I Cleared My Adult Acne & It Was Really Tough, But Here's How I Did It
In 2013, I truly believed that I'd conquered my adult acne. So confident was I in my victory that I wrote an entire article on the subject, dispensing my wisdom to the similarly-afflicted masses in the belief that I had the cure, and wouldn't spend a single day longer masked in a dense layer of Sudocrem. And then, of course, the acne returned to humble me, demanding another five years of experimentation before my skin approximated clarity once more. So here's how I cleared my adult acne — sort of — and why I'll never become complacent again.
Listen, I understand your reservations. There are approximately 11 million articles about adult acne clogging the pores of the internet, you're thinking. Why would I waste my time on a single one more? But friends, what I'm offering to you today is a journey. A journey punctuated by several incidents of accidentally peeling my own face off, and several more incidents of crying in an embarrassed doctor's office. A journey taken by a once hubristic girl, chastened by the gargantuan power of acne vulgaris. Travel with me, friends. Together we'll reach an uneasy entente with acne. Together, we will (sort of) clear our skin.
Firstly, some evidence. Above is a photo of me in Italy this June, wearing only 80 layers of transparent SPF (I am ginger adjacent, after all), and the few tiny dots of concealer I could convince to remain on my extremely sweaty face. It was, admittedly, a particularly good skin day; as I type, I'm nursing several facial scabs, because I also live with the urge to compulsively pick my skin. But for the past few months, my skin's been on incredibly good behaviour. I'd love to offer you a "before" photo for comparison, but alas — no such photos exist, because I've either ruthlessly purged them from existence, or I simply didn't allow them to be taken in the first place. For the majority of my years at university, for example, there's very little photographic evidence that I actually existed.
Next, the routine. I'm going to warn you in advance that my skincare regimen, to the non-skincare enthusiasts, will probably seem like way too much effort for any reasonable human to put into their face. But I don't want your judgement, readers! I want clear skin. And this is how I largely, sort of, got there.
I'm going to be upfront about this, because to some, "admitting" to being on the pill (picture me vigorously rolling my eyes back into the very depths of my skull) negates any subsequent skincare advice. But I still maintain that the pill targets only one aspect of my acne — namely, the nightmarish hormonal cysts that I thought I'd vanquished when I was treated for a microprolactinoma, only for them to disrespectfully resurface a few years later. It wasn't an overnight cure, as apparently nothing is, but after six months the difference was marked.
After six months of using Tazorac (or Zorac, as it's called in the UK), I confidently believed my acne was cured. I'd struggled to get there, after all: my initial, over-vigorous application of the retinoid had transformed my face into a bright red, aggressively-peeling fiasco, plus the notorious Tazorac purge had broken me out more viciously than I ever had before. When I was rewarded with clear, smooth skin severeal months later, I got cocky. I was Icarus — I strapped on my waxy wings and I soared directly towards the Sun.
As you've probably guessed, the acne returned. My doctor subsequently added Finacea — azelaic acid — into my routine, to alternate nightly with Tazorac. Readers, it worked — and what's more, it combated the persistent redness of my skin, minimising my heavy reliance on colour-correcting concealers. I've learned a painful lesson, however. I will not assume I am cured. I will remain constantly vigilant.
AHAs & BHAs
My chemical understanding of AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid) is extremely limited; Paula's Choice has an in-depth explainer which I typically direct friends to when it becomes clear I'm talking nonsense. All I know is that they're chemical exfoliants that tackle acne and scarring, and though my skin tends to respond better to glycolic acid, these Peter Thomas Roth Max Complexion Correction Pads contain salicylic acid too. And they work. As mentioned above, I am a chronic skin picker (I'm working on it!), which results in nightmarish hyper-pigmentation. These pads help to fade them, plus they minimise breakouts. They do set my face briefly aflame when first applied, but I feel pretty emphatically that they're worth it.
As aforementioned, I have a whole bunch of scarring; what's more, the various actives I pile onto my face increase my already acute sensitivity to the sun. SPF, therefore, is essential. I'll admit, to the potential horror of SPF purists, that I don't wear it every day (I live in Newcastle, friends. Do you understand how little sun there is in Newcastle?) But at the slightest risk of sun exposure, I turn to the unparalleled master of non-greasy, make-up-friendly facial sunscreens: Cover FX's catchily titled Clear Cover Invisible Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 30. It is... not cheap. I wince every time I make a purchase. But it's too late — I've made a blood pact with the stuff. There is no turning back.
Weekly Face Masking
Resist the urge to mask every night of the year, friends, even if you're as dependent on the post-mask glow as me. I've managed to limit myself to one mask a week — a clay mask like Fresh's Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask if I'm experiencing a breakout, and an acid mask like Ren's Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask if I've got a bunch of hyper-pigmentation. A warning: my weird cats are completely in thrall to the smell of the latter, and have attempted to lick it off my face on multiple occasions. It has acid in it. Do not let your cats lick your face.
Being Gentle To My Skin
I realise the preceding items on this list have detailed the various extremely aggressive chemicals I apply to my face on a regular basis — but I maintain that my approach to my skin is significantly kinder than it was several years ago. In the early years of my close personal relationship with adult acne, I wholeheartedly believed that every stage of my skincare routine should wage a small war on my cruel, disloyal face. I used acne-fighting face wash; acne-fighting moisturiser; even, at one point, acne-fighting foundation. I didn't apply anything to my face that didn't contain salicylic acid or something similar. I believed, erroneously, that I could burn the acne off my face. The result, of course, was dry, disintegrating skin. A flake once dropped from my face into my Coke, friends. I'm forcing that image into your brains because I want to help you.
I observe a strict rule now: only specific actives should be acne-fighting, and everything else should coddle my skin in a moist embrace, imploring it to forgive me for dousing it in acid seconds earlier. I use a soothing cleanser — Oskia's Renaissance Cleansing Gel has been my go-to for three years now — before I apply any actives, followed by a hyaluronic serum and moisturiser (more on that later).
Hyaluronic Acid And Lightweight Moisturisers
There are two moisturising products I will never be parted from: Hydraluron, a hyaluronic acid serum which I credit with alleviating the Tazorac skin shedding, and Nuxe's Crème fraîche de beauté Moisturising Fluid, a lightweight moisturiser which, blessedly, does not break me out. Please: do NOT mistake me for an altruist. I’m recommending you these products in the hope that you will purchase them en masse and spare me the agony of yet another miracle product being discontinued.
Drinking More Water
I'm so, so sorry, friends. I know this might feel like a betrayal. I know probably every single person with acne since the condition was first diagnosed has been advised (by someone with irritatingly flawless skin, of course) to just drink a bit more water. And I know that drinking water alone — even if you drain the water reservoirs for entire cities in your unstoppable pursuit of perfect skin — will not clear your acne. But I also very much believe that increasing my water intake improved the condition of my skin, and that it's an essential component of any acne-fighting routine. Forgive me!
And that's pretty much it: an exhaustive, probably excessive list of methods I've employed to tackle my adult acne. Hopefully, some might work for you — though if you've grappled with acne for as long as I have, you'll have already learned the bitter lesson that there is no universal cure. Skin is infuriatingly particular, something I've learned after spending an unspeakable amount of money on other people's "holy grail" products that, at best, politely whisper to my acne that it would be quite nice if it maybe calmed down a bit? So here's my parting wish to you, readers: may you find a routine that bellows in your acne's face.