The other day, over lunch, my girlfriends and I were discussing New Year's resolutions and one of my besties said she wanted to focus on taking better care of her skin. Nodding in approval, her declaration reminded me of my own battle with skin care and the time and commitment it took to finally resolve it. So today I want to share that with y'all.
Please keep in mind that skin care, and beauty in general, is a personal topic and is different for everyone. You are the only person that lives in your skin and should know it best to know what it likes and doesn't like. This post is not meant to be the holy grail of skin care methods, but serves to share my experience of getting to a happy place with my skin, and highlights things I've learned along the way.
This is a lengthy post with sections to help guide you through. I tried to be concise but still thorough enough to capture my whole experience. I hope it'll provide some direction for any of you who are going through a similar process. Here goes...
My skin history
I've never been the girl with flawless skin. Flawless, to me, means no blemishes, no acne scars, no post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). Just a smooth, dewy complexion sans foundation. The problems I had were usually small yet stubborn blemishes (mainly on my forehead, nose and chin) with occasional deep and painful ones, and an oily T-zone. Oh, and sensitive skin. Very sensitive skin. I started investing in skincare products from The Body Shop in my early 20s. Without doing research, I picked them because I was using their hemp lip balm with no issues. I figured if one of their products worked, why not try others?
My daily regimen consisted of cleansing with tea tree oil foam cleansers and moisturizing with aloe vera day and night creams. I stuck with this method for years even though I saw no significant changes. After a while I switched to Neutrogena sensitive skin moisturizer because I wanted to see if my skin would improve with something different, and I had friends with great skin who used this line. I liked the light consistency and made it my new go-to cream even though improvements were low. About 8 months into it, around early 2013, I started applying this stuff to the area underneath my eyes because of dry patches from winter weather. I immediately felt a slight burning sensation that made me tear up and wasn't sure what the reasons were; either the skin was too thin for a regular face moisturizer, or my overly sensitive skin just couldn't handle it, or the product was cheap, or a combination of all these things. Who knows? Also, I had read that paraben, a preservative used in a lot of products, including Neutrogena, was linked to health problems. After a few days I retired it and decided to look for natural alternatives.
Product trials and errors
It was around this time that I started paying attention to common ingredients used in cleansers and moisturizers. One ingredient that exists in products that foam is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), and its less harsh cousin, sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). It's a detergent that helps to remove dirt and oil but will strip away all of the natural oil on your face, causing skin to over-produce oil to compensate. This was the stuff I was religiously using 2 times a day! No wonder my T-zone looked like an oil slick not long after that squeaky-clean feeling. Not good! So I tossed the foamy stuff and switched to something more gentle. The new cleanser didn't leave my skin feeling squeaky-clean, but it did feel softer and more moisturized. From there, I spent the next 5-ish months trying out different moisturizers and cleansers with natural and organic ingredients.
I started with cold-pressed grapeseed oil after reading about the oil-cleansing method (OCM). It completely failed. My face turned REALLY dry, like flaking and peeling dry, and felt taunt. I didn't know if it was because I was using it incorrectly or if grapeseed oil just hated my skin. Either way I didn't care and wasn't patient enough to stick it out.
Next, I tried an organic line called Pangea Organics. I liked that they included a lot of organic/natural ingredients and were paraben free! This also failed. I had applied it on my face in the morning before going to work and remembered my face feeling hot and slightly uncomfortable. I ignored it. A few hours into the second day, I was in the office bathroom washing it off. Ugh.
After that, I picked up Burt's Bees out of desperation from my local organic store. Tried it for a couple of days and no horrible reactions, but one thing I didn't like was it left white residue on my face by the end of the day. Especially around the edges of my nose. Not flattering at all. It also felt heavy, like the stuff was sitting on top of my skin rather than absorbing into it. I used it as a temporary fix while I scoured the internet for something better. Apparently not all "organic and natural" moisturizers are made with certified organic ingredients. What?! So confusing and frustrating!
Lots of Googling lead me to Pai Skincare, an organic line created specifically for sensitive skin! Their ingredients sounded amazing so I ordered samples to test—cleansers and moisturizers—and was happy with their formula and how it felt on my skin. No irritation, no residue. Yet, for the hefty price tag my acne didn't improve. My oil issue was marginally better but I was still getting stubborn acne and didn't know why. This was the problem I wanted to fix along with using products that did not irritate my face!
In between product trials, I also made my own face mask using avocado and honey which always left my skin feeling fresh and supple. I looked into these ingredients and found that honey (especially the raw kind) makes an excellent cleanser because its a natural humectant, which means it attracts and retains moisture. It's also antibacterial. So I went and bought a large jar of raw honey to replace my Pai cleanser. I switched because one, the Pai cleanser wasn't doing anything to improve my skin, and two, I liked that honey was 100% organic and natural, and more wallet-friendly. I didn't notice a huge improvement with the raw stuff, but with a little more research, discovered Manuka honey, a medical-grade version derived from New Zealand used to heal cuts and wounds due to its high antibacterial properties. I bought a jar to try hoping this would be the answer, but it was too good to be true. My pesky, sensitive skin couldn't handle its potency and developed tiny bumps that weren't visible to the naked eye but felt slightly rough to the touch. It wasn't a big deal for the first couple of weeks because the bumps weren't red or itchy, but every time I grazed my hands against my cheeks and jawline, it wasn't smooth like I remembered. At this point I was so disappointed, frustrated and overwhelmed because I thought I had gotten somewhere with cleansing my skin, yet months later here I was back at square one. So then I stopped. I stopped cleansing my face with products and needed to get back to basics. And this was when things started to improve. Noticeably.
Skin's turning point
During my trials and errors, I watched tons of YouTubers who shared their cleansing routine and was so narrowly focused on needing to find the right product that I inadvertently skipped over any information pertaining to letting the skin do its job. When I decided to stop washing my face with cleansers, organic or not, this information slowly became transparent.
I remembered watching a video that featured Salma Hayek talking about her skin care method and beauty secret. She said you should cleanse your face before you go to bed, but don't do it in the morning because the oil that gets produced while you're sleeping is actually good for you. Curious by her secret, I looked into why natural oil produced by your skin is good...and WTF...everything I knew about skin care went out the window. All this time I was told by the beauty industry that any oil on your face is bad, but it turns out, your skin needs some of this oil. More reading led me to discover that your skin produces a thin layer of film called the acid mantle that acts as a protective barrier from bacteria, viruses and other outside elements. This layer is made up of sebum and sweat and has a specific pH level, slightly on the acidic side, that helps prevent harmful bacteria and fungi from forming. Washing your face too often, or with harsh cleansers, disrupts this mantle and makes your skin vulnerable. I was constantly cleansing my face to get rid of this layer, thinking it was bad, when it was the complete opposite! *Angels singing*
This information came to light the same time I decided to stop using cleansers. (Plus, I think my skin was allergic to the potency of Manuka honey even though others have had positive results.) Instead, I washed my face with water and exfoliated with a face brush seen on Erin's Reading My Tea Leaves. A week later, the tiny bumps on my cheeks and jawline disappeared. Blemishes I had quickly waned and I saw a significant decrease in new blemishes as more weeks passed. The ones that surfaced weren't as deep and stubborn as before and they also matured and disappeared quickly. I couldn't believe it. My skin was clearing up all because I stopped cleansing my face.
I was still using the Pai moisturizer to deal with dry, winter skin, but decided to stop as an experiment to see if my acne issue would improve even more. Without moisturizing, it was difficult to wear any kind of makeup, so I gave organic oil another try after learning the proper way to use it (when skin is damp, not dry). I had thought about my homemade avocado and honey mask again and looked into avocado oil as a possible candidate. I bought a small bottle from my grocery store and its safe to say I've never looked back.
Current skin care method
These days, I use water to wash my face and avocado oil on cotton balls when I need to clean off dirt and makeup. Let me tell ya, oil picks up everything, and it removes makeup in a cinch. When it's not a cleanser, it serves as my moisturizer. I wet my face, slightly dab away any dripping water, squeeze about three drops into my palm and use my fingers to spread it all over my face including the area around my eyes. Whatever is left in my palm gets rubbed on my hands. Once my face dries, the oil absorbs seamlessly into the skin and leaves it feeling and looking moisturized, supple and dewy without any oily or greasy residue left behind. And to exfoliate, this Muji face brush still does a fine job. All this takes me less than 2 minutes to do. I've been using this method since May of 2013 and have had excellent results. Sometimes I go days without moisturizing and my skin is still good. Oil production has leveled out and T-zone blemishes are gone. I still get a few breakouts here and there during that time of month, but they come and go extremely fast and are tiny enough that they no longer bother me. The best part? It's 100% organic. Cheers to that!
A few tips
So, some important lessons I've learned throughout my skin-clearing process that I'd like to pass along...
1. Listen to your skin.
Stop using products that make your skin feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. I know that sounds really obvious, but when you're in the thick of it and desperately want to get rid of acne, it's really easy to overlook your own thoughts and intuition. Especially when reviews are amazing, or the products are filled with all these "skin clearing properties" and "organic ingredients" that are supposed to do wonders for your skin. You know your skin best and no amount of marketing will compare to what it's trying to say. Everyone's skin is different. Don't doubt it and don't doubt yourself.
2. Be educated. Do your research.
Before testing out stuff, do research. Not everything you read will apply, but at least have some background knowledge to make educated decisions for what you're doing. Plus, skin care products ain't cheap! The more information you gather, the more likely you'll save money, time, and the disappointment of something not working.
3. Be patient. (This is a tough one...I know.)
Skin takes time to adjust to new products or weed out old ones. I believe one of the main reasons my skin started to clear up is because I stopped using chemical cleansers and moisturizers. I still had breakouts once I started using avocado oil but stuck with it because I noticed that the breakouts were smaller and fewer, and disappeared faster. My blemishes improved over the course of several months along with better complexion and less PIH. As long as you're not having immediate negative reactions to a product or lack thereof, give your skin time to adjust. Acne is extremely stubborn and skin cells take time to regenerate.
4. If you can, go natural, organic, and raw.
I say "can" because I know that there are people out there who need medicated skin products due to the severity of their skin problems. But if you don't need specific medicine, try going natural. You're probably so used to putting chemicals on your face that this idea sounds scary, but a lot of times acne is a skin reaction caused by the very chemicals you're using to treat it. A vicious cycle. Liberate your skin!
5. If nothing is working, go back to basics.
Back to before you started using a bunch of stuff. Or before you used anything at all. How did your skin look and feel? And ask yourself why you started using products in the first place. It took me a long time to realize this, but I started using products in my 20s because I felt I needed to take care of my skin and the "proper" way was to use commercial products. I talked to my mom about this and she told me when she was growing up, she never used moisturizers or cleansers. She washed her face with leftover rice water and never had skin issues. Moms know best, don't they?
6. Care for your skin from the inside out.
Of all the reading I did throughout my experiment, almost every article was consistent with one info: your skin is an organ and reflects what you put in it. So do yourself a favor and take care of it internally. Like drinking water! Or balancing out that morning chocolate croissant with some raw veggies. And if you know certain foods cause breakouts, don't solve it with topical treatments. Stop eating it! Or if it's that good, eat in moderation.
7. And lastly, DON'T PICK YOUR SKIN.
Hands. Fingers. Dirt. Bacteria. Self-explanatory.
This is a recent photo taken with my iPhone 5s to show you the current state of my skin. I'm not wearing any foundation/concealer, and the photo has no filters or editing applied other than a bit of brightness and contrast adjusted in Photoshop for picture clarity. Sorry, I don't have any good before shots showing the severity of my acne. But just imagine my T-zone and chin littered with red and brown spots. Bleh.
I've included some links that were helpful during my skin-clearing quest that might be useful for anyone interested. Thanks for reading this far and best of luck with your skin!
Salma Hayek says don't wash your face. Can you believe she's almost 50?!
Sodium lauryl sulfate — bad bad bad!!!
Why your skin's natural oil is good for you.
More info about your acid mantle.
Basics on the oil-cleansing method.
Have you heard of the caveman regimen? Tracy didn't wash her face for months and it cleared up! (FYI, when I read her blog almost 2 years ago, she was still experimenting with the caveman method. Since then, she's become a health and wellness advocate and there are tons of information on her blog about skin care. She has very lengthy, drawn out posts and videos—some a bit gimmicky for my taste—but they're all great info on natural ways to care for your skin. Just give yourself time when browsing her site.)