During what can only be described as a hellaciously stressful past six months, my skin rebelled: the flawless visage I had at 16 became overrun by blemishes — a mutant strain that continued to multiply no matter what over-the-counter washes and drying treatments I used. Coupled with extreme sensitivity, the war I was waging began wreaking havoc on my face, leaving patches of breakouts and extremely dry, flakey skin. After a few months of failed at-home troubleshooting, I decided it was time to get real about my "skinssues" and do something to try and bring back my epidermis of yore.
Attempt #1: A Trip to The Dermatologist (Or, How A Man Tried to Ruin My Life, Again)
Step one in the rebirth of flawlessness ended in a diagnosis of "stress-induced, adult-onset female acne." No shit. This from a dermatologist at a renowned Chicago office who made me feel moronic for complaining about blemishes in the first place. Thanks, man. He prescribed a heavy-duty zit killing cream and told me to decompress the stress in my life and change my diet, as he predicted both were big contributors to my breakouts. This is annoying because a) I actually eat really well, aside from an occasional cookie dough binge or foray into French fry taste testing, and b) I work my ass off to be zen as fuck. Saying "zen as fuck" seems antithetical to BEING zen as fuck, but I get my yoga/exercise/meditation on regularly, sir, so don't. you. even.
Based off of some scholarly articles he briefly showed me to back his diagnosis, dude recommended me cutting out all sugar, all dairy, and all red meat. I never take things at face value, but his words combined with the FDA recently coming out with new dietary guidelines which reinforced his diatribe and this article published by the American Medical Association hooked me. The last article presents instances where clear skin prevailed in rural tribal communities which they attribute in part to a lack of refined sugars, caffeine, dairy, and refined fats (oils, butter, etc.) in the subjects' diets. Essentially, in societies following a low-glycemic index diet—or societies that eat mostly roughage and lean meats—there was virtually no acne in an 843 day period. The article goes on to say that carbo-rich foods from many Western diets can cause insulin levels to skyrocket, which creates zits. Okay, so two legitimate sources were giving his argument some fervor. Armed with that, I decided to bite the bullet and give it a try.
Attempt #1 Results:
First of all, let me say how INCREDIBLY difficult it is to go from eating whatever you want to trying a low-glycemic index diet, which is often prescribed to type 1 diabetics for insulin regulation. One of my BFFs is type 1, and I just say kudos to you, ladybird. So hard.
On day one, I forgot that I was supposed to cut out caffeine and stopped for a giant cup of coffee at Starbucks, which I chased down with a Greek yogurt. Halfway through both I realized I'd already failed, but over the next few days, I weaned off my favorite foods and applied the zit zapper religiously. I saw no immediate improvement, which, as a millennial American, made it hard for me to want to keep at it. To be perfectly honest it was actually getting worse? Finacea is no joke in terms of drying you out, and even though I was applying less than was recommended, paired with blustery January weather, it made my skin all the more dry and my face redder and angrier.
I kept at it for two whole weeks—seriously, I tried and tried and hoped diet and the cream would cure what ailed me. Okay, I get that two weeks isn't, like, forever, but something should've been improving—I had switched from a red and white meat eating diet to eating only fish, more veggies than I had been previously, whole grains, soy milk and I also applied the cream religiously. The picture above is me, two weeks into Fiancea on a low glycemic diet. It isn't the worst skin ever, but it also isn't my status quo, and shouldn't have been what was going on after two weeks of reformation.
Attempt #2: Going Au Natural (Mostly)
Frankly, I was annoyed. In addition to this guy telling me to stop eating shitty and chill out, he made my skin worse. And no one gets to mess with my money maker.
I called his office and demanded an antibiotic. I realize I'm not a doctor, but it had worked the last time my skin rebelled, which was also stress induced. (Apparently losing a parent will mess you up!) He abided begrudgingly (or what I imagine to be begrudgingly?), and recommended using a non-medicated facewash twice daily on top of the antibiotic. I thought about grabbing more Cetaphil, but also wanted to try oil cleansing, a method I'd read of before on a bunch of natural blogs that I follow that's supposed to help clear up skin naturally and with SCIENCE, which makes it cooler seeming.
The oil cleansing method (OCM) sounds pretty counterintuitive—putting oil on a face that's already breaking out!—but the idea is the old chemistry gig of "like begets like." That is, like substances neutralize one another, so in this case the oils I'd be applying to my face coupled with steam would dissolve the oils in my pores that were pooling and causing breakouts. According to the different blogs I looked at (this was the most helpful), I just needed to combine an astringent oil (castor oil) with the right type of oil for my skin. I'd heard of people using coconut oil before, but since it was listed as one of the most highly comodegenic oils, I decided to go with sweet almond. I found a little sample guy at Walgreens for like $3, so I figured there wasn't too much to lose. I combined Castor to almond oil in a 1:3 ratio, and set to massaging my skin twice daily with the concoction, removing the oil with a steaming hot towel afterwards.
Attempt #2 Results:
Below is a picture of me two-and-a-half weeks into the OCM. Horrrrrrriiiiiible. Seriously, gross. So much worse than it had been the weeks (months!) before I started this. Has this worked for anyone? Is this like a juice cleanse where people pretend they're happy and getting results, but really they walk around hangry and hide how FUCKING AWFUL it is? Imma go with "yes."
While the oil helped with the horribly dry skin Finacea left me with, it was not begetting anything, so I decided I best begetting something else to fix it (see what I did there?). The blogs all said to wait at least a month, but having a month where even makeup doesn't mask your problems felt muuuch too long to wait. The antibiotic was clearing up other parts of my body (like my neck and my shoulders) that were experiencing mild symptoms, but it certainly wasn't working on my face. I needed more.
Attempt #3: 1 + 2= Face Guacamole (Or, How I Implemented Diet & Oil & Meds to Fix it All)
Seriously, by now I was pissed. NOTHING. WAS. WORKING. WHY CAN'T I JUST BE PERFECT ALL THE TIME, HMM???
I stopped oil cleansing and switched back to a normal wash, which I'd read could make your face worse but thankfully it didn't. I found this bottle—which I'd used the first time my skin did this but had discontinued using because combined with the Chicago wind it dried me out too much— under the sink where all my beauty products that I don't use go to die (I'm looking at you, weird foamy self tanner and you, cotton candy scented body wash from my niece). I bought this on vacation when I got too drunk the night before to remember to pack the above wash, and it was also pretty effective. With both washes, I kept the same process I had started when oil cleansing: thoroughly washing for at least a minute, if not more, massaging the product into the areas most affected, followed by a steaming towel draped over my face to open pores and remove ickies. Nothing else to cleanse—no makeup removing wipes, no astringents, nothing. I've been doing this for a little over three weeks.
Attempt #3 Results:
IT'S WORKED! Slowly but surely it worked and I've stayed clear.
Since I started this last attempt, I became a lacto-pescatarian so I felt like I was doing a good job there with the roughage and lean meats mentioned in the article I'd read. Can't attest to any correlation exactly, but I did at least listen to the doc on that. I kept taking the antibiotic but quit oil cleansing, subbing in the Glytone wash followed by face lotion + a thin layer of this avocado oil + a few drops of lavender oil (both picked up at Whole Foods). Not only does it smell really good, but it's aided with the clearing up—I noticed a HUGE difference in a few days which I partially accredit to the lavender oil. Lavender oil is renowned for its antibacterial properties, so I've started using it as a spot treatment, too—a dab over the blemish, sleep, and boom! Gone. You can see how much it cleared up in just a few weeks into attempt number three. Yes, I'm floating in a child's tube while on vacation with my mom in this photo: I am almost 28, #dontcare.
No matter how small the breakout it's stressful and painful. Even with the winning combo, I still have issues, though WAY less concentrated than in the first two photos. I hope my journey & (truly) no-makeup selfies demonstrate that one solution does not fix all—oil cleansing did not work for me, despite the blending of oils for my "type" and heralding of its wonders on the interwebs; eating healthy and relaxing was not only incredibly difficult given my lifestyle (I'm an "adult" in a big dirty city), but singularly was an ineffectual treatment; meds alone weren't clearing it all up (though they really did help once I had the right cleanser!). I had to play around with it and go off the beaten path with some holistic changes and some heavy duty washes to get back to my status quo of clear skin, even if the issue seemed trivial to my MD.
Nadia Johnson-Lisk is a Pom mom living Minneapolis who loves makeup and gossiping over cocktails.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.