How Sara Saved Her Skin & (Finally) Cured Her Adult Acne

Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Graphic Opener

We’re usually pretty into design over here at EHD, but one of our favorite non-design topics in the office? Skincare. Skin—we all have it, we all need it, and most of us have a very complicated relationship with our own flesh wrapping (ew). If there’s one thing I love talking about, it’s skiiiiiin. Almost as… Read More …

The post How Sara Saved Her Skin & (Finally) Cured Her Adult Acne appeared first on Emily Henderson.

Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Graphic Opener

We’re usually pretty into design over here at EHD, but one of our favorite non-design topics in the office? Skincare. Skin—we all have it, we all need it, and most of us have a very complicated relationship with our own flesh wrapping (ew). If there’s one thing I love talking about, it’s skiiiiiin. Almost as much as the rest of the EHD team loves talking about color trends. Skin is the largest organ of our body! IT’S AN ORGAN ON THE OUTSIDE, GUYS! How is that not fascinating? So since today is Saturday, we’re taking a quick departure from the design world to talk skincare (but if skin is not something you’re interested in, stay tuned because come Monday we’re going to have some pretty beautiful design content here on the blog).

Since the age of 13, I’ve been at war with my skin…

Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Graphic Highschool Sara

Here is a list of the things I did not have from ages 13 – 21:

  • popularity
  • good taste
  • clear skin

But I had great friends to endure it all with, and to be honest high school is awkward for pretty much everyone, right? I figured college would be a new, fresh start. College would be where I blossomed from awkward teenagehood to full-blown adult. I was wrong. College had just as much acne in store for me as high school. But whatever, I didn’t let it hold me back. I knew clear skin was just around the corner, because adults don’t have acne. Acne is a puberty thing. And it was!

I graduated, turned 21, and my skin calmed down. And I thought “THIS. This is where it starts…my new life as a clear-skinned adult…” Which made sense, college isn’t adulthood. POST COLLEGE IS REAL ADULTHOOD. That’s why my skin hadn’t been cooperating. But the wait was over, and I spent the next four years blissfully thinking my skin would be clear forever. Thinking I had finally acquired “adult skin.”

And then I turned 25 and my acne came back, bigger and badder than ever. WORSE THAN WHEN I HAD BEEN 13. I didn’t think it was possible, but the evidence was right there on my face.

Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Graphic 25 Year Old Sara

Wow, that last picture is way too close and gross for anyone to see. So happy I’ve put it in large format on the very public internet.

Now, listen, I know I’m not the first person in the world to find themselves battling acne. But at least when you’re a teenager most of your friends are right there, going through it with you. On the other hand, when you’re an adult? When you’re in meetings with your coworkers, and you’re just sitting there feeling like a 7th grader going through puberty. You feel like you’re the only adult in the world with acne (this is not true). And beyond the face forward appearances, there’s the fact that this acne HURT. And honestly, that was the worst part. If you have acne, it can make you self conscious because society is so hell-bent on having clear skin. But acne happens to most of us, and I know from experience that we always think our acne stands out way more than it really does. I rarely notice acne on anyone. But painful cystic acne is no joke, and when you’re face feels like a minefield ready to explode, you’re willing to try a lot.

And over the past two years, I have. Which is what I’m about to share with all of you. In fact, it blew my mind a few weeks ago when Em told me she had just recently started a skin routine for the first time in her life. I’ve had one since I was 14! (Who else had the classic Clinique department store visit with their mom when they were around that age?) But Em said acne just wasn’t one of her issues growing up. *Teen angst eye roll*

But let’s get a few things clear (skin not included): I’m not a dermatologist, I’m not a doctor, I’m not even an esthetician. I’m just an enthusiast who’s spent serious time dedicated to researching skincare in the quest for pain-free, well cared for skin (which just happens to involve a lot of selfie taking, and weekly skin updates between my best friend Nafeesa and myself). There is a lot of information out there, and a lot of it contradictory. What works really well for one person’s skin might wreak havoc on another’s. So what I’ve read/experienced might be different from what you’ve read/experienced. I’ve put together my skin regime based on recommendations from skincare experts that I trust, experimenting, and giving the products I’m trying the patience and time to work.

There’s a joke in the skincare forums that companies will make an all-in-one shampoo/conditioner/body wash/mouthwash/hair gel for men, while they’ll create a lotion specifically for a woman’s left elbow. And it’s all because of a vicious cycle where “the media” tells women that clear skin is a key to confidence, so we’ll pay anything for a product that will give us that result. Men just don’t seem to care as much. That’s not to say that there aren’t men who experience acne and who do care. But in my experience, men as a whole don’t worry so much about the other aspects of skincare that women obsess over: sun spots, wrinkles, smoothness, dewiness, etc. And that’s probably because society hasn’t told them that their worth is dependent on how young and beautiful they look. WOW IT’S SO FRUSTRATING, RIGHT?! At the same time, I do want to take care of this tiny swath of organ wrapped around my skull. I don’t want to feed into unhealthy cycles perpetuated by corporations and advertising, but I also want to look in the mirror and feel happy and comfortable with what I see. And is it so bad that I want to look like a young 67 when I’m actually 70? IS IT?!

It turns out I have a lot of complicated emotions about this topic.

Which is all to say: You don’t need to spend a lot of money on your skincare if you don’t want to. I really do think the beauty and skincare industries have oversold women on how many products they NEED in their routines. I just happen to be really interested in skincare (almost as a hobby of sorts), which is why I spend my disposable income on it. Just like someone else might on clothing or expanding their collection of *archaic* DVDs (I’m looking straight at my boyfriend when I type this; we watch everything on Netflix these days and do you really need the collectors’ edition AND the Criterion edition?).

In fact, let’s start with a few things I did in my general life that really helped my skin without even spending a dime:

  • Change your pillowcases regularly: Turns out that pillowcase you’re rubbing your face on all night gets COVERED with dirt, grime, sweat, oils, and dead skin pretty fast. An acne-causing bacteria buffet. This sounds like a no brainer, but when someone suggested this to me a few years ago it actually hadn’t occurred to me. So simple, SO EFFECTIVE. I try and switch my pillowcase at least once a week, if not every 4-5 days. It sounds excessive, but I’ve found it makes a huge difference.
  • Drink more water. Wow, water is so good for us. Have you heard the joke “I used to think alcohol was the adult drink, then I thought it was coffee, and now I realize water is the most adult drink”? Well, it’s true. I could down eight mimosas no problem, but trying to get myself to drink 8 glasses of water a day is a feat of willpower so impressive I rarely accomplish it. But I do notice my best skin when I’ve been in office consistently for a period of time because that’s when I drink the most water on a daily basis.
  • Try avoiding dairy. I’ve cut out a lot of dairy from my diet, and it’s done wonders for my hormonal acne. I’ve read this is because dairy products contain proteins that are supposed to stimulate growth hormones in baby calves. When we digest those proteins, they release an insulin-like hormone that disrupts our own hormone production. This can cause our skin to produce more oil, which traps more dead skin and sebum in our pores, which acne-causing bacteria feed on. Acne is the result.
  • Make sure you’re not using too many products. Maybe you’re a skincare devotee, like me. And maybe you’ve been trying all the products, all out once, and your skin is freaking the f*&k out (also like me). I was at a point where I was doing some sort of crazy 25 step skin routine overnight with four different kinds of acid, multiple toners, etc. And wondering why my skin was still breaking out. I was using all the good, expensive things! The first time I went to my favorite esthetician for a facial she casually asked me what I was using and it then took me about 10 minutes to summarize it all. She took a beat to process what I’d told her and then said something along the lines of “you might want to cut that back, your skin can’t possibly be benefitting from all of those different combinations, and you’re likely doing more harm than good (therefore wasting your money).” So now I’ve simplified and my skin is happier for it.

I’ve tried a lot of different things in the past—Proactive, diaper cream, toothpaste, straight rubbing alcohol…ouch. But now I’m in a pretty happy place with my skin, and am using some products I really feel are helping me keep my skin clear, hydrated, and happy.

There is one big change I’ve made for my skin that required a doctors visit. I’m currently taking a low dose of a medication called spironolactone. This article from Into The Gloss has a lot of great information about using spironolactone to treat acne. It’s an androgen blocker that has been wildly beneficial in reducing my hormonal cystic acne. I’ve been taking it daily for about a year and half now (it took about 3 months to kick in), and it’s made a huge difference. If you’re a female and are suffering from hormonal acne, it’s totally worth a trip to the doctor to see if spironolactone could be an option for you.

But as far as everyday skincare goes, I really do believe that everyone could benefit from at least least washing their faces, applying moisturizer, and slathering on SPF. If you’re like “ugh skincare, no thank you” then I think a three step process (only two steps at night!) is all you need. ESPECIALLY THE SPF. It’s 2019, let’s move past our egos and just accept the fact that we’re not tougher than the sun. Not only will SPF help keep your skin looking younger longer as it avoids sun damage, it’s also just a good thing to do in order to help minimize your exposure to melanoma causing UV rays. I’ve read multiple times that SPF is the single most important skincare step. I even have Mac wearing daily SPF on his gorgeous face.

But let’s say you’re into skincare, you want to kick things up a notch. Or five. Well then, step into my office (bathroom). Evenings are when I do the heavy lifting of my skincare routine. That way I can allow products to soak into my skin overnight, without the hindrance of make-up.

Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Graphic Evening Routine 2

Cleanse: Green Clean Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm (I’ve used and love this) | The Balance pH Balancing Gel Cleanser (great for sensitive skin) | Versed Day Dissolve Cleansing Balm (I’m currently using this) | BPO 5 Percent Cleanser (also currently using this) | Tone: Pixi by Petra Glow Tonic (this has a cult following) | Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme (currently using these) | Serum: ExLinea Peptide Smoothing Serum (currently using this) | Total Strength Serum (and this) | Treat: Salicylic Acid 2% Solution (great budget option) | Curology Custom Skin Kit (what I’m currently trying out) | Moisturize: Coco Rose Coconut Oil Lip Conditioner | Ultra Repair® Cream Intense Hydration (currently in use)

Sara’s Nightime Skincare Routine

Step 1: Cleanse

Right when I get home, the first thing I do is wash my face using a “double cleanse” method, which means I basically wash my face twice. Think of it like a dishwasher. The first rinse gets rid of all the big chunks and makes sure food doesn’t dry impossibly onto your dish, and the second wash makes sure your dish is truly clean. For the record, I don’t have a dish washer and do all my dishes by hand. As for my face, first I use an oil cleanser (right now I’m using Versed’s Cleansing Balm) to break down all the makeup and SPF that’s been on my face all day. Then I use a second cleanser to make sure I haven’t left any make-up or SPF on my face (currently I’m using PCA’s BPO cleanser – the benzoyl peroxide helps remove sebum and dead skin cells from my face, which acne causing bacteria would otherwise feast on). I like this combination because it leaves my face feeling clean and fresh, but not stripped or “tight” (your face’s natural oils are GOOD, you don’t want to completely remove them).

Step 2: Tone

Next, I tone with Nip & Fab’s Night Pads. These are pre-wet pads, which have a 5% glycolic acid solution. Glycolic acid is an alpha hydraulic acid, and acts as a chemical exfoliant. That means it helps exfoliate your skin (gets rid of dead skin cells) without the use of physical abrasives, like tiny grains or beads. I prefer to use a chemical exfoliant because physical exfoliants tend to be too rough on my skin, causing microscopic tears that just allow more surface area for bacteria to settle in.

Step 3: “Correct” (Serums)

I then mix together one pump of PCA’s ExLinea Serum and one pump of PCA’s Total Strength Serum in the palm of my hand and apply all over my face in a thin layer. PCA is a skincare line that Emily started using a while back because it was recommended by an esthetician, and I actually noticed a difference in her skin appearance.

The ExLinea is my attempt to be preventative about wrinkles, with ingredients like acetyl hexapeptide-8 (argireline) which “minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles” and sodium hyaluronate, which “has the ability to hold 1,000 times its weight in water and plays an important role in skin hydration.” The Total Strength Serum has ingredients like almitoyl tripeptide-38, which “stimulates collagen, and helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” I let this soak in for at least 10 minutes before moving onto my next step.

Both of these serums are pricey, and definitely a luxury item for me. But these bottles last me a long time, and I really enjoy using them, but there are good products out there with similar ingredients for much more affordable prices. Serums are one of those steps that are interesting and exciting to me, and I feel like they have made a difference in my overall skin health, but they aren’t MANDATORY. If you’re interested in skincare, they are fun accessory products to experiment with.

Step 4: Treat (Medication)

Once I feel like my serums have settled in for the night I’ll apply a thin layer of topical acne-fighting ingredients. Right now I’m on month 4 of trying out Curology’s custom topical acne medication. I used to see this all the time on my Instagram feed, and finally caved to the hype (my skincare curiosity got the best of me). But surprisingly I’ve been pretty happy with it. It’s one of those “take a quiz and we’ll create a custom blend for you” companies that I think will be a period marker for this era. And yet… I’ve found success with the product. My medication contains a low dose blend of clindamyacin (“antibiotic and anti-inflammatory with powerful effects against acne-causing bacteria”), zinc pyrithione (“fights acne via its antibacterial and antifungal effects), and niacinamide (“a form of vitamin B3 that acts as an antioxidant, reducing inflammation, hyperpigmentation and fine lines”—I think this has been helping fade my acne scars!). Again, there are other topical options out there that can help, but this is the product I’m using right now and feel pretty happy with for the time being. I let this soak in, and usually go make dinner/watch TV/hang out.

Step 5: Moisturize

About 20 minutes before bed, I’ll apply my moisturizer. I use First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair Cream because it’s super basic, gentle, unscented, uncomplicated, and works great. It also comes in a huge tub that will last me at least another 2 years. My eye area and eyelids are sensitive to just about everything (I don’t apply any of the above products anywhere near them), but they don’t mind this moisturizer. I also apply some lip balm with a heavy hand (whatever I have on hand) to keep my mouth breathing lips hydrated overnight.

And that’s it! I do all of these steps with enough time before bed that the serums and medication actually have a chance to be absorbed by my skin, rather than soak right into my pillowcase. And then I wake up.

Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Graphic Morning Routine 2

Cleanse: Versed Wash It Out Gel Cleanser (great budget option) | BPO 5 Percent Cleanser (currently sitting on my counter) | Tone: Pixi by Petra Vitamin-C Tonic (budget-friendly) | PCA Skin Nutrient pHaze 5 Toner (smells so good) | Serum: The Ordinary “Buffet” (good budget option) | Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone (another budget option) | C-Quench Antioxidant Serum (what I’m using right now) | Total Strength Serum (currently using) | Moisturize: Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 (budget option) | Ultra Repair® Cream Intense Hydration (currently wearing) | Hyaluronic Acid Boosting Serum (on my face right now) | Protect: Emerald CBD + Adaptogens Deep Moisture Glow Oil (helps with my redness) | CC+ Cream with SPF 50+ (the only make-up I wear) | Throughout The Day: Pixi by Petra Glow Mist (in my bag all the time)

Sara’s Morning Skincare Routine

Step 1: Cleanse

Not everyone washes their face in the morning. Some people just rinse with some cool water, and I think that’s totally fine. Personally, I like to wash my face (just once this time), to get rid of any residual nighttime products as well as any sweat from the night. I just use one of the same face cleansers from my nighttime routine, based on my mood. Science.

Step 2: Tone

Next up, I tone with PCA’s Nutrient Toner. It’s my favorite smelling thing in my line up, but it also has some great benefits. The pumpkin wine base (produced by fermenting whole pumpkins) “offers the nutritional benefits, including vitamin A and vitamin C” as well as lactic acid, another AHA, which helps with skin moisturizing. It also just makes my skin feel happy, bright, and glowy for whatever that’s worth (which to me is a lot).

Step 3: “Correct” (Serums)

For daytime, I’ll mix one pump of my Total Strength serum with one pump of PCA’s C-Quench Antioxidant serum – one of Em’s recommendations. Topical vitamin C has been recommended as a great skincare step to include by several skincare aficionados, including Velinda’s facialist. Here’s a little snippet from an Allure article all about topical vitamin C: “As far as your skin is concerned, vitamin C is ‘a potent antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals,’ explains board-certified dermatologist Patricia Wexler. ‘Because of its antioxidant properties, vitamin C aids in your skin’s natural regeneration process, which helps your body repair damaged skin cells.’”

Step 5: Moisturize

Before I apply any sort of make-up (which I really don’t wear much of), I gotta make my face as moisturized as possible so it stays flexible and doesn’t flake (I have dry skin). I start with two pumps of PCA’s Hyaluronic Acid Boosting Serum. Hyaluronic acid is a buzz ingredient in the beauty industry, but for good reason. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant—”a substance used to reduce the loss of moisture.” Its molecules are able to retain 1,000 times their weight in water content, and the added ceramides in this serum “supports the renewal of the skin’s natural protective layer and forms an effective barrier against moisture loss.”

But then you need to apply a moisturizer…from what I understand, hyaluronic acid itself is not a moisturizer. It will just help your moisturizer work better, and aid your skin in retaining the moisture you’re applying. So next I apply a thin layer of my First Aid Beauty moisturizer. Then, as an added moisturizer, I’ll mix in two drops of Herbivore’s CBD + Adaptogens Glow Oil to my It Cosmetics CC cream (which has SPF). CBD is another trendy ingredient in beauty products, but I’ve found this oil to really help combat the redness in my skin. It also helps loosen up my CC cream so it doesn’t go on so thick as I like a more sheer coverage, and keeps the cream from getting cake-y. If I’m not headed to work (like on the weekends), I generally avoid makeup to give my skin a breather, and just apply the CBD oil and some Supergoop! Unseen SPF.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing, morning and night. My skin has come a long way since I turned 25 and cystic hormonal acne took up residence on my jawline. After about 6 months of this skincare routine, here’s how we’re looking (I knew all my selfies would come in handy one day):

Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Graphic Now Sara 1

I still get the occasional pimple, but they’re often surface level and not the deep rooted, painful cystic acne I used to get. My redness still stops me from wearing certain shades of pink-toned lipsticks (lest the area surrounding my lips just look like a continuation of my lipstick), but between being moisturized/non-irritated skin and my light coverage CC cream I no longer look like I’ve just run a marathon all the time. Plus, the scars left over from my cystic acne are beginning to fade away. And most importantly my face skin doesn’t HURT anymore.

I stopped plucking my eyebrows years ago, I let my mustache fuzz be, and I don’t mind the occasional zit. I’m even growing kind of attached to the very light crow’s feet that I see developing. But I also have fun caring for my skin, and going on this journey with it. Seeing what makes it glow or learning what dries it out. I’m just doing my best to care for it, because it’s the only face skin I have.

Thank you for reading my novel. I surprised myself with how much I had to say, seeing as how I have no official credentials with which to preach. But maybe your skin is similar to mine, and you’ve been able to glean a new tip to try. Or maybe you are an expert and have some valuable knowledge to share in the comments! Maybe you’re just as interested in other peoples personal habits – same. Whatever the reason you found yourself reading all the way through, I thank you for sticking with me. I have a lot of feelings about skin. And I’m excited to read what your feelings (and skin types, and solutions) are below.


Emily Henderson Sara Beauty Skincare Product Roundup

1. Versed Day Dissolve Cleansing Balm | 2. Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme | 3. Pixi by Petra Glow Mist | 4. Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone | 5.  Pixi by Petra Vitamin-C Tonic | 6. BPO 5 Percent Cleanser | 7. C-Quench Antioxidant Serum | 8. Salicylic Acid 2% Solution | 9. Green Clean Makeup Removing Cleansing Balm | 10. Pixi by Petra Glow Tonic | 11. The Balance pH Balancing Gel Cleanser | 12. Total Strength Serum 13. The Ordinary “Buffet” | 14. Ultra Repair® Cream Intense Hydration | 15. Coco Rose Coconut Oil Lip Conditioner | 16. PCA Skin Nutrient pHaze 5 Toner | 17. CC+ Cream with SPF 50+ | 18. Emerald CBD + Adaptogens Deep Moisture Glow Oil | 19. ExLinea Peptide Smoothing Serum | 20. Versed Wash It Out Gel Cleanser | 21. Curology Custom Skin Kit | 22. Hyaluronic Acid Boosting Serum | 23. Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5

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