My interest in beauty manifested much later in my life than most people, I think. When, at about fourteen, my skin showed the first signs of acne, I was uninterested in doing much about it. I didn’t want to go to a dermatologist and I didn’t want to wear make up and I didn’t care about the soaps and creams and treatments. I only wanted to get on with being a newly minted “young adult”, and I didn’t think having acne was going to get in the way of that.
But by the time I got to college, having bad skin was a frustration and embarassment I couldn’t ignore. Maybe I found my vanity or maybe I lost my naivety or maybe I just recognized that what was happening to my face (and by extension what I was doing to my face) was a reflection of my mind and body being wildly out of balance. My struggle with acne had evolved past the little pink bumps of my teens into the painful cysts and subsequent scars of those pulsing whiteheads that begged to be popped with grotesque satisfaction.
My skin was constantly inflamed and so I was constantly touching it, exaserbating a problem I didn’t fully understand. I knew that the skin care aisle had a section just for “acne clearing” products and that those products contained either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid and that sometimes, after slathering those medications on my face, my skin burned but sometimes it looked less red and angry.
I didn’t have a makeup collection, just a few eye shadow quads and lip glosses from Christmases past, and I avoided foundation because it clung to the dry patches of healing acne and didn’t do enough to mask the redness. So I wasn’t doing any better at hiding it than I was doing at treating it.
I mishandled the issue from every end, I think. It took me too long to become concerned and it took me too long to stop buying a new drugstore acne scrub every few weeks because the latest bottle hadn’t worked and it took me too long to break the habit of picking at my skin every time a new bump appeared and it took me too long to come to the realization that I wasn’t healing because I wasn’t educating myself. I went from not caring in my teens to caring too much in my early twenties and instead of seeking out information I sought quick fixes that did more to harm me, in the end, than help.
So I did a lot of reading, and a little experimenting, to find, finally, what worked for my skin. The first thing I needed to learn was the CAUSE of my acne. It couldn’t just be the hormones of puberty, or my poor college diet, or even stress which fluctuated from semester to semester but never overwhelmed me to the extent that it wreaked havoc with my physiology–all of which are commonly cited as acne causes.
It wasn’t my cosmetics (as I wasn’t wearing any) and it wasn’t my hygiene (as I was greasy faced and thus showering once sometimes twice a day to rid myself of the feeling) so that left me with little to go on. But what I learned about oil production and clogged pores and bacteria made moving toward clearer skin more like common sense than a complicated diagnosis.
You can find this information all over the web, but just in case: In the simplest terms acne occurs at the site of a clogged pore. Your skin secretes an oil, called sebum, to lubricate and protect your skin, and when you produce too much sebum, or when your sebum is sticky (composed of less linoleic acid, more on this later), your dead skin cells (on the surface of your face) can combine with your sebum (being excreted up through your pores) to create a plug. That combination of sebum and dead skin cells is where bacteria comes to thrive, and that is when the inflammation occurs.
From Mayo Clinic: “The plugged pore may cause the follicle wall to bulge and produce a whitehead. Or the plug may be open to the surface and may darken, causing a blackhead. A blackhead may look like dirt stuck in pores. But actually the pore is congested with bacteria and oil, which turns brown when it’s exposed to the air. Pimples are raised red spots with a white center that develop when blocked hair follicles become inflamed or infected. Blockages and inflammation that develop deep inside hair follicles produce cyst-like lumps beneath the surface of your skin. Other pores in your skin, which are the openings of the sweat glands, aren’t usually involved in acne.”
So how do you prevent sebum and dead skin and bacteria coming together on your face with disastrous results?
Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid
These are the two most popular topical ingredients used to treat acne. Benzoyl peroxide is an organic peroxide that can function as an antiseptic, working against the bacteria that causes inflamed acne, and salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, encouraging skin cells to shed more readily, which opens clogged pores and prevents pores from being clogged again by reshaping or constricting the pore. So if the skin care aisle at your local drug store is where you’re starting, you need to know if it is bacteria or dead skin causing you the most grief. Are you struggling with those puss filled monstrosities? If so, it is bacteria, and thus benzoyl peroxide. Do you have large, congested pores? Then dead skin, and thus salicylic acid.
But know also that these are not your only options, and while they are usually found in inexpensive and convenient creams and gels and soaps, they are also commonly mixed with ingredients that can agitate sensitive skin, like alcohol. As well, benzoyl peroxide can be drying, and can cause itching and peeling and swelling while salicylic acid can breakdown fats and lipids, causing chemical burns.
And keep in mind, these ingredients are used to TREAT acne, and will not change, for instance, the fact that you produce more sebum than is ideal, or sticky sebum. They will not heal the pimples you’ve picked at, or diminish the dark spots, or smooth out the resulting scars. They are certainly quick and easy fixes, and they are well documented as effective treatments, but in my case they were not lasting nor were they a long term solution.