How I (FINALLY) Cleared My Skin of Acne

by | Sep 22, 2014
Me in Kauai three weeks ago, no makeup

Me in Kauai three weeks ago, no makeup

I thought I was one of the lucky ones. While I certainly had my fair share of awkwardness during middle school and high school, bad skin wasn’t a problem for me. I assumed I was just genetically blessed in that regard––my mom’s Mexican heritage awarded her flawless skin––and so I focused my attention on studying and dieting my way out of the rest of my problems. Oh the joys of being a teenager.

It wasn’t until I got to college that my skin changed. Within just a few months of arriving at Berkeley I developed deep, cystic acne on my chin and around my jaw line. The blemishes were incredibly painful, not to mention embarrassing. I tried every over-the-counter remedy I could find, to no avail. The teasing and chastising I got from my family that Christmas was relentless.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my breakouts were caused by the birth control pills I had recently started using. In this sense I am abnormal, as most women experience their skin clearing up as a result of the extra estrogen. Not me, I’m a weirdo.

I can't believe I just put this on the internet

I can’t believe I just put this on the internet (me at 18)

Messing with your hormones is scary business, and in my case led to a slew of symptoms including spider veins and abnormal hair growth. I was responding opposite to estrogen than most people expect, and my doctors were completely befuddled. Since they didn’t have an answer they kept telling me it was “probably genetic” before shooing me out of their office. Thanks guys.

It took me several years and many self-experiments to finally figure out that I had a hormone problem. I got off the pill and within a few month my symptoms diminished and my acne improved dramatically. This was a huge victory.

But while my skin was much improved, it still wasn’t perfect. Armed with the confidence I had gained from my hormone discovery I began searching for other environmental or dietary factors that could be causing my acne. Turns out there were several, and over the years I have finally discovered and eliminated them all.

The first factor I learned about was dairy. Dairy is the strongest dietary factor associated with acne, and sure enough when I cut it out my skin clears up beautifully. I’ve played around a lot with the different ways this manifests for my skin and here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Straight milk, cream, yogurt, sour cream, or any other industrial source of dairy causes deep breakouts within 1-4 days of consumption.

2. Cow’s milk is by far the worst offender, though I’m not entirely convinced that goat’s milk doesn’t impact my skin as well.

3. Quality matters. Fancy grass-fed milk from pastured cows (think $12/gallon) isn’t nearly as bad on my skin. I’ve had ice cream, cheese and butter from these cows without problem. This makes sense if you consider that milk is a hormonal product and industrial cows are given extra hormones to increase milk production. Pasture-raised cows are fed their natural diet and not supplemented with additional hormones. For some reason, regular organic milk doesn’t seem to be good enough. I have no idea why.

4. Butter and hard cheeses in general don’t seem to be a problem. Soft cheeses like fresh mozzarella or burrata wreak havoc unless they are from the fancy cows.

People sensitive to dairy have different tolerance levels, but this is the pattern I have found for myself.

The second factor for me is lavender oil. I noticed a resurgence in my acne a year or so after I reduced my dairy intake. It took me awhile to figure out, but one day I came across a case study of a few young boys who developed breasts after using lavender and tea tree shampoo. I noted that I had been recently purchased Dr. Bronner’s soap in lavender scent (it’s really strong) and was using it to clean my body. I switched back to peppermint soap and my skin cleared up again.

The lavender hypothesis is very controversial and further studies have not substantiated it as an estrogen mimic. I had trouble believing it myself, but I’ve tested my skin over and over again and without fail even simply washing my hands with lavender soap results in a mild breakout the following several days. My guess is that a small percentage of the population is sensitive to lavender, and I am one of those people. For most it is probably safe.

The final phase of my skin journey came as I was preparing for my wedding. I asked my friend Melody McCloskey, co-founder and CEO of StyleSeat, a company that helps you find and book appointments with beauty and wellness specialists. Melody had recently cleared up her own skin problems and had insightful advice for finding an excellent esthetician. For more severe skin problems, she recommends finding an esthetician who also works with an MD.

As a scientist I had often been frustrated with the skin care advice I’d been given in the past. It seemed every time I got a facial I received different, contrary advice to the last one I had. After awhile it was clear that the people I had seen really didn’t know anything about long-term acne treatment.

Melody recommended finding someone who approaches treatment holistically. She suggests reading the biography and philosophy of the practitioner to be sure they approach skin problems in a holistic way, with an eye toward long-term results. They should understand the science and the products they are using, and do a deep dive with you on your own products to discover what is and isn’t working.

“Once you talk to someone it’s pretty easy to tell if they are just trying to sell you products or if they’re truly interested in giving you personalized skin advice. They should talk about the types of products you should be using for your skin, without forcing you to drop $500 on what they want to sell.”

I ended up finding a woman who studied chemistry and cares first and foremost about the ingredients in the products she recommends. Not surprisingly, she speaks about skin care products a lot like the way I speak about Real Food.

She looked at my skin under a microscope then went through all my skin care and makeup products with me and pointed out some that may be be working against me. I was much relieved when she agreed that some of the things I was using were perfectly fine.

Over the years I have upgraded my entire skin care and makeup collections (full list below), but I did this slowly and as needed. It took nearly two years before we figured everything out, but my skin has never been so clear. And it was glowing at my wedding.

One of the most important things I learned from my esthetician is that everyone’s skin is different, and that you need to experiment to find what works for you. Diet is a huge factor, as is hydration and stress. For instance, I am abnormally sensitive to lavender and dairy, but have no trouble whatsoever with eating nuts. I have other friends, however, that can’t eat them without breaking out.

The same is true of products. The reason she didn’t change all my products over at once (besides having sympathy for my budget) is that she needed to see how my skin reacted to a new one before advising me further. As we made progress and my skin got healthier, we were able to add things like more intense exfoliation, which helped improve skin further.

For this reason I’ve been debating whether or not to include my full skin care regimen here. Ultimately I decided I would share it so you have an example (and I know that if I were still struggling with my skin I would want to see it), but please don’t assume you can just switch to these products and achieve miraculous results. I recommend finding a good esthetician first and working with her or him to find a solution.

Here’s what works for me:

Skin care

Mineral makeup

There you have it. It certainly isn’t cheap, but anyone who has struggled with their skin knows that price is meaningless if you get real results. If you upgrade over time it isn’t that bad.

Have you overcome skin issues? What was your secret?

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86 Responses to “How I (FINALLY) Cleared My Skin of Acne”

  1. Carolyn says:

    Dermalmd acne serum has changed my life. I’m 30 and have struggled with hormonal acne since middle school. I’ve tried everything short of Accutane, and dermalmd serum is the only product that has given me consistent results.

  2. Ariel says:

    Your article was very insightful and you mentioned being a chemist. Ozonated olive oil. Scam or what. I’m interested in the presence of c10h18o3 how much and what it does. If this is similar to c20h28o2 … Or are c,h,o, chains just really common.

  3. Emma says:

    MD here. Don’t wash you skin with anything other than water. Cave(wo)man style. You don’t need to use a heap of crap on your face, it just strips all the useful natural oil off, so your skin goes into overdrive. A pH neutral moisturiser, thickness of which depends on your skin type and a good sunscreen. Limit your makeup. I have glowing skin now. I used to buy any type of wash or cream I could get my hands on and my skin never improved. Also diet is very important. Eat badly and your skin will be dull and lifeless no matter what you use on it. Eat nutritionally and your skin will thank you. Sleep, plenty of water and regular exercise. And DON’T PICK YOUR SKIN, it just spreads staph around to the next pore. Easy really 😊

  4. Amy says:

    Only Dermalmd blemish serum has worked wonders on me! I used to have terrible acne on my chest and back, however since I’ve been using this serum for the past couple weeks, my acne is completely gone!

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