I struggled for 11 years. Here's what worked and what didn't work for me.
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For the longest time, I honestly would not have believed that the day would ever come when I’d be writing this post. If you’ve ever struggled with breakouts or acne, you will know what I mean: it seems all encompassing and never ending. I was the girl who had enviably clear skin all throughout middle school and high school, but the day I moved into college – yes, the very day – my skin began to break out. From ages 18 to 29, I battled some form of consistent breakout. I am now 30, and while I still have the occasional spot here and there, depending on the circumstances, my skin is finally consistently clear. I want to share with you a condensed version of my journey and offer the resources I so desperately searched for over those frustrating eleven years.
This could be an absolute book if I let it, but I don’t want to overwhelm you, so I’ll offer just a bit of backstory, then give a clear outline of what worked and what didn’t work for my body and skin. Please note, as always, that this post is in no way intended to replace the attention and care of a physician. It’s also helpful to note that, as frustrating as it is, what worked for my skin may or may not work for yours. My purpose in writing this post is simply to offer some guidance and encouragement, as I know how deeply breakouts and acne can impact one’s confidence. So, you should know from the start that you are beautiful and enough just as you are, acne and all.
At first, I just had a few small spots on my chin. I noticed them in my new dorm room bathroom and was annoyed that they had popped up when I was about to meet tons of people for the first time. I was especially annoyed that I had a cluster of them, as I had never in my life had more than one pimple on my face at any given time. Fortunately, these new spots of mine were small and easy enough to conceal. Unfortunately, they never fully healed.
Over the next four years of college life, my breakouts changed drastically, growing or diminishing in size, shape, kind, and intensity, but never completely disappearing. They were almost always concentrated on my chin, with rosacea and pimples also developing in the rest of my T-Zone. Exercise had always been a big part of my life and my diet had always been decent (although far from perfect), so my mom and I were fairly sure my breakouts were hormonal in nature (consultations with doctors would go on to confirm this). Thus began the years-long process of trying treatment after treatment to heal my skin. Over this eleven-year period, the breakouts would sometimes temporarily heal but always came back again.
What Didn’t Work
I tried the three-step Proactiv system. It partially cleared my skin, but never fully and never for long. Little did I know, then, how much damage I was doing to my skin barrier with those harsh products.
I tried topical products geared towards oily, acneic skin, even though my skin type was (and still is) dry/combination. I used harsh scrubs, astringents, soaps – you name it. If it was marketed for breakout-prone skin, I bought it. I didn’t realize I was stripping and further irritating my skin.
I tried hundreds of different products and switched them out frequently. This confused my skin.
I tried myriad supplements, including zinc, milk thistle, various vitamin Bs, vitamin D, multivitamins, etc.
I tried two separate rounds of dermatologist-prescribed antibiotics. These cleared up my skin for a while, but eventually stopped working. The breakouts just came back, more aggressively than before.
I went onto the birth control pill for a couple of years, which, again, cleared up my skin for a time, but caused me to gain weight and become depressive. I went off the pill and – you guessed it – the breakouts came back once more.
I tried the Paleo diet.
I tried going completely organic and “green” with all my products, which didn’t work and, in some cases, made my breakouts worse.
I cut out gluten, then dairy, then sugar.
I tried incorporating meditation, breathwork, and yoga.
I read article after article and blog post after blog post, desperately trying to find something that would clear my skin up for good.
I tried going to a physician and having a full blood panel done, only to have the PA look at my numbers, shrug her shoulders, and tell me she had no idea how to help me.
I tried everything I could think of, more than I can even probably remember to list here. Nothing worked long term. I felt totally baffled and defeated. I never went makeup free and was embarrassed for people to look me in the face, even with makeup on. As a result, I subconsciously tried to hide, hunching and rounding my shoulders to protect me from being looked at too long.
What Did Work
As you probably noticed, some of the treatments I listed above were, in fact, a step in the right direction. The problem was, I didn’t have good enough guidance to ensure that I fit all of the puzzle pieces together correctly. As someone struggling with skin issues can understand, you frantically try new things, no matter if you recently made a lifestyle change or incorporated a new product. The number one principle I failed to understand over those eleven years is that skin takes time to heal. Once you’re on the right path, you need to stick with it in order to let your internal body and your skin barrier heal.
So, what finally helped my skin clear up for good? There are a few different pieces of the puzzle, which fit together to result in the clear skin I have today.
1. Finding the right dermatologist – When I moved to Denver in 2018, I was so fed up with my skin that I decided to try a dermatologist for the third time. This time, however, I was fortunate enough to find a doctor that refused to prescribe antibiotics. This was absolute music to my ears. She educated me on the fact that antibiotics are merely a band-aid. If used for too long, they cause trouble in the gut, which then triggers further skin issues. Instead, my dermatologist prescribed a low-dose treatment for rosacea and a low-dose treatment of spironolactone. Spironolactone is traditionally a medicine for high blood pressure but can also treat high levels of testosterone in women suffering from adult acne. Within a few weeks, my skin was drastically clearer. After a few months, my rosacea had decreased enough for me to come off the first medication. I have stayed on Spironolactone ever since, with zero side effects, and now have consistently clear skin.
2. Diet – We all know diet is key when it comes to skin. I completely cut out dairy and have never gone back. I have coconut/almond/oat milk and ice cream (if I eat ice cream, which is rare) and take a Lactaid whenever I absolutely cannot avoid dairy (or am craving a traditional pizza). I increased my vegetable intake and focus on meal prepping nourishing homemade foods, such as soups, stews, and stir fry. I do still eat a little gluten, as that has never been a trigger for me. I space out my meals at least three hours apart to avoid insulin spikes (I used to get hungry every 1-2 hours). I cut out caffeine (this was hard at first) and only drink decaf, herbal teas, vitamin water, and flavored sparkling water. I have a massive sweet tooth, so I still limit my refined sugar intake. Dark chocolate has been a life saver for me in this regard – 75% and up is my go-to. I do believe in enjoying myself, however, so I let myself have treats in moderation.
3. Adjusting my skincare routine – I started using products for my actual skin type, which is dry/combination, focusing on hydration and barrier repair. I also scaled back my product usage. Skin needs time to adjust to any new product, so constantly introducing new things or overdoing your routine will only make things worse. I use a retinol once or twice a week and either an AHA or BHA (acid toner) about once a week for exfoliation. The rest of the time, I stick with a gentle cleanser, hydration products, moisturizer, a facial oil, and sunscreen. A few times a month, I will use my facial steamer or a mask as a skincare treat. By not overwhelming my skin, my skin barrier had a chance to get strong and healthy again.
4. Cycle syncing and stress management – I try to focus on certain foods and forms of exercise in each of the four phases of my menstrual cycle. My aim in doing so is to further balance my hormones and to support my body throughout the month. During my period, for example, I take long walks and yoga classes instead of participating in HIIT workouts. Stress management, too, is still a large part of my life. I meditate and journal each morning, try to avoid screens 30 minutes before sleeping, go to bed and get up at the same time each day, and exercise daily. I’m in no way perfect at this, but I have noticed a big improvement in my moods and mental clarity.
5. Supplements – Yes, I had been blowing through supplements like crazy over those frustrating eleven years, but I was guided to a few that work and that I still use today.
· Cod Liver Oil – for omega-3 fatty acids
· Probiotic (50 billion CFU) – some are skeptical whether probiotics actually work or not, but I notice a difference whenever I run out, so they are a staple in my cupboard.
· DIM (Diindolylmethane) – for estrogen support
· Evening Primrose Oil – for estrogen support
· Thyroid support – for stress support
6. Resources – These were paramount in my journey to clear skin
· Jordan Samuel Skin – Jordan is an esthetician who formulates amazing products (I use a lot of them). His Youtube videos offer a wealth of helpful information on how best to care for your skin. His philosophy is “less is more” and is the reason I began scaling back my product purchasing and usage. He also highlights the importance of not striving for perfect, completely flawless skin, which is impossible.
· Sara of Healthy Skin Glows – Sara is an active scientist with an MSc in Molecular Biology. Coaching with her helped me understand the importance of spacing out meals, eating enough healthy fats to remain full between meals, what foods are best for hormone balance, and what skincare and makeup products are best for breakout-prone skin. Sara does lean more towards natural treatments, but she approaches skin from a balanced point of view and is incredibly knowledgeable.
· Caroline Hirons – Caroline is another esthetician who has been working in the industry for years. Her blog and Youtube videos are immensely eye-opening and informative. She has posts and cheat sheets on the correct way to do your skincare routine, as well as detailed breakdowns of thousands of products. Caroline was the one who finally helped me understand that I needed to use products geared towards my skin type, and then treat my skin condition.
It took me a long time, but I finally feel I have a handle on the state of my skin. Even so, I do still breakout, sometimes, especially if I have too much sugar or eat poorly for a week. Breakouts happen and that's ok. They just don’t have to be a constant companion in your life. Clear skin is achievable, so please be encouraged. If you’d like extra support, have questions, or simply want to talk to someone who has been in your shoes, please reach out, here or on Instagram!