Healing hormonal acne part 2: my skincare routine
Welcome to part II of my acne series! In part one, I talked all about what acne is, what causes it, and what hormones have to do with anything. Definitely check it out if you missed it!
Today’s post is a little less science-y and a little more fun. In this part I’m going to be talking all about what products I use on my face and why. I’ve been on and off to dermatologists since I was probably around 12, and so I’ve used all the usual suspects: benzoyl peroxide, retinols, sulfur creams, Cetaphil products, Neutrogena products, you name it. Eventually I got fed up with nothing working and not knowing why, which is how we find ourselves here. Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve gradually been weaning myself off the dermatologist-prescribed topicals and looking for effective treatments that actually work. This is DEFINITELY still a work in progress, and I’m still constantly experimenting. But so far I’m pretty happy with my progress (I still have my days), and I can confidently say I don’t miss the products I was using before!
Update: since writing this post I’ve changed my routine quite a bit based on what I’ve learned. Read my updated skincare routine to see what I’m doing now (spoiler alert: it’s made a huge difference in my skin)!
This post is long, so here are the main takeaways:
If you can do one thing: moisturize properly
If you can do two things: oil cleanse (and you’re basically there if you moisturize so why the heck not)
If you can do three things or are curious for more info: read Marie Veronique’s book, The Acne Answer.
It doesn’t have to cost a fortune
Here’s the thing: whatever you decide to spend on skincare products is a PERSONAL decision that you make for yourself. If you have the means to and want to spend hundreds of dollars on products, that’s totally cool. And if you are on a tight budget or want to prioritize spending your money in other ways — also cool. I think there are so many beautifully designed and well marketed products out there that’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that if you want to take care of your skin you’re going to have to drop hundreds of dollars. This is simply NOT TRUE.
Skincare is not just for white people with privilege (although I realize I fall into that category for the most part). And so what you see here today are products within MY personal budget (and believe me, it’s been a separate effort this year to actually set to and stick to that budget! 😅). Nothing is more than $50 and many are well below that. I also did not purchase all new things overnight – in fact, this has been a years-long process of slowly trying new things when something ran out.
My advise if you’re feeling pressured to spend over your budget (or even if you’re not!) is to READ and RESEARCH! Read this post but don’t take my word as the end-all-be-all. Google stuff. Read other blog posts or articles. If the first thing you find is too expensive, keep looking!
Don’t stress about the label
Natural, nontoxic, organic, vegan, cruelty-free, safe, clean… What does it all mean?! Some of these labels are regulated and have an actual definition, but many can mean anything. Most of the things you see here are going to be “natural” — as in, not chemically or man-made — but I don’t hold that as a hard rule. Quite simply, my philosophy here is the same as when buying food: less ingredients is probably better, and words I can’t pronounce make me suspicious. If you have a different philosophy (say, animal rights are super important to you), that’s cool, but I’m not here to tell you one is inherently better than the other.
K! Let me get off my soap box and let’s get to it!
I’m NOT a morning person (oh wait you knew that already? 😂), so I like to keep it pretty simple in the morning!
Also general note: I don’t wait for my face to dry between any of the steps before moving on.
Step 1: Splash with water
I cleanse pretty thoroughly at night, and it’s not like my face is getting dirty while I’m horizontal for 8 hours, so I usually just splash with some lukewarm water. If I’m feeling fancy I’ll alternate between warm & cold.
- Water: Free!
Step 2: Tone
I used to think toner was a scam until I bought some for a different purpose (to calm my skin after shaving if you’re curious) and used it on my face because, why not? After I ran out I noticed my skin was getting drier and the moisturizer didn’t seem to be absorbing as well so now I always use it after cleansing. However, this is one of those things that isn’t necessary if you’re looking to save $$$.
I normally spray on the Thayer’s, but once or twice a week I’ll use apple cider vinegar instead – I dilute ½ ACV with ½ water and dab it on with a cotton pad. The ACV is good for balancing the skin’s bacteria without being harsh! I also notice it evens out my skin tone too.
Step 3: Serum
I’ll start by saying that I skipped this step for months and still saw improvements in my skin. Serums are super-concentrated blends of potent ingredients, and so by default they’re pricey. Recently, as I’ve been satisfied with the base products I’m using and have had time & money to do research, I’ve added in a few.
If you add in a serum, I’d actually start with a retinol, which I talk about in my nighttime routine below.
In the morning right now I’m applying a vitamin C serum. Vitamin C is good for lightening skin and is anti-inflammatory. The Mad Hippie one has been my favorite so far, but I will probably keep trying new things.
I apply about ⅓ dropper to my face after toner.
Step 4: Moisturize
First of all. THIS STEP IS THE MOST IMPORTANT AND IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE START HERE. Ok was that clear? 🤣 But seriously. For years, I put benzoyl peroxide on my face in the morning, and then didn’t put on ANY moisturizer after because I was afraid it would make my face greasy. The irony? Drying out my face like that caused it to freak out and produce MORE OIL!! My face would always be super oily by mid-day, and I was just resigned to the fact that I had oily skin. Now that I’ve been moisturizing properly for a few years, my skin is never oily anymore. NEVER. I cannot stress enough how much doing this one thing changed my skin so much.
So here’s the deal: I put oil on my skin. Yes, I straight up put oil on my once-oily skin. (Please re-read my rant above it it all seems too crazy). I do this because A) It’s super cheap and B) It’s super effective! Seriously.
I make my own blend because it’s cheaper, but you can also buy blends. Look for safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, tea tree, argan, pumpkin seed, black cumin, and tamanu oils. Avoid coconut and olive oils as these are comedogenic. Look for cold or expeller pressed and unfiltered when possible, as these will have the most nutrients (< good advise when buying oil in general lol).
I squeeze 5-8 drops onto my hand, rub my palms together to warm it a bit, and then apply to my face. I’ll let it soak in for 15 mins or so (while I eat breakfast) before applying makeup.
Step 1: Cleanse
Ok so hopefully you’ve gotten over the shock of using oil to moisturize, because I’m about to tell you I also use oil to CLEANSE my face. Still with me? The basic idea is that like dissolves like. So: clean oils dissolve the dirty day-old oils on your face! Then you steam your face with a warm washcloth and it not only opens your pores and helps prevent them from getting clogged, but also feels relaxing and wonderful.
This has been the second most helpful thing I’ve done for my face (after moisturizing properly), and conveniently if you buy oils to moisturize you’re basically there already! My cleansing blend is the exact same as my moisturizing blend plus the addition of castor oil, which is a great oil for really cleansing and getting the oil off your face.
Update: I wrote a whole post about how I oil cleanse! Check it out for more on how and why oil cleansing works.
- Blend of around ½ sunflower seed oil, ¼ castor oil ($13), and ¼ flax seed oil. I mix them in a little 4-oz jar with a dropper.
A note about removing eye makeup: I don’t like to remove mascara with the oil as it always gets in my eyes and then I can’t see which is never comforting, so I’ll use a proper soap. It’s also nice to have on hand if I’m feeling too lazy to oil cleanse, or need to wash off makeup during the day.
- CLNS wash, $20
Step 2: Tone
Same as daytime. Normally spray with Thayer’s or if I’m breaking out pretty bad I’ll swipe some ACF diluted with water on my face. Sometimes both!
Step 3: Serum
Again, totally optional. If you’re going to add one serum, I’d add a retinol as it’s been proven time and time again to help with acne (and is also anti-aging). Definitely read up on retinol on your own (the Marie Veronique book is a great start), but it’s important to know that it will probably dry out your skin at first. This is something that’s normal and you have to push through. I started out 1-2 times a week and gradually worked up to almost every day.
I apply 5ish drops after toning, but the amount depends on what you buy.
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane, $14. I really like this (not to mention the cost!), but The Ordinary seems to always be threatening to shut down. So I’ll probably have to find something else eventually.
On days that I don’t use the retinol, I’ll use the Vitamin C serum from above.
Step 4: Moisturize
Will spare you and won’t repeat my rant as y’all probably get it by now. 😂 I do add in some tea tree essential oil to my nighttime blend, as it’s as effective at killing acne as benzoyl peroxide without the negative side effects. I find it irritates my skin if I use it too often though, which is why I just use it at night.
Bentonite Clay Mask
I usually do a clay mask once per week, maybe twice if I’m breaking out really badly. It is important to not exfoliate too much, as it will irritate your skin and cause things to be worse.
I mix 1 tsp clay with ½ tsp water and ½ tsp apple cider vinegar and let it dry for no more than 10 minutes.
- Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay, $10 (Note because I just looked: I bought this in December 2016 and I still have a decent amount left! Seriously lasts forever.)
I’ve also been known to smear honey or yogurt on my face and leave it there for 10 mins or so. Honey is extremely soothing and anti-bacterial, and yogurt provides your skin with good bacteria (plus the cold feels great on painful pimples). Buy plain, full-fat yogurt and make sure it has live & active cultures.
Clove essential oil
I need to feel like I’m doing something about a problem, so finding a spot treatment for my breakouts that actually worked was crucial to weaning off the prescription meds (looking at you, benzoyl peroxide). Clove oil is my weapon against cystic breakouts, and believe me, it is POTENT. It smells potent too, so beware. (Marc deemed the smell “bleached Christmas” which is hilariously accurate 😂)
Clove oil works to pull the infection to the surface, so it’s best to apply at the very first sign of a cystic pimple (not really necessary for surface acne – oil cleansing usually gets those to go away pretty quickly for me). You know — when you’re still trying to convince yourself that maybe it’s not a pimple, maybe you just… ran into the wall or something (just me? ok.) I find if I get it early enough it’ll just go away (miracle of miracles!). If I wait a day or two, then it just speeds up the process of pulling stuff to the surface. Not ideal, but better than waiting around with a mountain growing on my face for a week. 🤷🏼♀️
Mix one drop clove oil with 2-3 drops neutral oil like sunflower seed. This will make way more than you need, so just dab on a little bit. Even after diluting, it will still sting your face! This should go away after a minute or so, if not wash or wipe it off and dilute it more next time.
I tried to squeeze a lot of info in here but couldn’t possibly get to everything! Here’s some more reading materials if you’re curious.
Nitty Gritty on the Oil Cleansing Method, Crunchy Betty
Trying and Troubleshooting the Oil Cleansing Method, Crunchy Betty
A note about Marie Veronique: If you have (or once you have) room in your brain for a third thing to do – after moisturizing and oil cleansing – please read Marie’s book and blog. I’ve done a lot of research & reading about hormonal acne and found a lot of crap. Marie Veronique & her colleague Kristina Holey have been some of the few people who approach skincare from a scientific background but still look at acne holistically instead of prescribing medication. I have yet to buy any of her products because they are pricey, but I plan on saving up and prioritizing buying a few in my budget next year. Her blog & book are absolutely full of super valuable information, and she does provide info on how to care for your skin WITHOUT buying her products, which I so respect (and which has informed much of the products I list here).
Update: Check out my Marie Veronique Skincare review in this post!
And there you have it! Thanks for staying with me! Do you have any products that have really helped you? I’m always looking for suggestions!
Cheers ~ 💙maria
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