been the norm of my life, my face came alive and tried to eat me. But, as a seasoned acne stalwart, this time I knew what to do. Getting a regimen down is kind of important when the pimples come out to play. But, I’ve come to realise, that once you have that, the rest of the chips fall into place as well.
So, here we go; this is what I did, and continue to do to manage my acne.
Lifestyle Changes; Keto & Heavy Cream
First, let’s just get this out of the way. Possibly to varying degrees, but the food you eat does impact your skin. In my case, my acne tends to be inflamed, and often triggered by food choices. In particular, there are two big things that cause me to break out; blood sugar spikes and most dairy.
While the jury is out, there has been some research linking high glycemic-load diets to acne. To keep it simple, the glycemic index (GI) measures how food impacts blood glucose. A high GI score indicates that the food raises blood sugar quicker and faster. Low carb foods tend to have a lower GI score. Personally, I find that low carb diets really help me manage my acne.
You guys know that I’m partial to Keto. But, if you struggle with acne prone skin, maybe start off with low-carb, and see how your skin reacts.
Dairy is another one on my personal no-go list. Most dairy that is, and most of the time. I’m able to get away with eating butter, most cheeses, and even milk at times. Heavy whipping cream however, is another story. As I shared with you guys when I first started on Keto.
The thing with dairy, is that most experts believe that it causes a hormonal imbalance which can trigger acne. However, while some believe that this is down to hormones that dairy cows are given. Others claim that it is down to pre-existing hormones found in milk. Personally, I have found that dairy in Canada impacts my skin much more severely than dairy in Pakistan.
But at any rate, whenever I over-indulge in these two devils, my skin throws a tantrum. Which is basically what happened earlier this year. Conversely, staying away from sugar and heavy cream, really helps clear my skin.
What’s In An Ingredient?
Okay, now let’s get to what you’re all here for; active ingredients. Skincare is a maze. A careful combination of branding, marketing and ingredients. Done well, it is a beacon of hope for those of us with imperfect skin. Done poorly, it is a Pandora’s box of all that could and will go wrong.
I have been on the dark side of this spectrum. Read about every mistake I made right here; and laugh at my foolishness. More recently, I’ve been much more careful about what I put on my skin. I will say that if you have sensitive skin, you should be really mindful about the ingredients used in your products. Personally, this is a list of my absolute failsafes.
When I moved to Canada, I was introduced to the merry rabbit hole of French pharmacy brands. In a nutshell, these tend to be really ‘down to business’. Focusing on quality ingredients and prioritising simple regimens.
The holy grail product that I took from my rendezvous was Laroche Posay’s Effaclar Duo. Shop here.
Now, as you will find out should you turn to Google, this product has two versions. And it is the ‘made in France’ version that includes our failsafe ingredient. Salicylic acid is known to be a gentle exfoliator. Extracted from the bark of the willow tree, this ingredient helps unclog pores, and ward off acne causing bacteria.
Some people have used this particular product all over their face. I tend to use it as a night-time spot treatment. It helps with both break-outs and scarring.
So, I’ve already gushed about The Ordinary on Instagram (follow me by the way) but a re-plug is in order. Niacinamide is a really great ingredient for reducing pore size, and improving the overall texture of the skin. It is also really helpful for inflammation, which as I mentioned, is what I tend to struggle with.
And The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% serum, is frankly worth the hype. Shop here.
Kojic Acid (kind of)
Okay, so this one is much stronger, and I’d say you’d have to be a little more vary of the products that you use. Kojic acid is a naturally occurring ingredient, found in certain fungi and also in fermented sake. It is really helpful with hyper-pigmentation, and since scarring is a concern for acne prone skin, this can really help.
The problem really, is down to the products that you opt for. There are a bunch of kojic acid soaps on the market. And many people swear by them. But, when I used the pretty popular Kojie San soap, it dried my skin out and really irritated it. Later, I found out that there are a bunch of fake versions of the soap out there. So possibly, it was the product and not the ingredient that reacted with my skin. But, it put me off of kojic acid for a bit.
Until I used the Skinceuticals Phyto + serum. This one combines kojic acid, arbutin (we’ll get to this) and hyaluronic acid (we will also get to this). It really helped my skin; to the extent that I was tempted to call this a holy grail product (you can buy it here).
Except, it is EXPENSIVE! In fact, this has basically prevented me from repurchasing.
Kojic acid is a pretty renowned ingredient, so I’m in the market for an alternative product. Laroche Posay does have a serum that uses the ingredient. So, I might try that one and keep you guys posted.
So, how do you like your skin in the morning? Personally, I’d like to have mine hydrated, soothed and not having a nervous breakdown. Hence, an ingredient that calms my skin down, is rather essentially. Centella Asiatica extract isn’t atop most people’s acne management regimen. Which is a real shame. Because ask us pimple popping people, and we’ll tell you just how necessary some TLC is.
Centella Asiatica is a pretty staple ingredient in Korean skincare. And at the risk of offending people, K-beauty tends to be lightyears ahead of its western counterparts. Thus, the COSRX Centella Water Alcohol Free Toner is one of my best friends. Shop here.
So, once upon a time SK-II convinced all of us to splash fermented sake on our faces, to achieve smooth, youthful skin. Or, we could opt for the less icky solution of using their essence. Which would cost you a measly CAD 200.
Yes, that’s right; let that jaw drop. Hence, I think we can all be a little grateful that COSRX decided to go down the galactomyces route as well.
Especially, when their product is at a much lower price point at CAD 21. Shop here.
A byproduct of sake fermentation, galactomyces balances out sebum production (yay) and also has antioxidant properties. Basically, it helps even out and brighten the complexion.
AHA + BHA
First things first; both AHAs and BHA are chemical exfoliants. Exfoliation is really important to encourage skin-cell turnover, which helps with everything from fine lines to acne scars. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are water soluble and exfoliate the top layer of the skin. While Beta Hydroxy Acids are oil soluble and hence reach deeper into pores (salicylic acid is a type of BHA).
Exfoliation is really effective when dealing with both acne and scarring. The issue is that physical exfoliants (like scrubs) can irritate active pimples, or even scratch the skin. In contrast chemical exfoliators get the job done, without the risk.
The Cosrx AHA + BHA toner has been my pick for a long, long time. Shop here.
Okay, so the term ‘whitening’ is applied to many products. I would like to think that this is down to flimsy translations. Particularly since many of these products don’t lighten the complexion, so much as brighten it, and fade discolouration.
Arbutin is a relatively gentle lightening ingredient, which really helps with scaring. I’ve been obsessed with this Hada Labo Whitening Lotion ever since I lived in Malaysia. It’s a really gentle product, and over time helps fade dark spots. Shop here.
I know that right now, retinol is being pushed pretty much as an anti-aging ingredient. But I remember a time when it was invariably linked with acne. So much so, that dermatologists were recommending oral medications that contained the ingredient. Now, I was never prescribed as such, so I can’t say much about it. Only, I know that some people had negative reactions to it. Understandably, since it is so potent.
With that said, The Ordinary’s Retinol 1% in Squalene is a definite keeper. It is the only retinol product that I’ve ever used, so I can’t compare it to anything. But, it definitely helps with scaring, and evens out my skin tone. Since it has exfoliating properties, I would also claim that it helps ward off fine lines. Which, let’s face it, is never a bad thing. Shop here.
So many conversations around acne prone skin are limited to treatment. Which is of course important. But, when your skin is sensitive, it also needs to be moisturised and nourished. I would even argue that because acne is related to excessive sebum production, moisturising is even more important. Drying your skin out will only further encourage it to produce even more sebum.
Hyaluronic acid is a compound that is naturally found in the skin, and has the ability to retain water. Personally, I have been really partial to serums containing this ingredient, as a simple way of ensuring hydration.
The one by Yeouth is pretty uncomplicated, and pretty effective. Shop here.
The Failsafe Regimen
Okay, so, if you’re still here, then let’s figure out how we’re going to put all of this stuff on our face.
1. Oil cleanse
Now, on my Insta stories, you’ve seen me gush about a double cleanse. So, if you’re still not on-board the hype train, this is your chance. Basically, we’re cleansing with an oil based cleanser first, followed up with a water based cleanser.
Here’s the thing about oil cleansers; natural, plant based oils can work. I have used coconut oil in the past. Which, I recently discovered is a big no-no, since it’s comedogenic (it clogs pores). For the most part, it didn’t do that for me. But, you should also know that oil based cleansers have worked much better for me.
I’m particularly partial to Softymo cleansing oils. Shop here.
2. A gentle cleanser
Step two of the double cleanser. Just get something gentle; stripping the skin of it’s natural oil will not help.
This is not an astringent toner, but rather a really moisturising product with active ingredients. I use the Centella Asiatica or Hada Labo toner on most days (both are really hydrating). Once a week, I’ll switch to the Cosrx AHA + BHA toner.
The Galactomyces essence is next. And I also use the ‘seven skin’ method. Take a pea sized amount of the product, rub it between your palms, and pat it into your skin. Now, repeat seven times. Basically, this helps the products absorb into the skin.
5. Serum (optional)
I don’t always use a serum. Mostly, I’ll use them if my skin is looking particularly problematic.
A simple one from a brand that you trust will do. As you can guess, my favourite brands are The Ordinary and Cosrx. They make some great, simple ones. Laniege also has a great gel mask that works well.
7. Treatment (optional)
On days when I use the spot treatment, it is the last thing to go on my face.
Now, I don’t do this every night. Typically, I’ll do this either every other night, or when my skin needs some rescuing. Also, this is a nighttime skincare regimen, so I didn’t include sunscreen. But typically, you should wear one during the day.
A note about layering…
Just keep two broad rules. Firstly, go by consistency. The product with the lightest texture, like the watery toners should go first, and thicker, oil based products should go last.
Secondly, be mindful of the pairings. My rules of thumb are;
- Never combine salicylic acid with exfoliants. This could encourage a ‘purge’; think red, itchy, irritated skin.
- Don’t combine retinol with other exfoliants or acne treatments; too much exfoliation could irritate the skin.
- Combine predominantly moisturising ingredients with exfoliants. So, a Centella toner, a hyaluronic acid cream can be paired with retinol, for example.
Also, this video is really helpful, and goes into a lot more detail about pairing products.
Switching The Mindset; Really, It Is Okay
Okay, so I know that I just spent a lot of words talking about topical, materialistic things. But, there is also, obviously a very human side to any kind of blemish. See, unfortunately, in our aspiration-heavy culture, we’ve associated some things with others.
And acne prone skin has been associated with not just an unattractive appearance, but also a lack of confidence. And often, we internalise that message. We lose confidence, and take others’ ignorance to be fact rather than opinion.
So, I want to leave you with some positivity. A pimple, or two, or twenty, do not determine your worth. Take care of your skin, have as much fun with it as you can. But, don’t let it govern your life. If you break out, you break out. It is neither the end of the world, nor is it indicative of all that you are. It’s a blemish, a discolouration, a few scars, and a very tiny aspect of all that you are. Remember that.