Acne. It’s such a complex and complicated skin issue. There are so many reasons you could be suffering from acne. But the one big reason that had most of us reaching for spot treatments in 2020, was the fact that we were all wearing masks. And I don’t mean the sheet kind.
Where I am, wearing a mask is still mandatory. It’s also hot and humid. So it’s basically the perfect recipe for white heads and blackheads that could eventually turn into inflamed pimples.
But it’s not just the heat, sweat and sebum that’s trapped within the mask that leads to acne. It’s also the fact that your mask keeps rubbing against your skin. My acne is usually around the edges of the mask… which has lead me to call it maskne, differentiating it form the pimples I usually get along my jawline. Those are usually hormonal acne.
I decided to try and tailor a skincare routine that would help reduce my maskne, general acne and pimples, as well as tackle the first signs of ageing… fines lines, enlarged pores, uneven skin tone. And here’s what I came up with. But first, here are a few caveats.
- I came up with this routine for my dry (but not sensitive skin). If you’re just starting to use retinol, AHA or BHA, start slow, introducing only one new product into your skincare routine at a time. Don’t forget to patch test.
- Each person’s skin is different. Take what you need from here. Also do your own research for your skin type to see what might work for you.
- Keeping the skin barrier healthy and intact is of utmost importance, especially since wearing a mask can irritate skin further.
If you prefer the TL;DR version of this post, head over to my Instagram, where I have saved this as a highlight.
Can Cleansers Help With Acne?
In a way, yes. The first step to reducing the chances of acne is to make sure your skin is clean. The general rule of thumb is to cleanse your face once in the morning with a gentle cleanser and once again at night with a double cleanse. To double cleanse, first remove any makeup or sunscreen you might be wearing with a makeup remover or cleanser. Then using a salicylic acid-based face wash, cleanse again.
I like the Aesop In Two Minds Facial Cleanser that has salicylic acid. Another cleanser that has salicylic acid is the Caudalie Vinopure Purifying Gel Cleanser. Even though salicylic acid can be a bit drying and harsh on dry skin, neither of these left my skin feeling tight and uncomfortable. There’s The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser as well, but I find that a bit drying for me. It might still work if you have normal/oily skin.
Salicylic acid is oil soluble and this means it can sink into your pores to help dissolve any gunk and sebum that’s clogging pores. I like to massage the salicylic acid based cleanser into my skin for about 60 seconds—you can sing the alphabet to keep track of time. This method is called “short contact” where you only have salicylic acid on your skin for a short period and wash it off. This makes it less drying and less irritating for those with dry skin.
I might also use my Foreo Luna 3 for Sensitive Skin at this stage if my skin feels extremely congested. If you have sensitive skin, and plan to use salicylic acid take care to patch test any new products, especially those with AHA and BHA before adding them to your routine.
The Many Benefits of Retinol
When used in the correct way, in the right strength, retinol (prescription or over the counter) can do wonders for your skin. It boosts collagen production which translates into tighter pores and speeds up skin cell turnover which results in brighter skin on the surface. A retinol cream or serum will also help soften the appearance of fine lines and help fade acne marks.
In this case specifically, I included a retinol serum for the above benefits, as well as its ability to inhibit skin cells and keratin debris from sticking together and clogging pores. And that has definitely contributed to reducing acne.
The SkinBetter Science AlphaRet serum that I use is a combination of a retinoid and an AHA, specifically, lactic acid. Together these help to keep my skin smooth and clear. The ingredients are formulated in a way that they break down gradually thus causing less irritation. I couldn’t say if this is true because I don’t have sensitive skin, and my skin generally works well with over the counter retinoids. However, when I first started using it, I did find my skin getting a bit dry—which is normal when it comes to retinol/retinoids. I share how I deal with retinol-induced dry skin later.
Another product I use in conjunction with the retinol serum is the Re:erth Blemish Control. Fun fact: bacteria cause acne. And these bacteria love to feed on the sebum (oil) in the pores. The Re:erth Blemish Control has ingredients that fight these acne causing bacteria, while also soothing and strengthening skin. Again, it doesn’t dry the skin or cause any irritation. I like to use this before my retinol, because it absorbs in the matter of seconds.
You could also consider adding a niacinamide product at this stage. When I switched my routine, I included The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% along with the above two products. Niacinamide has complementary benefits when used with retinol. It helps control sebum, so the acne causing bacteria have less to feed on. It also helps with pore size. Another benefit of using niacinamide is that it is calming and helps strengthen the skin barrier—which can minimise some of the irritation from retinol. Because this serum has niacinaminde in such a high concentration, it was a bit drying for my skin, so I only used a few drops a couple of times a week.
I use these three serums three nights a week. I apply them, wait an hour or so and the follow with the rest of my skincare. Waiting for them to really sink in before I apply the rest of my products has really helped.
Glycolic Acid: The AHA Moment
My skin was doing well, looking ok with the above three (plus the rest of my routine which is continued below). But I still felt something was lacking. So I decided to add the Drunk Elephant T.L.C Framboos Glycolic Night Serum into the mix the other two nights of the week.
Since most of my issues are to do with sticky dead skin cells that refuse to leave my face and choose to block my pores instead, glycolic acid was really a game-changer for me.
Glycolic acid, also an AHA, is perfect for those with dry skin because it helps increase levels of hyaluronic acid in the epidermal and dermal layers of skin, thus keeping it hydrated and moisturised. Also, it has a smaller molecule so it can penetrate your pores and undo the glue that binds dead skin cells. This makes it super effective when it comes to tackling acne of any kind. (Fun fact: I used to use the Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner way back in 2013 to help with my hormonal acne and it performed beautifully.)
With the glue bonds loosened, it becomes easier to slough off the dead skin, which in turn makes skin look brighter and luminous. And it gets better, because glycolic acid also helps stimulate collagen, which again makes skin look younger. Once I started using a glycolic acid serum, my skin really began to look… wow.
Again, I use this on clean, dry skin about two nights a week and leave it to sit for an hour before I apply the following products.
How To Keep Skin Hydrated and Moisturised
All of the above products can be potentially drying and in some cases irritating as well. But I follow them up hydrating and nourishing serums, moisturising creams and masks. The ingredients I look for are peptides, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, cica or centella asiatica. I also add a couple of oils to the mix depending on where I am with my “period skin”.
The Peter Thomas Roth Peptide 21 Wrinkle Resist Serum is packed with peptides and neuro peptides that help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and gamma proteins that keep skin plump and radiant. Used after a retinol, it penetrates deeper into the skin for skin firming benefits. Plus it has squalane and a hyaluronic acid complex that keeps skin hydrated and minimises any dryness caused by the retinol. I wouldn’t say the texture is lightweight exactly, but it isn’t heavy to cloying. When applied, it’s a bit tacky, but settles in soon enough.
The Kiehl’s Vital Skin Strengthening Super Serum is another serum that I enjoy in this routine. It has a herbal scent (I haven’t checked if this is an added fragrance) that I find very calming and it always feels soothing to apply after my retinol or AHA. It has the brands smallest form of hyaluronic acid—11kDa Hyaluronic Acid—that penetrates the stratum corneum to help improve hydration as well as prevent moisture loss. It also has a Adaptogenic Herbal Complex—a mix of red ginseng root, holy basil and schisandra berry, that together keep skin plump and radiant.
If my skin is feeling particularly dry I will add a few drops of the Antipodes Divine Face Oil Rosehip & Avocado Oil to my moisturiser. It is packed with essential fatty acids (from the rosehip oil) and vitamins A, B1, B2 and D as well as Omegas 3 and 9, which are all great for keeping the skin barrier healthy and strong. However, I will use this only within the two weeks after my period.
Two weeks before I get my period (or after ovulatuion), I will use the Pai Rosehip Bioregenerate Oil. This is because hormonal fluctuations make my skin a tad bit oily at this point of time. Also, my skin is naturally acne prone—well, mostly small closed comedones, but still acne. Acne-prone skin has low levels of linoleic acid and higher levels of oleic acid in the surface lipids. Lower levels of linoleic acid in the skin sebum cause it to become thick and sticky which can eventually lead to clogged pores. Now rosehip oil has high levels of linoleic acid, and applying it topically can help balance out the deficiency. It has also been known to help with minimising occurrence of micro-comedones.
Using this has helped manage the clogged pores. I also find my skin brighter the morning after I have used this. I need to point out though that I don’t find this oil hydrating for my skin at all. I have to use it with a rich moistursier or under a leave on mask. And I don’t use on nights that I have used retinol.
If my skin is feeling a bit tingly from the retinol or the AHA, I always reach for my Laneige Cica Sleeping Mask. I layer it over all my serums (and sometimes over the Pai Rosehip Oil as well) for a soothing, calming, moisturising treatment. The next morning my skin is soft, and doesn’t feel dry or tight.
Finally, my moisturiser, which I use every night over all the serums, and sometimes mixed with an oil is the Payot Blue Techni Liss Jour. It has a bouncy cottage-cheese texture that melts when warmed between your fingers. It goes on like a nourishing hug on to skin to keep it moisturised and plumped. It is a day moisturiser, but it is too heavy for the hot, humid climate I live in, so I use it at night. I absolutely love it.
Together these serums, oils, moisturiser and mask work well to ensure I don’t feel any dryness, tightness or flakiness that could potentially arise from using retinol along with AHA or BHA.
It is particularly challenging to find a routine that helps tackle acne while also giving skin anti-ageing benefits, all without drying or irritating the skin. For me, this routine ticks all the boxes. It seems long, but it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes if you don’t count the one hour after the initial step. Just don’t forget to use sunscreen the morning after.