When it comes to caring for our skin, popping pimples is a huge no-no. Yet even though we’re told we’re not supposed to do it, we all pop our zits from time to time. (And if you say you don’t, you’re lying.)
There’s something so satisfying, addictive even, about getting the gunk out of our faces. (We even love watching other people get their pimples popped.)
If you just can’t stop popping your own zits, there are some things dermatologists want you to keep in mind. But before we get into it, always remember: If you’re concerned about your skin or dealing with serious acne, you should see a dermatologist before taking matters into your own hands.
Pop the right pimple
First of all, the pimple you’re trying to pop has to be ready to pop. Essentially, you’re looking for a pimple with a white tip, known as a pustule or, more commonly, a whitehead.
If the pimple you’re trying to pop is a deeper nodule (the firm, painful red kind), you should avoid popping altogether because, as Washington, D.C.-based dermatologist Dr. Melda Isaac told HuffPost, “the inflammation is too deep.”
“Even though people have the best intentions of getting the stuff out, the inflammation and debris and pus can spill underneath the skin,” she said. “That’s what leads to further inflammation, infection and even scarring.”
Cleanliness is key
Next, you need to make sure the area and your hands are cleaned thoroughly.
“If a pimple has a clear ‘whitehead’ then you can wash your hands and wash the area with soap and water and apply gentle pressure from both sides,” Dr. Angela Lamb, director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice, director of dermatology at the Institute of Family Health and an assistant dermatology professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told HuffPost.
Sisters Laura and Diana Palmisano, certified physician assistants at Schweiger Dermatology Group, emphasized the need to keep everything clean.
“We normally recommend a gentle wash, some type of soap. You can even do a little alcohol,” Laura told HuffPost.
Use the right tools
Lamb and the Palmisano sisters all suggested using warm compresses to bring the inflammation to a head and generally open up the pore. The sisters also recommended using cotton swabs to help with the pus extraction.
Isaac told HuffPost you can use a sterile pin to make a tiny opening in the whitehead, or use a clean extractor tool to remove the pus. However, the Palmisanos recommended leaving the use of sharp objects and tools to the professionals.
Know when to stop
Another thing to keep in mind ― however badly you want to push and press at your zits ― is to be gentle.
“When you actually pop your pimple, you want to just gently compress the area. You don’t want to squeeze too aggressively,” Laura said.
“If it comes out and it starts to bleed,” Diana said, “I would say that’s where your endpoint is.”
“If you’re getting clear fluid, you’re popping a pimple too early,” Laura said. “You’re hitting an inflammatory lesion and could make it worse.”
If the area is very red after you’ve popped a pimple, Isaac recommends applying a small amount of hydrocortisone ointment or a benzoyl peroxide product like Neutrogena Rapid Clear spot gel. Benzoyl peroxide has “antibacterial properties and it will help reduce the inflammation,” she said.
Lamb, Isaac and the Palmisanos all say the best and safest thing to do is wait it out and see a professional. You can also try topical treatments to help dry out your pimples, which may help mitigate the desire to pop them. These treatments should be used in small amounts once or twice a day, Laura said.
Topical treatments include products like La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Duo (recommended by Lamb) and Neutrogena’s Rapid Clear spot gel (recommended by Isaac), both of which contain benzoyl peroxide.
The Palmisano sisters said that glycolic or salicylic acid-based products are also fine. They highly recommended the sulfur-based treatment Rezamid, which they said is great for drying things up, as long as you don’t have a sulfur allergy.
“Most pimples usually resolve in three to five days,” Isaac said.
So the next time you feel a pimple coming in, try to be patient. Your skin will thank you.
Top 10 Best Acne Treatment Systems for Adults of 2018
I’ve been dealing with acne since the fifth grade. I’ve dealt with it all from stubborn comedones to painful cystic acne that makes you feel like you’ve got a baseball growing out of your head. It did not go away when I hit my twenties and, left to its own devices, I’m fairly certain it would never go away. Which is why I am not leaving it to its own devices.
What is acne?
Your skin is covered millions of tiny pores. On your face alone, there are around 20,000 pores. Below each one is a follicle and a sebaceous gland. The follicle’s job is the grow hair. The sebaceous gland is there to produce sebum, which is the natural oil our body makes to ensure our skin is healthy and doesn’t dry out. Sebum travels up the pore and spreads onto your skin, carrying shed dead skin cells with it.
Or that’s what it’s supposed to do, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes the sebum and skin cell mixture gets stuck in the pore. Voila, we have acne. So now the opening to the pore is blocked but the sebaceous gland is all, “That’s none of my business,” and keeps doing its job to secrete more oil. So now you’ve got a pore that is clogged but continues to fill up with more and more sebum and shed skin cells.
This is around that time you go, “Oh crap. There’s definitely going to be a zit here.”
The pressure keeps building as the pore swells. At this point, the rougue pore has a few options.
If the sebum blockage is open to the air, it’s called an open comedo. You know it as a blackhead because the sebum plug darkens when exposed to air.
If the blockage is covered by skin, often from built up dead skin at the surface, it’s a closed comedo or whitehead.
A clogged pore is about the coziest environment for bacteria to settle in and multiply. So if bacteria find the clogged pore and infect it, we now have a pustule or pimple. This causes inflammation and your body reacts by sending in its best bacteria fighters: white blood cells. The result of this battle is pus.
If a pustule forms and the pressure in the follicle becomes too great, remember that idiot sebaceous gland is obliviously hard at work, the walls of the follicle can actually burst. This can allow sebum, bacteria, pus, or all of the above to spread into other pockets deep under the skin that don’t have a pore as an outlet to the surface. We now have cystic acne. Ouch.
What causes acne?
Okay, so what sets this off in the first place? Most of the time, it’s testosterone which is a hormone that does a lot of different things in your body but also tells your sebaceous glands to work overtime. When you have spikes of testosterone in your system, you’re more likely to get slammed with acne. Puberty and people who need testosterone injections are great examples. Even the breakouts people get around their menstrual cycles are caused by a rise in testosterone levels.
We can’t 100 percent blame testosterone though. A build up of dry skin, genetics, adding excessive oil to your face through makeup or otherwise, and even some medications can cause acne to crop up too. But one of the biggest causes of acne is stress. So if you’re taking care of your skin, but your overwhelm is turned up to 11, take a breath and try adding some self care into your skin routine. There’s some possible data that dairy and large intakes of simple sugars can increase the acne levels, but it’s not definitive. If you’re desperate, it’s something you can try cutting out.
What doesn’t cause acne?
Pizza. People love to blame greasy foods for acne and for years pizza was the target culprit. Modern studies show the only way greasy foods will cause acne is if you actively rub them on your face. So wash your hands after eating those cheese fries and you’re good. Pizza is good and pure and nothing can stop me.
Common Acne Treatments.
Benzoyl peroxide. This is probably the most effective treatment we’ve got. It kills acne-causing bacteria and helps clear the excess oil out of your pores while reducing inflammation. But too much of a good thing and it can dry your skin out. You always want to start slow and see how your skin responds. It will also bleach your fabrics so keep it off the towels and pillowcases you like.
Salicylic acid. This is a beta hydroxy acid that comes from willow and birch trees. You can find more information about how awesome BHAs and AHAs are in my body peels post. Salicylic acid is absorbed deep into your pores and clears out oils and built up dead skin, while creating an inhospitable environment for future zits. It can cause stinging to those with sensitive skin.
Sulfur. Sounds weird but it works. Sulfur kills bacteria and cleans out oil and dead skin. It can be drying and isn’t usually used alone. Just be aware that it isn’t always easy to hide the sulfur smell (think boiled eggs) but some products do better than others.
What if your acne gets worse?
Don’t panic. With some treatments, particularly rentinol, your acne can get worse before it gets better. Stick it out as long as you can.
How long do treatments take to work?
I wish any treatment system was an overnight fix, but that’s not possible. You may begin to see some improvement within a week of starting the treatment but it’s recommended that you give a system six weeks to decide if it’s really not working. It takes time for your skin to adjust and for the blemishes that already existed when you started to resolve and heal. Does that sound like forever when you’ve got painful zits? Yes. Unless otherwise advised by your system, double down on your acne spot treatments to get you through.
Which acne treatment system is right for me?
That’s really hard to answer. Everyone’s skin and biology is different. Some systems will work great for some and do nothing for others. That’s why I’m making this list. I’m going to go over the best on the market today and outline who these systems might be great for and who might want to avoid which.
1. Glytone Acne Clearing System
This four piece acne treatment system by Glytone is great for oily skin, combination skin, and especially if built up dry skin is one of your trouble areas. This kit contains a foam cleanser, a toner, and two spot treatments–a lotion and a gel. The foam cleanser and toner both use salicylic acid as their active ingredient to dry up oils, kill bacteria, and as a gentle acid peel. The salicylic acid removes the top layer of dry, dead skin cells, preventing dead skin from blocking pores. I like that there are two spot treatments with different active ingredients because it seems like some people react better to one than the other. The lotion uses concentrated salicylic acid to treat problem spots and the gel uses benzoyl peroxide which his generally considered stronger than salicylic acid.
Each of these products is to be used one to three times a day as your skin tolerates it. As impatient as you might be, start slow. Start with once a day and see how it goes. These treatment can dry your skin out if you overuse them. You can even drop back to every other day if you need to. Drying is good–we just need to find the right balance. If your skin can handle an aggressive and highly effective treatment, this is great. If you have very dry or sensitive skin, you might want to skip this one. Be aware that benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics so if you go to bed with it on, use a pillowcase you’re not attached to. I really like that you can buy the cleanser, toner, lotion, and gel separately because, inevitably, you end up going through one product way faster than the others and this way you don’t have to buy a whole new kit. I featured the Glytone Tinted Spot Treatment in my best acne spot treatments guide.
Buy the Glytone Acne Clearing System here.
- Uses salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide
- You can buy the products separately
- Oil free and non-comedogenic
- Aggressively treats even deep acne
- Spot treatments go on clear
- Contains parabens and silicones
- Not for sensitive skin
- Can be too harsh for some
Find more Glytone Acne Clearing System information and reviews here. 2. Nerd Skincare Acne Treatment System
The Nerd Skincare Acne Treatment System is a unique take on treating acne through science. Overall, most acne treatments work by killing bacteria and drying up oils, which does work don’t get me wrong. But that process can be very harsh on your skin and cause drying, redness, and peeling. Nerd Skincare’s founder, Evelyn Chen, has very sciencey degrees and decided to try a different approach. As I’m sure you’ve read concerning gut flora and such, there are good and bad bacteria on our bodies. Many acne treatments act like antibiotics and kill everything. Nerd Skincare instead uses vegan probiotics to strengthen your good bacteria and give them the tools to fight the bad bacteria for you, leaving you with a balanced and healthy face ecosystem. Which I think is incredibly clever. Best thing about it is that means no side effects. No drying, no redness, no peeling.
It’s a three step program of cleanser, “lotion,” and cream. I wish the instructions had been a little more clear as at first I thought the eyedropper bottle in the middle was a spot treatment. The cleanser is super creamy and feels lovely, but if you get it in your eyes you’ll be sad. The “lotion” is a clear, watery liquid that you apply next to the affected areas of your face. Follow that up with the silky cream to prevent any drying. None of the steps have any kind of smell which is really neat feels quite clean. My partner saw results in a week and it took me, and my hormonal self, two weeks to really notice serious improvement. I’ve had a couple of hormonal zits since using it, but nothing like before and they don’t stick around long. I plan on sticking with it.
I was sent the Nerd Skincare System to try out, but made it very clear that was not a guarantee of a positive review or even that I would review the product at all. It’s important to all of us at Heavy that we are upfront and honest with any companies we communicate with, but more importantly that we are upfront and honest with our readers.
Price: $161.72 (17 percent off MSRP)
Buy the Nerd Skincare Acne Treatment System here.
- Uses probiotics, sulfur, and botanical extracts
- No side effects
- Perfect for sensitive skin
- Free of parabens, sulfates, phthalates, fragrances, dyes, foaming agents, and silicones
- Cruelty free
- Skin feels awesome
- Sells out fast
- May not be strong enough for everyone
- Won’t make oily skin less oily
- Watery lotion is a little finicky to work with
Find more Nerd Skincare Acne Treatment System information and reviews here. 3. Mario Badescu Acne Control Kit
The Mario Badescu Acne Control Kit comes with five products that form a daily skincare routine that can zap zits from your life. Some systems are targeted using only one active ingredient to treat your acne. This system uses around seven. This is throwing the kitchen sink at your acne, which, when you’re not sure what is going to work for you is, frankly, fantastic. The Acne Facial Cleanser exfoliates with salicylic acid and soothes your skin with aloe vera and chamomile while the Special Cucumber Lotion works as an astringent to dry up acne and reduce the size of your pores. The Drying Cream treats small zits under the skin with sulfur and zinc oxide. The Drying Mask uses Kaolin clay, calamine, and sulfur to target larger, surface zits. And the well-known Drying Lotion is a super strong spot treatment that I featured in my best acne spot treatments guide.
First things first, I really wish they could come up with some less boring names for these products but that’s neither here nor there. This wide range of active ingredients works fast and works with a wide range of skin types. I like that you can buy each product separately and that the zinc oxide helps make oily skin less oily overall.
Buy the Mario Badescu Acne Control Kit here.
- Uses salicylic acid, sulfur, botanical extracts, calamine, Kaolin clay, camphor, and zinc oxide
- Helps reduce oiliness
- Products available seperately
- Works fast
- Made in America
- Cruelty free
- Contains parabens, sulfates, and silicones
- Spot treatment isn’t clear
Find more Mario Badescu Acne Control Kit information and reviews here. 4. Jan Marini Skin Research Teen Clean 10%
Okay, yes, it says “Teen Clean.” I don’t really care. None of the ingredients are age-specific and I know some of us feel like our skin is stuck in those troubled teenage years so if it works, use it. This system contains a 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide face wash, a 10 percent benzoyl peroxide treatment lotion, and non-comedogenic daily facial sunblock. The sunblock is important because that’s a lot of benzoyl peroxide and it can cause sun sensitivity. Benzoyl peroxide is straight up one of the most effective ways to dry up pimples, but it does run the risk of drying your skin too so go slowly and work your way up. A 10 percent concentration is serious business. If that seems a little too strong or your skin is on the sensitive side, you have the option to instead go for the 5 percent concentration of Teen Clean which has all the same products but the treatment lotion is milder on the skin.
Buy the Jan Marini Skin Research Teen Clean 10% here.
- Rated 4.6 out of five stars by users on Amazon
- Uses benzoyl peroxide
- Option of 5 or 10 percent strength
- Contains sunblock
- Contains parabens and sulfates
- May cause sun sensitivity
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
Find more Jan Marini Skin Research Teen Clean 10% information and reviews here. 5. Obagi Clenziderm M.D. System
This system is a three step process using salicylic acid and 5 percent benzoyl peroxide. You use the Daily Care Foaming Cleanser followed by the Pore Therapy twice a day. These both use salicyilc acid to soak deep into pores to clean them out, dry up oils, and remove dead skin. Once a day, follow that up with a thin layer of the benzoyl peroxide Therapeutic Lotion. Because both of these ingredients can cause drying or peeling when you use too much (less so with salicylic acid,) if you start noticing drying, drop back to once a day or every other day. The cleanser and Pore Therapy contain menthol which has a great cooling tingle for those of us who have painful, swollen, or inflamed acne. Just be sure not to get these in your eyes or you’re in for a sting.
This is one of the products that is extremely effective, but has a bit of an adjustment period. When you first start using it, it’s common to have a slight burning sensation. And while your acne won’t get worse like it does at first with rentinol, it is common for your skin to redden and be very dry the first couple of weeks. Try to stick it out if you’re able because once you get past this stage, the results can be dramatic.
Buy the Obagi CLENZIderm M.D. System here.
- Uses salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide
- Dramatic long term results
- Soothing menthol
- Contains sulfates
- Not for dry skin
- Can have drying adjustment period
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
Find more Obagi CLENZIderm M.D. System information and reviews here. 6. Proactiv+ 3 Step Acne Treatment System
Proactiv+ is pretty much required for any acne treatment system list. It’s the most well known and, for many, the most effective that people have found. Chances are, you already know Proacive+ exists and if you’re reading this guide, it’s probably not because you’ve forgotten. But as a reminder, Proactiv+ is still around and people still swear by it.
If you haven’t considered it before, here’s a quick rundown of the three steps you do twice a day. First, the Skin Smoothing Exfoliator uses a mild exfoliator, 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, and glycolic acid to kill bacteria, dry up oils, and remove dead skin. Second, the Pore Targeting Treatment uses 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide to reach deep into pores. Lastly, the Complexion Perfecting Hydrator uses salicylic acid, botanicals, moisturizing oils, and hyaluronic acid spheres which, as I’ve explained in my luxury hand cream guide, are ultra-hydrating and reduce the signs of aging. This lotion will also lighten your skin, helping to hide acne scarring. I recently featured Proactiv’s Emergency Blemish Relief in my best acne spot treatments guide.
Buy the Proactiv+ 3 Step Acne Treatment System here.
- Uses benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and botanical extracts
- Lots of people have great success
- Years of testing and perfecting
- Lightens acne scarring
- Contains silicone
- Not oil free
- Not everyone wants skin lighteners
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
Find more Proactiv+ 3 Step Acne Treatment System information and reviews here. 7. La Roche-Posay Effaclar Dermatological Acne Treatment System
The Effaclar Acne Treatment System by La Roche-Posay has been called the Proactiv+ for adults. It’s a three step system with a similar list of active ingredients and a drastically lower price tag. One ingredient that is unique to this system is beta-lipohydroxy acid which is a derivitive of salicylic acid. It’s gentler on skin and soaks in slower, delivering its exfoliating goodness evenly without missing anything. According to the NIH, beta-lipohydroxy acid also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, two things we lose as we age which causes fine lines. I love that this acne treatment doubles as an anti-aging treatment. Like many systems there is a cleanser and toner that you use twice daily as your skin tolerates it and an acne treatment lotion you can use up to three times a day. The Dual Action Acne Treatment contains 5.5 percent benzoyl peroxide which can be drying and stain fabrics. Some people get positive results with this system within a week, and for others it can take more like six weeks.
Buy the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Dermatological Acne Treatment System here.
- Uses salicylic acid, glycolic acid, beta-lipohydroxy acid, 5.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, and botanical extracts
- Great for even deep, hormonal acne
- Paraben free
- Doubles as anti-aging
- Can be too drying for some
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
Find more La Roche-Posay Effaclar Dermatological Acne Treatment System information and reviews here. 8. Eau Thermale Avène Cleanance Solutions Blemish Control Regimen
This is a three step system with the normal cleanser, toner, and treatment lotion, but that doesn’t rely on the active ingredients we’ve seen so far. Instead, Eau Thermale Avène uses patented ingredients like monolaurin, X-Pressin, and diolenyl. Monolaurin reduces your pores’ natural sebum production by 33 percent. Finally something to tell that jerk of a sebaceous gland to give it a rest. X-Pressin is a chemical exfoliator like glycolic acid or salicylic acid but it’s much more efficient. You get higher results at a lower concentration so it’s a great alternative for people with more sensitive skin who are easily dried out by other chemical peel agents. Finally diolenyl appears to bacteria as the type of cells in your sebum that they would normally eat, but when they try to eat it they can pumped full of antibacterials which kill them–that’s pretty hardcore. It’s also an anti-inflammatory which is great for sore, irritated skin.
If other treatment systems haven’t worked for you in the past, this is a unique approach to throw at your face. There is an adjustment period where you may find your acne is getting worse the first couple of weeks as the system treats your active blemishes. Stick with it. It’s part of the process. If you have very oily skin (and I’m raising my hand for this) the Cleanence line is great for you. The second step is a mattifying toner to help reduce shininess and the system will, over time, reduce your oil production.
Buy the Eau Thermale Avène Cleanance Solutions Blemish Control Regimen here.
- Uses monolaurin, X-Pressin, diolenyl, salicylic acid, and citric acid
- Unique targeted action against acne-causing bacteria
- Product of France
- Reduces oil production
- Comes with SPF 50 sample
- Contains sulfates and silicones
- Initial adjustment period
Find more Eau Thermale Avène Cleanance Solutions Blemish Control Regimen information and reviews here. 9. Pca Skin Acne Kit
This is a five step system that adds a spot treatment and non-comedogenic sun block to the standard cleanser, treatment lotion, and moisturizer regimen. The cleanser and acne cream both contain 5 percent benzoyl peroxide and gluconolactone which is a gentle chemical peel similar to glycolic acid. These are used twice a day as your skin tolerates it and followed with the Clearskin moisturizer which contains niacinamide, an ingredient that helps reduce your skin’s production of oils. The Intensive Clarity Treatment is only used at night because, along with salicylic acid, it contains retinol–a strong treatment which drastically unclogs pores and reduces the visibility of scarring.
There are some side effect associated with retinol though. It can cause sun sensitivity, making the included sun block even more important. It also is generally accompanied by an adjustment period. Translation: your face could get worse before it gets better. There may be a couple of weeks that are rough, but if you can tough it out, it’s one of the most effective and dermatologist prescribed treatments for acne.
Buy the PCA SKIN Acne Kit here.
- Uses 5 percent benzoyl peroxide, niacinamide, retinol, gluconolactone, salicylic acid, and botanicals like arnica
- Reduces oil production
- Includes sun block and spot treatment
- Retinol is extremely powerful, effective stuff
- There is an adjustment period to get through
- Benzoyl peroxide can stain fabrics
- Benzoyl peroxide and retinol can cause sun sensitively
- Not oil free
Find more PCA SKIN Acne Kit information and reviews here. 10. Neutralyze Moderate To Severe Acne Treatment Kit
Lastly, the Neutralyze three step system balances your face to stop the acne cycle. It starts with a non-foaming cleanser that uses mandelic acid (an alpha-hydroxy acid derived from almonds) as a mild chemical peel and exfoliant. The Clearing Serum uses 1 percent salicylic acid and mandelic acid to clean out pores and remove dead skin. The hydrating Synergizer helps to soothe irritated, red skin and balance the pH of your skin. This system is fairly gentle and good for sensitive skin of all types. It kicks in pretty fast but people with deep, cystic acne are probably going to need a stronger treatment regimen than this.
Price: $39.95 (44 percent off MSRP)
Buy the Neutralyze Moderate To Severe Acne Treatment Kit here.
- Rated 4.5 out of five stars by users on Amazon
- Uses salicylic acid, mandelic acid, and botanicals like green tea and cucumber extract
- Free of parabens and fragrances
- Works quickly
- Won’t be strong enough for everyone
- Contains tree nut products
Find more Neutralyze Moderate To Severe Acne Treatment Kit information and reviews here. Heavy, Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to Amazon. Our product recommendations are guided solely by our editors. We have no relationship with manufacturers.
After Years of Cystic Acne, I Can Assure You Skin Care Isn’t a Con
The beauty—and absurdity—of the Internet lies in its ability to rile people up in such a way that the drama of the day can be reduced to one tweet with no context. I saw one last night—“Black Mirror: Skin Care”—and I knew exactly what the author was referring to. A story published on The Outline Tuesday called “The Skin Care Con,” in which writer Krithika Varagur took a guns-blazing yet remarkably unresearched approach to tearing down what she calls “New Skincare,” an empty pastime embraced by millennial women because it’s cool and satiating, not because it’s helpful or useful. “A scam,” is what Varagur calls it.
I’m not looking to refute the core of her argument—Cheryl Wischhover over at Racked.com did that, and did it very well—but I feel compelled to insert myself into this conversation not only because of my experience covering beauty at various points in my career, but also because skin care, in many ways, has changed the way I present myself to the world, which wasn’t always easy.
After reading The Outline’s story a few times, I’ll admit I don’t disagree with every point Varagur makes, though I think her frustration is misguided. I have certainly rolled my eyes at the It Girl mentality found in certain circles of skin care enthusiasts, and have felt disappointed when a roster of frequently recommended products by girls with cool clothes, cool hair, and cool jobs do nothing for me. I’ve also gotten angry at natural-skin-care brands that make irresponsible claims backed up by nothing but earnest testimony—such as the promise that garden-variety oils and esters can cure cystic acne. They cannot. Some oils might help keep chronic breakouts at bay, but cystic acne is the beast unto which my own obsession with skin care was born.
After having typical adolescent skin—zit smatterings and an oily T-zone—I found myself at age 15 faced with a rapid, violent outbreak of cystic acne that included quarter-sized nodules under the skin, and red, inflamed lesions on both cheeks that hurt to the touch. After many, many rounds of tetracyclines, I was placed on isotretinoin—a.k.a. Accutane—about a year later. Two pills daily for six months. I’ll spare you the details of the peeling skin, the bone-dry lips and eyes, and what it was like being a teenager having to sign paperwork pledging she won’t get pregnant because of the severe birth defects the drug can cause—all while her male doctor looks on. This was before iPledge.
I was grateful to be on Accutane—painful acne was a misery—but at that age, outward appearance dictates a lot, and I wasn’t comfortable with mine.
I was deeply distraught. I was grateful to be on Accutane—painful acne was a misery—but at that age, outward appearance dictates a lot, and I wasn’t comfortable with mine. I decided my best recourse was to start wearing makeup—dense, matte, full-coverage foundation to mask what wasn’t really able to be masked. But at age 16, I had no idea how to properly buy or apply makeup. So, traumatized, I made a trip to the drugstore and grabbed the first bottle of Revlon ColorStay foundation I saw, not bothering to check the shade. It looked white, and I was white. That’s how it works, right? I also quickly realized that if you wear as much makeup as I did, you have to remove this makeup at night; my first experience with routine daily washing. My cleanser of choice back then was bar soap, Cetaphil or Yardley, and—because Accutane sucks all the moisture out of your skin—I also leaned on attainable moisturizers like Lubriderm, often mixed with SPF 30, because light is not your friend on Accutane. Voila, cocktailing.
In six months, the worst of my cysts had subsided and I’d familiarized myself with the nightly routine of washing my face to remove my makeup, though I never strayed from Cetaphil for fear of my acne returning; never mind it was knocked out of me by ungodly doses of vitamin A.
In college, my face looked better but not great—I still habitually wore a ton of makeup to cover the indents and scarring my acne had left behind. It was there, though, in the dorm bathroom, that I discovered a gateway rainbow of drugstore face wash, each claiming they did different things; each I’d never tried thanks to an adolescence filled with caution. The gold of Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash, the sky-blue gel of Clean & Clear, the peach of St. Ives Apricot scrub. I’d try whatever my friends had in their shower caddies, while staring into the mirror and talking—mostly about parties and our bitchy RA, but I remember those communal nights and mornings well.
After college—early 2000s—my acne was mostly gone but I was faced with a new affliction—circular dry facial patches that would flare up whenever they felt like it and were resistant to derm-prescribed hydrocortisone, to Vaseline, to straight-up olive oil. Patches that were so flaky, I couldn’t wear foundation without looking like I had a polka-dotted face. It was then I discovered the beauty of a website called MakeupAlley, a first-gen digital community of impassioned beauty fanatics who swapped reviews, tips, and stories. It was on that site, practically still in beta, that I discovered some people swear that two uncoated aspirin melted by lukewarm water with a little honey can help heal dry, inflamed patches—and you know what? That worked for me. It was also around this time I starting gently dipping my makeup sponges into iced coffee before applying foundation, swearing that the caffeine woke up my skin. I believe we now call these hacks.
In the decade-plus I’ve been covering women’s lifestyle, I’ve tried thousands of products and have graduated from hoarding lipsticks and bronzers to hoarding serums, moisturizers, exfoliants, and balms. It’s become a passion because I see results. In this space, I find I’m able to think analytically and critically about what actually works for me, not just what looks good or is flattering. There’s some work involved, and I find that satisfying—especially now that my skin and my hormones have settled into a place that allows me to experiment with different formulas according to problems I’m trying to fix.
There’s also an abundance of science as far as skin care goes—despite Varagur’s opinion that it’s “chiefly about buying things, and displaying them for others to see.” The trick, of course, is doing your science homework, which I know—based on some conversations I’ve had with women around the Glamour office—isn’t always easy.
Chemical violence is not seeking out things that have been proven effective to look and feel better. Chemical violence is slathering deodorant on your face as a primer because you saw it on YouTube.
“If I’m being honest, I really don’t know the science behind half of the products I use and why they’re ‘good for me,'” our social media director Madeline said, adding that she’s often as guilty as the people mentioned in the Outline story who know little about the powerful ingredients they’re using but slather them on anyway. Usually because a certain product is permeating their feed. “It’s not clear how those ingredients will interact with each other or how they’ll impact my skin,” she said.
It took me a long time to resist the urge to buy whatever cream I felt like at Sephora or to rip open every expensive treatment I see in the beauty closet at work. During the last year or so, I’ve become much more attuned to what I’m putting in—and on—my body for many reasons, and I’ve committed to taking the time to learn. I have a steady dermatologist, which I hadn’t had since my Accutane days, and I email her questions if I have them. I google. I ask friends who are beauty editors. I read packaging, not just look at it. For my own health, I’ve chosen to educate myself about why products are able make the promises they do.
I now know exactly what acids—AHA, BHA, glycolic, lactic, malic, citric, salicylic—do, and which ones work for me. I know that humectants and hyaluronic acid are essential for my lifelong dry skin. I know how to apply retinols responsibly. I know the rejuvenating power of a vitamin-C serum, because—feeling overwhelmed by the bottles on my bedside table—I asked my dermatologist to suggest one nonnegotiable product during my last visit.
Varagur mentions a few of the above ingredients but assigns them blame, writing, “At the core of the New Skincare is chemical violence.” Nope. Chemical violence is not seeking out things that have been proven effective to look and feel better. It is not being curious about Biologique p50—which comes with a mass of printed instructions—or wanting to try out Glossier’s new chemical exfoliator. Chemical violence is slathering deodorant on your face as a primer because you saw it on YouTube. It’s dousing your face with Pepto Bismol because a supermodel thinks it works. It’s ordering Juvederm online and injecting it at home.
I do not find self-worth in the “enormous quantity” of products I use, despite Varagur’s argument. In fact, it’s just the opposite. There’s nothing better than finding a core few that work in tandem to produce results. Today, my routine is face wash (Skinceuticals Gentle Cleanser), toner (Bioderma Sensibio), a morning serum (Skinceuticals CE Ferulic), moisturizer (I switch between M61’s Hydraboost Cream and Desert Essence’s Revitalizing Oils), an eye cream (Red Earth), and a twice-weekly retinol (A313, which I’d never heard of until my sister brought it back after a trip to France). I also have a weekly rotation of treatments to target different areas of concern (Dr. Brandt’s Oxygen Facial Flash Recovery Mask for dullness, Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Sukari BabyFacial for clogged pores and improved texture, and Dr. Gross’ cool blue peel-off mask for hydration—and fun—are three I keep coming back to).
Avoiding your gaze, hiding behind my hair, and being a slave to pan stick are things I’d rather not do. I like to look good, too.
But considering the volume of innovative brands and breakthroughs, I’ll always want to try new things, so I might switch or eliminate as I go—and that might mean spending a little more money. For example, I recently swapped my holy grail Clarisonic—which my skin was becoming resistant to—for the NuSkin Lumispa, and I unequivocally noticed a difference in tone, hydration, and clarity in literal days. Buying a new tool wasn’t the equivalent of eating my feelings, so to speak, but rather an actionable thing I did to fix my enlarged pores and dull skin after a good amount of research.
In her article, Varagur instructs, “Before you start a militant skincare regimen, it’s instructive to think about why you want one.”
Probably because I hid from the world in high school, and I have important things to accomplish daily that need my full confidence. Avoiding your gaze, hiding behind my hair, and being a slave to pan stick are things I’d rather not do, if possible. I like to look good, too.
I’m in my thirties and look younger than I am—much younger, I’ve been told. That could be because of my 5’1″ frame, but I like to think it’s because of my skin’s tone and elasticity. I’m not saying this to boast—I was not blessed with good skin at birth. I treated it with one of the heaviest medications you can find, and ever since, I’ve tended to it—and not because anyone told me to, or because I’m chasing some bullshit ideal dictated by Instagram.
“Real, flawed women have real, flawed skin—it’s fine,” Varagur writes. Yeah, we know. I don’t think any skin-care-obsessed woman I’ve met flips out over a blemish or a breakout. If anything, she’s able to identify the cause—a new ingredient, a bad-eating week, PMS. And if she can’t, she’ll ask for help. That ability to understand and take action, to me, is the definition of perfect skin.
Perrie Samotin is digital deputy editor of Glamour.