When you survive your teenage years without any major acne flare-ups, it’s easy to assume that your skin is out of the woods and, ahem, in the clear.
Post-graduation, you figure benzoyl peroxide, whiteheads, and algebra are gone for good. You fail to consider the possibility that it could all turn on you later—that your acne problems could just be beginning when everyone’s else end.That’s pretty much my story. I sailed through middle and high school with skin so clear it was basically criminal. I could put anything on my face with zero repercussions (and believe me, I took full advantage). Before you hate me, let’s fast-forward to my mid-twenties. In the span of a few months, for no apparent reason, my skin went out of control. It started with just a few breakouts, and I chalked it up to too many happy hours and not enough sleep. I assumed it would clear up with a three-day weekend and a few bottles of Evian. Instead, I got full-fledged chronic acne all along my cheeks. I was horrified, and I was totally lost. It was all so sudden, and so new. I was not equipped to deal. At all.
A trip to the dermatologist confirmed that this was all the result of a hormonal shift (which I should’ve guessed from some weird weight gain). There were a few recommended treatments, yes, but no silver bullet—I was told a lot of trial and error would be necessary to figure my way around my newly acne-prone skin. I couldn’t figure it out: sometimes it would be dry; other times, uncontrollably oily. After several months of a lot of trial (and plenty of error), I was at the end of my rope—an emotional rock bottom. I thought I had to resign myself to a life of adult acne.
Then I had an epiphany. I was overcompensating.
My skin had changed dramatically, and in my panicked attempts to fix it, I had changed my routine dramatically too. I threw too many harsh, irritating products into the mix, all promising to do wildly different things. Which was the exact opposite of what my skin needed.
Here’s the thing: It’s easy to get frustrated with acne-prone skin. Honestly, that’s natural. What’s not okay is taking that frustration out on your skin through over-scrubbing, picking, and piling on harsh, stripping products. When I finally decided to stop punishing my skin, a new era of healing began. I started looking for gentle, botanical-based products and I pared down my skincare routine to the barest essentials—cleanser, toner, and treatment pads (my moisturizer journey is a story for another day).
My cleanser switch-up was the biggest change. Before the acne days, I was always attracted to fancy cleansers filled with fragrance and foaming agents. All those commercials with a pretty white girl lathering up and splashing her face with a magical burst of water? Got me every time. As it turns out, fragrance and foam were the two things most to blame for stripping my skin of its natural moisture. My skin overcompensated (just like me!) and worked overtime to produce more oil. Those kinds of cleansers also tend to have a high pH, which can further exacerbate hormone imbalances (which I was also dealing with). Not good.
If you’re in the same boat, turn to a gentle, gel-based cleanser. They can remove makeup and impurities from your skin without leaving your skin feeling tight or squeaky. My own personal favorite is COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser, which has no artificial fragrances (just a faint whiff of tea tree oil) and doesn’t foam up. There’s a little exfoliation happening from a natural BHA ingredient, so dead skin and sebum are washed away without taking the good oils with them. It’s extremely calming—perfect for sensitive and acne-prone skin. Most essentially, it has a low pH, so it won’t strip skin or mess with your hormonal issues. And it takes off makeup like a dream.
In the pre-acne years, I’d always been suspicious of toning. I figured it was a frivolous step that felt nice but didn’t actually do anything. That changed when I tried Mario Badescu Aloe and Rosewater spray. The combination of gentle rosewater and healing aloe was exactly what my skin needed after a year of being completely out of whack. Not only is it refreshing and restorative in itself, but it also helps skin absorb all the good stuff in the products that come after. Win-win.
Treatment-wise, I found a saving grace in an unlikely place: Trader Joe’s. To this day I believe that their Tea Tree Oil Face Pads saved my skin. Tea tree oil is a perfect natural astringent with anti-bacterial powers that keep oily skin like mine fresh and balanced. These pads cleansed and cleared my face without being too harsh. If Trader Joe’s ever discontinues them, I will lose my actual mind.
It’s easy to feel defeated when your skin starts to turn on you out of nowhere. Just remember to go back to basics and you’ll usually find your answer. It’s been six years since my hormonal flare-up, and I haven’t had any major problems since (the occasional pimple still happens). My routine is still changing. I’ve added steps to accommodate my age and where I live, but no matter what else changes, I’ve stayed true to these basic ingredients. Tea tree oil, rosewater, and aloe. Every day. All day. New products are welcome, but they must have these ingredients to apply.
—Lourdes Avila Uribe
What’s your experience with adult acne? Have you tried the gentle route? Let us know what your sensitive or natural solutions are—a good skin routine is one that knows when to change it up.