Acne sucks. There’s nothing else quite like having a big insecurity (on your face) that you can’t get rid of.
In my early 20’s I had painful, cystic acne, mostly around my mouth and jaw. I tried everything from Proactiv, to face masks, to toners, to the oil cleansing method, to a prescription that forced me to avoid sun exposure. At one point, I even remember wishing my doctor would prescribe me Accutane so that I could at least have some relief from the painful blemishes that would not let up.
Now that my cystic acne is healed, I have so much empathy for others who have the same problem. I know how hard it is to feel extremely self-conscious, out of control, and in physical pain because of your skin.
Here are the things that did work for me:
1. Balanced my hormones
I was prescribed the birth control pill at age 16 due to irregular periods, and stayed on it until about age 22 when I started to notice severe cystic acne all over my chin and jaw. I've never had more than a few small zits before, so I knew something was totally out of whack with my body. Looking back, this all began around the same time I started experiencing a multitude of other symptoms like hair loss, fatigue and mood swings. At the time, I blamed everything on the pill. This was also around the time I started to become interested in natural medicine and nutrition, so going off of the pill felt like a natural progression to me. When I went off of the pill, my acne improved for a short period and then came back with a vengeance which led me to step 2, reassessing my diet.
2. Changed my diet
During a majority of college, I was on the Kashi go-lean, Splenda, skim milk and booze diet. As you can imagine, these foods didn’t do my skin any favors. This meant I was consuming tons of processed soy and wheat, artificial sweeteners, and dairy on a daily basis. These foods contributed to a leaky gut due to consistently eating them despite signals from my body that I was intolerant to them (severe bloating and acid reflux). To this day, I will almost immediately start to break-out if I eat soy, artificial sweeteners or dairy.
***Sometimes dairy is worth it for me though 😃
Another thing that was severely lacking in my college diet was essential fatty acids. Once I began to add in egg yolks, avocado, and coconut oil, the quality of my skin improved drastically and I noticed that the oil production and tone of my skin began to normalize. I also began to slowly shift towards more of a paleo-style way of eating that included lots of vegetables, fruits, sweet potatoes, eggs, and meats. I focused on eating more slowly, in a relaxed and parasympathetic state to aid digestion.
3. Healed my gut
Like I mentioned in step 1, after I went off of the birth control pill, I began to get really interested in finding natural cures instead of turning to prescriptions. Another medication I had been on for over 4 years was Prilosec (a Proton Pump Inhibitor prescribed for acid reflux that essentially turns off the production of stomach acid). I knew that Prilosec was “working” for me (read: no acid reflux) , but the more research I did, the more I felt intuitively like I needed to ween off of it. I was still experiencing some mild acne despite making dietary changes, and noticed that the days I skipped my Prilosec I noticed immediate breakouts and skin irritation. To be honest, weening myself off of the medication was a painful process and took a long time. One of the biggest things this signaled to me was that my gut still needed healing, and I needed to slowly increase my stomach acid production in order to digest and absorb nutrients again. There was a lot of trial and error involved and I wish I could go back and help myself with the knowledge I have now, but here are a few things that really worked for me:
- Apple cider vinegar and bitters with meals (both act as a digestive aid, increasing stomach acid production and lowering stomach ph)
- High quality probiotics and fermented foods (I like prescript-assist) kombucha, sauerkraut and kefir (if you tolerate dairy) are all great options.
- Nutrients to help heal and seal my gut lining (bone broth, aloe vera, licorice - this product is a great combination of all gut-healing nutrients and I still use it as needed)
To this day I continue to use all of these things as a preventative measure against acid reflux, acne, and any other stomach issues.
I do notice that if I am traveling, or forget to do one of these things, my acne and acid reflux begin to slowly creep up again.
4. Stopped intense exercise
After my skin had cleared up a bit, I started to make a correlation between when my intense workouts, and having cystic breakouts within 24 hours. Stopping intense exercise one was the most difficult for me, as I have always been an athlete and look to fitness as a great stress reliever. However, over time I continued to make my workouts longer and more intense, which eventually left me completely wiped out. The more research I did about hormonal acne (cystic acne generally around the jaw and chin- what I had) the more it became clear to me that my exercise routine might be contributing to my painful, blemished skin. Unlike most of the other tips i’ve listed which were slow and gradual, the changes to my skin from NOT exercising happened almost overnight. Once I stopped running long distances, sprinting, or doing any movements that caused adrenal stress (the fight or flight) response, my skin calmed down immediately, became less painful, and looked more vibrant. Another positive side effect to this was that stopping the intense exercise also helped eliminate any lingering acid reflux symptoms. I found this super interesting and finally made the connection that skin and digestive health are closely linked, and my troubles were stemming from the adrenal stress of working out too intensely.
That said, even if you aren't an exercise-addict like I was, but are still experiencing cystic acne, it is important to look at other areas of your life that may be causing adrenal stress, i.e your caffeine habit? Lack of sleep? Work/school stress? Food allergies? Relationship stress? etc.
5. Changed my skincare routine
I am all about natural foods, skincare and beauty products, but the oil cleansing method, apple cider vinegar shit did NOT work for me. Discovering BeautyCounter products was a complete game-changer for my skin, and the icing on the cake after doing the internal healing that needed to occur.
Here is what my skincare routine looks like these days:
-I wash my face morning and night with the detoxifying charcoal bar.
(I also NEVER go to sleep with makeup on. That's a big one.)
- I use this mask 2-3x a week over my entire face. I also use it as a spot treatment when I feel a pimple start to form on my jawline or chin - and voila! The next day it is nearly gone, and much less painful.
- Despite having acne-prone skin, I experience a lot of dullness/dryness - and I also have acne scars that I am trying to heal. I use this balancing face oil twice a day after cleansing, and the blend of pure plant oils absorbs quickly into my skin without being greasy. To be honest, I was terrified of putting MORE oil on top of my acne-prone skin, but if anything, this oil has improved any current acne breakouts, while continuing to heal any past scars or redness.
I tell you this not because I think my routine will be perfect for everyone, but because sometimes you have to try a million different products before figuring out what works for you.
For so long, I thought that the ONLY way I was going to heal the external appearance of my skin was through toxic skincare products - especially because the "all natural" solutions made my skin worse.
Beautycounter products provide the look and feel of expensive department-store brand skincare products, but WITHOUT any of the toxic ingredients. Win/ win? I think yes.
(And no, i'm not being paid to say this - I am just f*ing obsessed with their products. Anyone who has had acne will understand my excitement here.)
*If you can get away with washing your face less than 2x a day- that is ideal! The natural oils produced from your skin can be very beneficial in preventing wrinkles, so you don’t want to wipe them off! Unfortunately for me, washing less than 2x a day causes me to start breaking out again.
I want to hear from you! What changes have you made to your diet, lifestyle or skincare routine that have improved your acne? Or are you still struggling?