Science Saturday

Acne Chat: How I Got Hooked on Skincare

So, how does a graphic designer by day end up a skincare/beauty blogger by night? Through the hunt for a solution to a problem that so many of us face and suffer through—persistent acne (in my case, fifteen-or-so years worth of mild-moderate, hormonal acne). My relentless trial and error, testing product after product and more money spent than I care to admit looking for the answer, has led me down the rabbit hole of skincare and to a genuine passion.

Acne is a bit like migraines (another bane of mine) in that it has so many potential contributing factors that it’s practically impossible to pinpoint only one, and difficult to try and treat all of these factors simultaneously. As far as I understand it, acne is an inflammatory, immune response to the presence of the P. acne bacteria proliferating within a clogged pore. This inflammatory reactivity can be increased by several different factors (i.e. dairy sensitivity, hormones, etc.). Another important contributor is the increased potential for over-growth of the P. acne bacteria that is caused by a plug of sebum and dead skin cells forming within the pore (blackheads and whiteheads), creating an ideal, oxygen-free environment for these bacteria to thrive.

So what have I learned so far?

I’ve sought the council of dermatologists, estheticians, whatever the web has to offer me (with a grain of salt, here), and tried almost every product there is on the market in both the prescription and over-the-counter categories. I’ve also tried diet and lifestyle changes—although, in the interest of complete honesty, I have the least willpower in this area, and none of these experiments have lasted very long! This has led me to making a few changes in my skincare routine and lifestyle that have, for the first time, started to show some results for me.

After over-doing it with exfoliating acids + benzoyl peroxide earlier this year, resulting in a painful, peeling, sunburn-like reaction (and some of the worst acne I’ve ever experienced), I came to understand how indispensably important the skin’s natural, self-protecting lipid-barrier is to our skin’s health. This lipid-barrier (the acid mantle), has a few very important functions. First, it prevents the evaporation of water held within the surface layers of the skin, preventing skin dehydration. Skin dehydration can trigger the excess production of sebum (the oils produced within the hair follicle/pore), which can contribute to pore clogging. Secondly, it acts as an additional layer of protection against external aggressors, helping to prevent dirt/bacteria/viruses etc. from making their way into the skin. In order to preserve the acid mantle, I now stick to non-foaming cleansers (particularly avoiding those containing sodium lauryl sulfate), as these can strip away the lipid-barrier. I also steer clear of harsh astringents (i.e. alcohol-based toners), which can similarly strip the skin and disrupt its pH balance.

Some of my favorite gentler products to consider: Caudalie’s Make-up Removing Cleansing Oil, Gentle Cleansing Milk, and Moisturizing Toning Lotion; La Roche Posay’s Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser.

After recovering from the over-exfoliation episode—with the aid of Avène’s Skin Recovery Cream – Rich and Dr. Jart+’s Ceramidin™ Cream and Cicapair™ Tiger Grass Cream—and a good long hiatus from all exfoliating products, I found that I still needed to treat pore congestion. So, I eased my way back into chemical exfoliation. Chemical exfoliants are common ingredients in many skincare products, especially those that claim to treat acne or to be brightening/rejuvenating/peeling etc., and while they may have a harsh sound to them, they can, in fact, be much gentler than their physical, scrubbing counterparts (when respected, as I learned the hard way!) These types of products can be an invaluable tool in ridding the pores of congestion and encouraging accelerated cell turnover.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) (i.e. salicylic acid), are oil-soluble acids, which allows them to penetrate deeper into the pore, helping to dissolve dead skin cells and excess sebum. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) (i.e. glycolic acid), are water soluble, this means that they do their work primarily on the surface of the skin, helping to retexture and brighten. (A note on physical exfoliants (scrubs): I find these to be too harsh and abrasive for my skin, so I prefer to stay away from them. If the type of granule used within the formula is too rough, they can cause micro-tearing in the skin and another opportunity for bacteria/viruses etc. to find their way in. However, if you have one that works for you, that’s fabulous—I know that there are good, gentle ones out there—share your picks below!)­

An exfoliant to consider: PCA Skin’s Acne Gel. Some others I am currently testing: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum (seriously, nerdily excited about this ingredient list), Priori Advanced AHA Perfection Facial Gel (worth noting: this one contains Retinyl Palmitate, so I would likely not use this on the same day as my regular Retinol treatment).

Finally, the single thing that has helped me the most has been vitamin A. The appearance of the first signs of aging got me onto retinoids and provided a newfound incentive for me to get over the infamous initial hump of developing a tolerance to topical vitamin A treatments, wherein many people experience a period of increased sensitivity and dryness, peeling, and in some cases “skin purging” (this has been attributed to the accelerated cell turnover speeding up the “lifecycle” of blemishes already in the works beneath the skin). Vitamin A is a common treatment for both anti-aging and acne, and works its magic by speeding up the skin’s cell turnover rate, encouraging collagen production, and can aid in regulating sebum production.

I did experience a stressful period of skin “purging” for the first several weeks of retinoid treatment, within which my skin broke out more severely than usual in addition to being extra dry and sensitive. However, after the storm passed, my skin began to be more clear, and more reliably so. Blemishes also seem to clear up much more quickly than they have in the past.

Some retinoids to consider: Avène’s TriAcnéal NIGHT Smoothing Lotion—I had great results with this product and found it to be very gentle. As a next-level treatment, I am currently using Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatmentit has a fabulously rich and moisturizing serum texture and has provided great results for me.

P.S. This is important! Never forget your SPF! Both retinoids and chemical exfoliants increase sun sensitivity. The cell-damaging effects of sun exposure are the main contributors to skin aging, with or without increased sensitivity factoring into the equation, so don’t forget to protect yourself (yes, even when it’s cloudy)!

Have you found an acne regimen that works for you? Share it in the comments below!

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