I am very open about my longstanding skin struggles. I vividly recall having painful cystic pimples as early as grade 5 (I was 10). Throw in the more-than-occasional cold sore and lets just say I was motivated at a young age to start my skincare research. I spent summers poring over magazines like Allure and Glamour; the former having the best science-based articles while the latter had pretty pictures (and way more reliable than Cosmo). When we travelled to the cottage, I would pack stacks of books written by Bobbi Brown and Kevyn Aucoin, learning the makeup techniques that would cover my problem spots. The best book I have ever read on acne is without a doubt Breaking Out: A Woman’s Guide to Coping with Acne at Any Age by Lydia Preston. It illustatrated the different types of acne and their treatments… salicylic acid to clear pores of debris, benzoyl peroxide to kill the p. acnes bacteria that causes cysts, and oil-absorbing clays to control sebum. Acne is such an annoying issue because its causes are infamous in their complexities; stress, diet, exercise, hormones, DNA… ay yi yi! Not only is it difficult to identify the cause of acne (its certainly not like I cut myself and can slap a bandaid on it to heal), but any solution requires a multi-pronged approach. And consistency. Dedication. Patience.
Among the treatments I have tried are the heavy prescription hitters: Differin gel, Retin-A, Stievamycin, several years of antibiotics, and two courses of Accutane. When I had my wisdom teeth removed, my dentist could tell that I had taken antibiotics at 2 different times in my teenage years because one of the teeth had 2 distinctive gray rings around its roots. That is some serious stuff. Looking at my history with over-the-counter (OTC) treatments, I feel like I am more than qualified to work at Shoppers in their cosmetics department: Clearasil, Oxy, Clean and Clear, Acnomel, glycolic acid (Neostrata and Reversa), Zeno Heat Treat, Spectro, Cetaphil, Cerave, Neutrogena, Mario Badescu, Proactiv, Kate Somerville, … phew now I’m boring myself. Almost 17 years of consistent acne really does give a girl time to try some different options!
In my travels along the drugstore and pharmacy aisles, I learned some very important lessons. First: my skin is very sensitive to harsh ingredients. Proactiv ruined my chin; I broke out in so many cysts that you couldn’t separate one from the other (prompting a heavy-handed foundation attack that elicited an unfortunate comment from my husband). Second: there is no holy grail product for acne treatment, at least not for me. No matter what products I tried, the success period flared and died within several months, leading me to my next product test. Therein lies my third revelation: any change takes time. Even salicylic acid, one of the most effective chemicals for clearing pore blockages, takes about 4 weeks to work. 4 weeks! In a culture of immediate gratification, this is a tough pill to swallow. I wanted my pimples gone overnight, to the point that I was willing to blast them the strongest chemicals if it only meant that I didn’t have to face the embarrassment of a giant zit in the morning.
Seventeen years of trouble with my skin has left a lasting impact on my self esteem. When I had a pimple, I felt like hiding. Staying home would be my only wish (luckily my parents did not go for this). So I learned to camouflage, spackle, and powder. Sure, sometimes I overdid it, but this is how I coped…. and developed some serious makeup skills in the process. If I have a breakout now, I am confident in my ability to hide it, but I still feel that urge to turn my face away and avoid seeing gazes dart to my swollen skin. It is an odd state of being: hope when my skin is clear, begrudging acceptance when it inevitably ends.
In my commitment to reducing chemicals in our home, I stopped using my Cerave cleanser (choc-full of parabens), and started the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM) after reading a delightful post over at Crunchy Betty. As I started researching which essential oils I wanted to add to my blend, I learned my fifth skin lesson: I must heal, not attack, my acne. Acne is by nature an inflammation of the pore; cystic blockages occur deeper under the skin, while open comedones (=pus) are closer to the surface. Almost all essential oils have anti-inflammatory properties; they really are quite amazing. I personally do well with lavender, but I have been playing with others. Trust me, a post is coming on my experience with OCM.
And wouldn’t you know it, after my skin’s adjustment phase with OCM, my skin tone is more even and heals much more quickly than it ever has before. I have switched my makeup products, too, so that my face has been chemical-free for over 4 weeks. Weirdly enough, I view any breakouts as an opportunity to treat them with a new concoction. My latest? The biggest revelation I have had in my 17 years of skin struggles. The wildest, most hilarious skin lesson of my life: Mother Nature has a sense of humour.
I read somewhere (honestly, I have been to so many hippie sites in the last month that I cannot tell you where I first read this) that Neem oil has some of the best anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-everything properties out there. So I ordered some from Saffire Blue and decided to test it on a pimple overnight. This sucker had popped up in one day on the side of my forehead where the skin is thin, i.e. super painful inflammation. I mixed the Neem oil with some green clay and thickly applied the potion to my face… and nearly gagged. Never have I smelled a more vile personal care product… and I been putting food on my face for awhile now. I laid down in bed, looking like a spotted leopard, praying that my husband wouldn’t smell it. Surprisingly, he didn’t! Meanwhile I had to breathe through my mouth to actually fall asleep. The next morning, the pimple was flat. Completely deflated. Skin was still red and healing, of course, but there was almost no inflammation left. I could not believe it. I have spent the majority of my life searching for an effective, safe pimple treatment and I finally get one… that smells like rotten Thanksgiving leftovers.
Proof, ladies and gentleman, that Mother Nature definitely has a sense of humour.