How I Cleared My Skin

My path to getting rid of acne for good |

Picture of my clear skin after battling acne

If you haven't seen my acne before and after pictures, I suggest you take a look at them now. I had pimples all over my face and it was an extremely unpleasant experience. However, after years of trial-and-error, I discovered a combination of things that successfully treated my acne. I thought I'd share my trial-and-error experience here so hopefully those who are suffering from acne won't have to go through as much as I have gone though.

To tell the story of how I cleared my skin, I first give you a dose of what my skin used to be like before the breakouts from hell started. Then I walk you through my trial-and-error process, which helped me figure out why I kept getting acne. Finally, I share how I eventually discovered what I had to do to clear my skin and get rid of acne for good.

Note: Be warned! This is a pretty long read! Snacks and frequent bathroom breaks recommended.

The History of My Skin

Throughout high school, my skin was actually pretty good. The worst breakout I had growing up was a flare of pimples that canvassed my forehead. I was lucky puberty only gave me occasional red spots that healed very quickly on their own. I ignorantly thought I would enjoy such skin-ful bliss for the rest of my life, but once I hit my twenties, it was like all hell broke loose!

I started to break out and break out uncontrollably. It started as clogged pores on my chin, which turned into inflamed whiteheads that spread to my cheeks and all the way up to my forehead. The more I tried to clear my skin, the more pimples I seemed to get. Adult acne is a stubborn beast.

In fact, I don't think a day went by without me getting a minimum of five new pimples. And five new pimples every day, added onto the five pimples that popped up the previous day, added onto old pimples that just wouldn't heal, added onto numerous red acne marks that just wouldn't fade led to a very unappetizing pizza face. I wanted to stay home all the time. I never looked anyone in the eye. Needless to say, I felt really ugly and really frustrated.

I couldn't figure out if products were making me purge or actually breaking me out. I didn't know if I should wait for a product to start working or if I should just give up. I even started to doubt if the many dermatologists I saw even knew what they were doing. It got to the point where I had no idea what to put on my skin anymore.

However, I was so determined to achieve that perfect, porcelain, Photoshopped, clear skin that I never shied away from trying even the most outrageous acne remedies. In that crazy hunt for perfection, I did a lot of things to my skin that I really regret doing.

The Slow and Torturous Trial-and-Error Process

Acne trial and error products

A very, very small sample of the products I have tried

I know acne can't kill you, but it sure can kill your self-esteem and launch you into a whirlpool of sinking depression. It sucks when you try your hardest to fix something, yet never seem to get it done no matter how badly you want it to be fixed or how patient you are with waiting for results to happen.

When I started breaking out, my trial-and-error chain of events went something like this:

  • "Hmm, I'm starting to get more pimples. Time to go to the drugstore to get some actual pimple cream because toothpaste isn't working. Are my cleanser and moisturizer noncomedogenic? Yep, so they can't be breaking me out, right? I haven't used any new products either."

  • "Okay, these drugstore products aren't working, probably because they are too cheap. Must try more expensive treatments. Yeah, the expensive ones are expensive for a reason."

  • "Man, I just spent $35 on a tiny bottle of acne serum that did diddly squat. Amy said it worked though! Maybe I just need to get a facial or something."

  • "I just got all of my acne extracted and the facial seems to have flattened them out. I feel like popping my pimples makes them heal faster. Everyone says it's bad to do that, but I will only pop the ones that have come to a head."

  • "Hm, I'm still breaking out. The pimples I pop keep leaving red marks too. I know I should stop popping them, but I can't help it! They are easier to cover up when they aren't a bump anyway. I guess I need to go to a dermatologist now. I was trying to save money by treating my acne on my own, but I'm just wasting more money. I should have just gone to a dermatologist in the first place. Time for professional help. They'll know exactly what I need to clear my skin."

  • "That's the third dermatologist I've seen and I've yet to see any improvement in my acne. Do these people even know what they are doing? They all just prescribe a retinoid and an antibiotic and tell me to wash my face with Cetaphil."

  • "Retinoids make me feel like someone rubbed a habanero pepper all over my skin. Am I still purging? It's been months already. Maybe I need something else. That last dermatologist said something about a chemical peel to speed things up. Yeah, a facial procedure will provide the extra oomph I need to clear my skin."

  • "Okay, so the first peel didn't do anything. I still have really bad acne. But they said it would take at least 2-3 sessions for the chemical peel to start working for my acne. I'll be patient and keep this up."

  • "I'm on my sixth treatment session and my skin is just as bad. I actually think it looks a little worse. Why is my face always so red now? I already tried different kinds of chemical peels, but the dermatologist said maybe my skin would respond to laser. I would do anything to get my skin to clear up. Laser is really expensive, but it might work and if it does, oh my gosh, I would be so happy."

  • "OMG, I AM SO ANGRY. My face is super red, super irritated, and super broken out. I thought this was supposed to help?! What is going on?! Okay, deep breath, be patient, this is just initial purging. It will get better. Things will get better. I know it."

  • "Well, I just irritated the crap out of my skin. It's been almost two months and my face is still pretty pink. My acne hasn't gone away. Maybe everything is too harsh. Too many chemicals. I'm going to look up some at-home remedies for acne instead. Chemicals must be bad for my skin."

  • "Well this honey mask and baking soda scrub is useless. The baking soda actually stings. Maybe there's something wrong with me medically. I feel fine, but there's a chance I could be allergic to something right? Maybe my acne is a symptom of hyperthyroidism or some other medical problem. Time to get my blood checked."

  • "I should be happy that I have no allergies or any medical issues, but I feel disappointed for some reason. Why do I keep getting acne? What's wrong with me? I guess something topical must be it since everything medical checked out. I'm using noncomedogenic products, but maybe something in my cleanser, moisturizer, or makeup is breaking me out? Time to research product ingredients."

  • "Wow! I had no idea there were so many ingredients that could cause acne! Time to cut out all those irritating things. I'm only going to use products with ingredients graded below a 3 on the comedogenicity and irritancy scale."

  • "I don't know what's going on. I'm using products with ingredients that Zerozits says won't break me out, but I am still constantly getting pimples. Ugh, maybe I should just put nothing on my skin for awhile. If nothing is on my skin, nothing can cause me to break out."

  • "Man, my skin is so dry and flaky. I look disgusting. I need to moisturize but I don't know with what moisturizer. I'm just not going to use one because there's probably something in moisturizer that will break me out. I have natural oils on my face for a reason right?"

  • "I just went 2 months without using anything on my skin and without wearing any sort of makeup. I keep getting new pimples. At least my skin felt better when I was still using products. I'm going to stick to a basic skin care routine with a gentle cleanser and no-frills moisturizer, but leave out the acne treatments for awhile. I don't know if they are helping anyway and my skin just doesn't feel good right now. They say if it stings, it means it's working, but my face just stings."

  • "Well, I still have acne, but at least my skin feels calmer. The gentle cleanser and moisturizer seem to make my skin feel healthier? I'm just going to trust that these two things are going to do more good than bad. There's probably something wrong with me internally. I may not have any allergies or medical problems, but maybe I have hormone issues or food sensitivities. I really don't want to go on Accutane. I'm going to research some holistic acne remedies."

  • "Whoa, are they for real? Internal cleanses and 3 day apple diets really clear your skin?!"

  • "Nope, they don't. Eating nothing but apples was a stupid thing to do. Cleanse was a non-factor as well. (I didn't purposely go an internal cleanse to clear my skin, but it just so happened that I had to get a colonoscopy and needed to go on a cleanse to prep for the procedure. My skin was exactly the same pre-cleanse and post-cleanse. Not buying into the internal cleansing hype.)"

  • "Man, nothing is going to work. This is hopeless. I'm still going to have acne when I am 50 years old. Why does no one else around me have bad skin? Am I doing something wrong? If only my skin could talk. Time to write down every single thing I eat and put on my skin and document every single detail about every single pimple I get. I need to figure out why I am getting acne because until I do, it's going to be impossible to clear my skin."

  • "I really need to stop picking at my skin. My notes prove that each time I pick at my skin, I get more pimples in that area of my face almost a week later. Whiteheads are so ugly looking, but I need to resist the urge to pop them."

  • "Okay, so I'm not picking at my skin anymore and I'm back to using basics for my skin care. My skin is looking a little better, but I'm still getting pimples that hurt. Maybe there's something wrong with my diet? I'm going to cut things out one by one and see if my skin clears."

  • "Well, I cut out processed food, dairy products, and sugar because those are things I read that can aggravate acne, but my skin looks the same. My sister cut out milk and it really made a big difference for her! I'm jealous it didn't for me. My notes don't really indicate a spike in breakouts after eating chocolate or anything. Good because I love dark chocolate. I guess my diet is okay? Or maybe I'm missing some kind of nutrient. Time to take a multi-vitamin."

  • "My pee is bright yellow, but my skin is about the same. Note to self: multi-vitamins do not clear acne. If it's not my diet, then maybe it's my hormones. I read that fish oil and spearmint tea can help balance your hormones. My period is pretty regular though. Let's see if this works."

  • "Wow, I've been taking fish oil and drinking spearmint tea for 3 weeks and those inflamed pimples that hurt have really cut down. My skin feels less dry and it actually looks a bit smoother. I guess there was something wrong with my hormones? My bloodwork was fine though. People say chin acne is usually hormonal and that's where I get most of my pimples. Then again, I stopped picking at my skin and stopped using irritating products, so that could be it too. I'm going to cut out spearmint tea (because it's kind of expensive) and see if my skin gets worse."

  • "Well, I haven't gotten one of those deep cysts in over 3 months. Spearmint tea isn't keeping those at bay because I'm not even drinking it anymore. It must be the fish oil. I'm going to stop taking fish oil just to make sure."

  • "It's been a month without fish oil and my skin is starting to look a bit rough. I've gotten a couple of big pimples around that time of the month. I think I'm going to go back on fish oil."

  • "My skin is starting to improve. Not picking, not irritating it, and taking fish oil has helped reduce the active acne a bunch. But, I still have clogged pores, blackheads, and red marks. I'm going to use a BHA for the clogged pores and then just not do anything for the red marks. I don't want to do too much like I did in the past."

  • "Wow, my skin is loving BHA. I tried it before but it didn't work then. Weird. The BHA is smoothing out those skin colored bumps around my chin and nose."

  • "It's been a few months and I think my skin is really clearing up. I have no more acne, but it looks like I do because of all the red marks and scars. I want to make sure that my skin stays clear before I start doing anything else to it. I can live with some red marks and scars."

  • "I haven't gotten a new pimple in awhile now. My skin hasn't looked this good since 9th grade. Now I can start experimenting with different products and facial procedures."

If you managed to read through all of that, it pretty much reflects my thought process as I tried to clear my skin and effectively treat my acne. I didn't include every single remedy I tested because it would be too long and some were just insignificant, but I hope the above chain of events gives you an idea of how flustering it can be to treat acne. You just have to put your head down, try everything, and rule things out one by one until you find the thing(s) that works.

A word of warning: I'm telling you about my trial and error process so you can relate to my experience. The above is not a guideline in any way for you to go about treating your own acne. Everyone's skin is different and what worked for me may or may not work for you. For all I know, your dermatologist's office might have been your last stop before clear skin. Or, some of you might have tried even more things than I did. My point is, I'm sharing my experience so you can know what it's like. I'm not sharing my experience to tell you what you should do. That is for you, and only you, to decide.

Why I Kept Getting Acne

After going through that trial and error process, I discovered that I kept breaking out for the following three reasons:

  1. Using too harsh of a cleanser
  2. Popping/picking at spots
  3. Hormones

No matter what kind of acne treatment I used (either over-the-counter or prescription), my skin was always dry, flushed, pimply, and very unhealthy looking. However, after finding remedies for the above three problems, I stopped breaking out and my skin cleared up quite nicely.

* Stripping My Skin Away *

Washing face with soap

Over cleansing with harsh cleansers

As far as the cleanser goes, I could never find one that cleaned well without being overly stripping. I was always too scared to use oil-based cleansers (like cream or milky cleansers) out of fear that the oils in them would break me out, so I always stuck to foaming cleansers, thinking that if anything else, foaming cleansers did a good job cleaning (I wanted to kill all bacteria and remove all oil build-up) and I could always use a moisturizer to make up for any natural moisture stripped away. And that's what put me in a catch-22 situation.

I have dry skin to begin with (living proof that you can get acne even if your skin isn't oily) but I'd use a foaming cleanser, dry out and irritate my skin, slap on a moisturizer, break out, wash my skin to get rid of the greasy moisturizer, over-strip it again, put on moisturizer to re-hydrate, break out... It was a never ending cycle.

No moisturizer left my skin feeling completely hydrated without feeling heavy or greasy and even the gentlest foaming cleansers left my skin feeling tight immediately after rinsing. Such years of foaming cleanser abuse left my skin in a very dry, disturbed, and unhappy state. I only irritated my skin even more with all the acne treatments.

With such poor skin barrier function, no wonder I kept getting pimples! Messing up my natural skin barrier left my skin more vulnerable to bacteria and infections. However, after making the brave switch to a no-rinse oil-based cleanser, my skin started to soften and actually look healthy. I stopped getting clogged pores and things started to improve.

I suspect that with such dry skin, I had too many skin cells shedding (or not shedding), blocking my pores and giving me lots of clogs and potential breakouts. Without natural moisture, my skin was also not able to function at its best, so my old spots wouldn't heal and I kept getting new ones. I now know how important it is to be gentle with your skin because no moisture is as good as the moisture your skin naturally produces. (Because I have dry skin, I still need to use a moisturizer; my skin just isn't as unbalanced as it was before when I was using a really harsh cleanser.)

* Picking My Skin Battles *

Picking at pimples

Picking, squeezing, and popping pimples

Popping and picking at spots also really kept me stuck in an acne cycle, so don't do it! I always picked and popped my pimples because I thought that even if it left a red spot, at least it would be flat and easy to cover up with makeup. Better than a weird looking bump right? And if I squeeze the junk out, it'd help the pimple heal faster right? Wrong and wrong!

Although popping pimples might make them look flatter, you run the risk of scarring, having the pimple come back the next day, and worst of all, having the pimples spread. I started to take pictures of my skin everyday and realized that the places on my face where I picked at the most were the places I got the most acne. The places I never touched or squeezed stayed relatively clear. So that made me realize that picking my skin (even though it may seem like a temporary fix) was really prolonging my acne battle in the long-run.

That was enough to make me stop squeezing my active pimples right away. It was hard at first, but if you think about it, it's just as easy to pick your skin as it is to leave it alone. All it takes is some determination and will power.

If you want to pick your skin, go ahead. It'll be flat and red for about a day, but you'll be broken out for many more weeks. If you leave your skin alone, you'll look nasty and broken out for a few days, but you'll be better off for many weeks after. This is what I learned the HARD way, so please, don't make my mistake! You will be lengthening your struggle with acne instead of shortening it by popping your pimples.

If you need an incentive to not pick, here's what I did to help "reward" myself for not doing it. Every week I set aside $20. For each pimple I picked at, I "fined" myself $1. Whatever was left at the end of the week, I could spend on anything I want. So I stopped picking and bought myself some new clothes and accessories!

Another way to stop picking is to simply cover up your pimples with a band-aid (I prefer DuoDerm). Out of sight, out of mind, right?

I used to continually get new pimples, even before old ones healed, but after throwing away my all of my comedome extractors, lancets, and magnifying mirrors (these are unnecessary evils by the way), I stopped getting new pimples after the old ones went away.

* My Hormonal Balancing Act *

Hormonal acne supplements

Hormonal acne sucks.

I also found out that my acne was hormonal. I tracked my menstrual cycle for many months and marked down each time I got a breakout. I discovered that my breakouts started when I ovulated and cleared up when Aunt Flo came to visit. Although birth control pills can help with hormonal acne, I was reluctant to take any kind of oral medication, so I turned to lifestyle and dietary changes to balance things out.

I started to take omega-3s and a multivitamin to help naturally regulate my hormones. (Some people say they break out from omega-3s, but it may be because the omega-3 source isn't pure or fresh enough or they may just have an allergy towards it.) I cut out junk food and skipped unnecessary sugar highs. I started to exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes everyday to improve blood circulation. And I went to bed early and woke up early.

Basically, I started to live a very automatic and boring, scheduled-life. But you know what? I don't care if I'm boring because the trade off is clear, radiant skin that gives me a ten thousand times boost in my confidence levels!

I am no longer as strict with my regimen though. After clearing my skin and doing a little more experimentation, I learned that I can eat junk food and not take a multivitamin and not breakout. I do find that when I eat lots of sugar or don't get enough sleep, my skin texture looks a bit rough. Not pimply, but just not as healthy looking. I still try to exercise everyday, but skipping a workout doesn't mean my acne will come raging back.

Clear Skin at Last

Therefore, by being gentle with my skin, leaving it alone, and changing my lifestyle habits, I finally, finally, finally defeated the skin condition that had plagued me for so many years. I always hoped that I would just "grow" out of my acne, but at 25 and still getting massive breakouts, I was definitely growing "into" acne instead of the other way around.

I've learned that you pretty much have to let acne runs its course. If you get a breakout, there's only so much you can do until your skin pushes the blockage out on its own. Topical skin care products definitely help to refine your skin, but only to a certain extent. Along with acne treatments, you just have to figure out what other things you can do to make your skin happy. You have to be calm (not-frustrated or angry), level-headed (mind-over-matter), and even somewhat scientific about treating your acne.

This is how I cleared my acne, but if you did it a different way, I would love to hear your story! As hopeless as I felt when my skin was really bad, do not give up. If my skin got better, so can yours.

Next »

My Current Skin Care Routine

Last updated: May 7, 2013

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