My 10-Year Struggle To Be Acne-Free

The YS Beauty Lab

When you’ve battled adult acne for more than a decade, you’re desperate to try anything. That’s what happened to me when my face suddenly broke out in large, painful red bumps that turned out to be cystic acne. (Did you know that cystic acne could also be mistaken as rosacea?) They camped out on my chin and jawline for the next eight years or so.

Now, for the first time in nearly 10 years, my face is relatively clear. The hormonal breakouts have been isolated to a few spots on my cheeks and forehead for the last 10 months. All that’s left from my battle with cystic acne are the scars and hyperpigmentation spots. Such lovely mementos they are but they are definitely not for keeps.

However, this isn’t the story of how I managed to get rid of those pesky, life-destroying zits without going to the dermatologist. Rather, this post is all about the lessons I learned from buying and using skincare products in pursuit of calm, blemish-free skin.

1. There is no ONE magic solution.

Hair Follicle
Miracle in a bottle? Think twice!
Image from CargoCollective.com

Even with all the hype and breakthroughs in skin science these days, the truth is you still need more than one product to address a skin concern, and you need to subscribe to a regimen to see long-lasting effects. If it’s dryness or dehydration, it could be any form of hyaluronic acid, Vitamin E, or even honey. For oily skin like mine, it might mean a regimen that involves salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide (BP), glycolic acids, or even oral antibiotics. Add the YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) factor and that means even the most hyped wonder beauty product may not work the same magic on your skin.

I also have to mention that even if a product seemingly performs an overnight miracle, it will take more than just one application, one day or even one week of use to see actual, visible results. Be patient because skin takes time to heal, recover and regenerate.

2. Use what works for you – Asian and/or Western.

The popularity of Korean skincare – boosted in part by endorsements from high-profile K-pop and K-drama celebrities – is at an all-time high. While my choice of Asian beauty products isn’t fueled by celebrities, I can’t deny that they have been effective for me. Using the banila co. Clean It Zero and Laneige’s Pore Deep Clearing Foam has really changed the way I treat my skin, and has resulted in great improvement. But I still love my Neutrogena sunscreen, Clearasil Ultra Rapid Action pads, and I still use my Acne.org kit (I had to save up for it and have it shipped to Hong Kong but it’s totally worth it!). I use some for only spot treatment or alternately with other products, e.g., Laneige Clearing Foam, but these are the products that have helped my skin heal. Which leads me to my next point.

Yoona is the latest spokesperson for Innisfree
Image from Innisfree Hong Kong Facebook

K-pop groups EXO K and EXO M are brand ambassadors for Nature Republic
Image from NatureRepublic.com

3. Do your research.

If you have a smartphone or at least have access to a computer, there’s really no excuse to remain uninformed. Google is your friend if you want to find an answer to your problem. When I was battling adult acne, going to a dermatologist was out of the question due to budget constraints, so I had to push myself to find answers on my own: asking dermatologist friends about medications and side effects, looking up medical databases, posting questions to bloggers, and taking down a lot of notes. I also made a lot of mistakes along the way, resulting in some nasty reactions on my face because I used too much or didn’t patch-test first, or because the formulation of some products was too harsh.

Some of the products I’ve tried and used over the years to treat my adult acne.
Images from Acne.org and Obagi.com

Regardless of whatever product you want to try, dig up the facts, ask questions and seek answers. While my DIY way of clearing acne worked even without consulting a dermatologist, I still believe that seeing one is the best solution, especially if you have long-standing skin problems or you’re worried about it developing into something worse.

4. Prepare to spend, get disappointed, but also be pleasantly surprised.

In 10 years, I’ve tried hydroquinone, Obagi, skin whitening pills, and some dodgy skincare products that nearly burned my skin off, though I never considered ProActive or Accutane as options as they were way above my budget. Along with making some bad decisions, I threw thousands of dollars down the drain. Some remedies I bought because my family or friends found them effective (I didn’t believe in YMMV then), only for me to try them and have my skin fare worse than before.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s stupid enough to keep using a product even when their skin is clearly yelling “No!” because, heck, I want my money’s worth! But that’s the sad, adult part of my journey – knowing when to admit defeat and accept that I lost this round. Goodbye, Clarisonic brush and cushion compacts.

However, I’ve also managed to have surprisingly great experiences with some fairly simple products like the Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Mask and Nexcare Acne Dressing Sometimes the expensive price tag is worth it, sometimes it’s not.

Innisfree Super Volcanic Pore Clay Mask | 3M Nexcare Acne Dressing |
Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Mask | Laneige’s Pore Deep Clearing Foam

5. Your skin regimen doesn’t have to be 72 steps or 12 steps.

Before I started taking the multi-step Korean regimen seriously, I was using the old cleanse-tone-moisturize method, plus sunscreen whenever I remembered to use it. However, even though I was somewhat familiar with the Korean method (thanks to a friend) a few years before it became globally popular, I thought the whole process was too expensive and fussy. So many products! Too many steps! So much time wasted! Imagine waiting 10 to 15 minutes before applying the next thing. I’d just be sitting in front of the mirror all day at that rate. Or so I thought.

Well, the vain don’t complain. I don’t consider myself that vain but given how much my skin has improved, I naturally want to keep it in that state (or better) for as long as I can. So the answer to all those complaints is Time Management. I’ve made adjustments to my morning prep routine so I can accommodate the extra waiting time needed (faster showers, for one). My current daytime regimen involves only the following steps:

  1. Foam Cleanser (Hada Labo Super Hyaluronic Acid Foaming Wash)
  2. Toner (Hada Labo Super Hyaluronic Acid Lotion Light)
  3. First Treatment Essence (SCINIC First Treatment Essence)
  4. Vitamin C serum
  5. Spot Treatment (if necessary)
  6. Hydration Mist
  7. Tea Tree Essence
  8. Moisturizer (Hada Labo Super Hyaluronic Acid Light Cream)
  9. Sunscreen (Etude House Sunprise Mild Airy Finish and Biore UV Aqua Rich Water Essence)
  10. Simple makeup (BB cream/foundation, concealer, setting powder)

Minus the spot treatment (for the now-occasional zit) and the makeup, that’s just 8 steps. My evening routine is longer because I take my time, and sometimes even have the luxury of applying a sheet mask (I’m still not a regular user) or eye masks. Even with such a pared-down regimen, my skin has responded so well that I’m happy for it to stay that way.

6. Commitment

It’s been said that skin takes anywhere from 28 to up to 60-plus days to renew itself and that’s why I’m wary when I hear of a product that promises overnight miracles. I realistically expect a small reduction in redness or size of my pimples but never for my skin problems to magically disappear without a trace while I sleep.

My skin from 2011 to the present: My cystic acne, scars and hyperpigmentation were the bane of my existence. Photo on the right is how my skin looks like now.

My ongoing quest for clearer skin still involves a lot of trial and error, but now thankfully less of the latter. Usually, after I’ve patch-tested a product for 48 to 72 hours (usually along the jawline) and there’s been no adverse reaction, I settle myself into using the product regularly and patiently wait for it to do its job. I usually start seeing results after three or four weeks and these are just barely noticeable signs like slight fading or less redness and swelling. With my hyperpigmentation “maps” on both cheeks which have been there for almost five years, no amount of whitening creams, sunscreens or even lemon juice (not advisable) made them disappear. It took some serious Vitamin C serum (mine has L-Ascorbic Acid or LAA) and really diligent use of sunscreen for me to see some improvement.

While the number of products I use is fewer and my regimen itself is simpler than those of other Korean skincare users, these have proven effective for me and I’m happy to continue with my methods. I no longer have to use a thick layer of makeup, use 2 or 3 different kinds of concealers at the same time to cover up the blemishes, or be embarrassed when I have to have photos taken. I don’t have to hide anymore.

What’s your skin story?