You Really Can Recover From Bad Skin: Here's What I Did

I’ve been fighting acne and eczema for years. For the first time in my life, I love my skin. Pull up a chair. Let’s talk about it.
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I’ve been fighting acne and eczema for years. For the first time in my life, I love my skin. Pull up a chair. Let’s talk about it.

The skincare market is murky territory for a consumer like me.

The quality of makeup and fragrance is for the most part self-evident. Simply put, if you like the product, you got your money’s worth. You can easily try the product before purchase and get a good idea of what it would be like to use it in your daily life.

Yet the quality of skincare can be nearly invisible in the short-term. You can try the product to get an idea of the texture and fragrance, but for the actual efficacy, how do you judge the quality?

Moreover, skincare’s inherent promise is to make desirable cosmetic changes in the appearance of the skin. Skin is a living organ with its own processes for regeneration and exfoliation. How do you know what is necessary or desirable for taking care of your skin, and what is overkill?

Lately, I have been on a post-adolescent quest for skin normalcy after years of cystic acne and facial eczema. I try my best to sort through the misinformation and mythology to find products that will make a real difference in the health and appearance of my skin.

And, for the first time in my life, I've got a routine that works.

In this photo, I am wearing Diorskin Nude BB Cream in 01 on my skin. You can see some residual scarring on my cheeks and chin.

In this photo, I am wearing Diorskin Nude BB Cream in 01 on my skin. You can see some residual scarring on my cheeks and chin.

My Skincare Goals

For me, there are three goals to skincare: health, beauty, and pleasure.

Health means correcting imbalances in skin that result in medical problems. For example, I look to skincare to improve my skin’s health by eradicating acne and eczema and protecting myself from sun exposure. Health represents about 60% of my skincare goals.

Beauty means the aesthetic desires for the skin. For me, this means lightening the dark spots from acne scarring and achieving the sheen on the skin from very clean, exfoliated skin. I am also interested in more advanced solar protection and chemical exfoliation to prevent future wrinkles and sunspots. Beauty represents about 30% of my skincare goals.

Pleasure means the hedonistic joy in the texture, fragrance, sensoriality, and gesture associated with a product. Skincare can be an important token of self-care and for some people, part of mental health maintenance. I enjoy the ritual of a skincare routine and appreciate products that appeal to my sense of quality. Pleasure represents about 10% of my skincare goals.

About My Skincare Regime

So, what are the products that I need for skin health? Those would be the ones prescribed by my primary care doctor for acne and eczema:

  • Tri-Sprintec (birth control pills)
  • Tretinoin cream 0.1% (also known as Retin-A)
  • Metronidazole cream (topical antibiotic for acne)
  • Triamcinolone acetonide cream 0.1% (a corticosteroid for eczema)

The goods from my doctor.

The goods from my doctor.

Plus a broad-spectrum sunscreen at any price point. Without health insurance, a year’s supply of all of these products costs me about $120. With health insurance, it’s pennies to the dollar.

But to achieve the full beauty and pleasure benefits, I have a full ritual of different over-the-counter products, each with a very specific role to play.

What may surprise you, if you know my love for luxury makeup and fragrance, is that I do not use any luxury skincare products. Product communication in the luxury skincare sector seems to rely too heavily on the mythology around the product, rather than the types and concentrations of the active ingredients. It's disappointingly difficult to find clear data on why their products work. Superior packaging and an elegant sensorial profile are not enough for me.

My current skincare regime uses products from the brand SkinCeuticals. I appreciate the integrity of their published clinical trials on their website. I like knowing not only the active ingredients but also the concentration of each active in a particular product. I also find the sensorial qualities of their products quite good.

My Regime Reviewed

My morning regime.

My morning regime.

I start the morning by washing my face with the Gentle Cleanser. I spend at least a couple of minutes massaging the skin. The cleanser smells like fresh orange juice and has a soft texture.

After towel drying, I use 5 drops of the Phloretin CF antioxidant serum on my bare skin. This is one of the brand’s famous l-ascorbic acid serums providing deep UVA solar protection. Once absorbed, it cannot be washed off and protects the skin at about a SPF 8 level for 72 hours. I rub it all over my face, including eyelids and lips. It looks and smells a little like Worchestershire sauce, which I find more strange than distasteful.

I give the antioxidant serum a couple of minutes to sink in while I make coffee or feed my cat.

The beast in question.

The beast in question.

Then I apply 4 drops of the Blemish + Age Defense serum. This alpha and beta hydroxy acid treatment is pretty multipurpose, but for me, it helps kill off any acne I have coming up. It smells strongly of acid.

Next, I apply 3 drops of the Hydrating B5 Gel. It goes on thick and a little sticky, but then absorbs within about 30 seconds without leaving any discernible film. The active ingredient is hyaluronic acid, a humectant that can retain up to 1,000 times its own weight in water. The B5 is for tissue repair. It makes my skin feel cool, moist, and plump. Of all my skin products, this is the one I enjoy using the most because it feels so delicious and deeply hydrating.

Finally, I apply Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50. It is a 100% physical sunscreen that sits on top of the skin and gives immediate protection. It is a greyish beige color that fades completely into my skin. The texture is not greasy or tacky but almost slightly grainy. I get less irritation from this physical sunscreen than from chemical sunscreens, which can make me break out.

SkinCeuticals Simply Clean, 0.1% generic tretinoin cream, and SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel.

SkinCeuticals Simply Clean, 0.1% generic tretinoin cream, and SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel.

At the end of the day, I take off my makeup with Bioderma Créaline H20. Then I wash my face thoroughly with the Simply Clean cleanser.

After drying with a towel, I go about my life. I watch a movie and feed my cat again. Sometimes I go eat patatas bravas at the tapas bar on the corner.

The tapas bar in question.

The tapas bar in question.

Once my skin has passed the dry just-washed phase and returned to its normal, flexible self, I apply a pea-sized of my prescription tretinoin 1% cream. For me, waiting at least 10 minutes after washing my face to apply tretinoin essentially eliminates the redness and irritation associated with tretinoin use.

Finally, a few minutes later, I apply 3 drops of the Hydrating B5 Gel and I’m done for the day.

I use the TriSprintec as directed daily and the corticosteroid cream and topical antibiotic as spot treatments on occasion.

My Advice

I love all the products I use or I wouldn’t be using them. But I can solve the health problems of my skin simply with prescriptions from my doctor. I see my skin routine as the extra plus that fulfills my cosmetics goals of youthful, glowing skin and the hedonistic pleasure of a ritual.

If you have similar skincare goals, here is my takeaway from my skincare regimen:

Blemish prevention

  • If you are struggling with skin health problems like acne or eczema, your doctor can be your best resource. My very understanding family doctor is the reason I am no longer battling cystic acne.
  • For blemishes and pigmentation, tretinoin cream has made all the difference in the world for me. It can also be very cheap. The downside is irritation, but there are ways to minimize redness and peeling. A doctor can help choose the best concentration and application routine for a particular skin concern.

Sun protection

  • Sun protection is worth it, for both health and beauty. My mother was an early adapter to sunscreen and without exaggeration, she looks at least 15 years younger than other women her age.
  • Look for a broad spectrum sunscreen. Experiment with chemical and physical sun protection to see which one you like best. Wear daily!
  • For more advanced protection, a SkinCeuticals antioxidant serum can give you some piece of mind. The one I use does double action as a hyperpigmentation corrector as well. At the moment, it is one of the few topical vitamin C products that I trust. However, the price is obscene, which is a good reason to skip it.

Hydration

  • I much prefer humectant moisturizers, with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, to moisture-retention moisturizers with ingredients like mineral oil. For me, they give longer and deeper hydration with a more satisfying skin-feel.

Exfoliation

  • Chemical exfoliation such as tretinoin and alpha hydroxy acids work much better on me than physical exfoliation such as washcloths and grainy cleansers. For example, physical exfoliation will visually decongest about 10% of the pores on my nose while chemical exfoliation will visually decongest about 80-90%. Yet tretinoin and AHAs aren't compatible together, so I use the photosensitive tretinoin at night and the AHA in the morning.

Cleansers

  • I have found excellent cleansers at every price range. For me, I choose one that does not make my skin feel tight after washing and before applying products. I have found that spending a few minutes with the cleanser really massaging the skin helps create that "sheen" that we associate with glowing skin.

Finally, there’s no reason to use only one brand. I am a weirdo who likes structured routines and I happen to have found a brand that works for me. I am also abnormally picky about the sensorial profile of the products I use; it is a product developer’s occupational hazard. This is definitely not a sponsored post and similar products can be found at a lower price point, especially the cleansers and moisturizers.

Since I started this routine, I haven't had a single breakout. I haven't had a sunburn, despite moving from Paris to southern France with its omnipresent sun. My skin hasn't felt dry or oily. My acne scars, which are almost entirely hyper-pigmentation rather than "icepick" type scars, are fading quickly. My skin is finally approaching... normal.

So that’s what I do. What do you do?