Easy Does It: My Simple Skin Care Routine

This post has been a long time coming, because this is one of the things people ask me about most often.  I will start by telling you my acne story, and then tell you about my personal acne solution. I started breaking out around the age of 9. NINE. I had terrible, red, painful cystic acne for all of my teenage years and into my early twenties. As a teenager I went to the dermatologist weekly to get liquid nitrogen blasted on my face in the hopes that it would clear up my acne. I also got the really big zits injected with steroids for a while, but the steroids had a really unsettling effect on me, so I discontinued that treatment pretty quickly.

Basically I did every treatment recommended by my dermatologist, short of Accutane. In fact, I was on -cycline drugs for so long the roots of my teeth turned blue, something I didn’t discover until I had some teeth removed in my late teens. My oral surgeon asked if I’d been on tetracycline or monocycline for a while and when I asked why, he showed me my teeth and explained that prolonged use can turn the roots blue. That was kind of terrifying to me. It made me realize just how much the meds permeated my entire body - while not even having that great an effect on my skin!

Left-side cystic acne, with flash
Left-side cystic acne, with flash
Left-side cystic acne, with flash
Left-side cystic acne, with flash

I stopped the internal medicines shortly thereafter and decided to really focus on my skincare routine. I started really simple with Cetaphil, but had an allergic reaction in which my skin burned and turned bright red. Cetaphil is a line of products which most doctors recommend as super hypoallergenic, mild, and gentle. This was not going to be easy. Like most teenagers (in Hawaii in the '90s, at least) I went full-blown with Clinique products. It worked for a bit, but then I started having a reaction similar to that I’d had with Cetaphil. So not only did I have incredibly painful cystic acne, I also had extremely sensitized skin. Looking back, I think it’s because of all the internal and external medications I had taken. My skin had no idea how to take care of itself.

I went through a few more skincare lines with varying levels of success - Murad, ProActiv, Origins, Fresh, and others I can’t remember. I went to Boston for college, dropped out of college, started acupuncture school and, still, my acne was out of control. A year into acupuncture school a friend and I took a semester off to go to esthetician school. I figured THAT would be my ticket to beautiful skin. In esthetician school I learned the ins and outs of skin, skincare, and makeup and got facials and skin treatment pretty regularly. I also started using Dermalogica, because that’s what came in our kits for school. My skin got better for a while, but after a little while went right back to being bad again. I tried fancy organic skincare lines like Eminence and Dr. Hauschka only to have similar results.

I moved to Chicago when I was 22 and decided to join my roommates on the South Beach diet. My acne cleared up with the decrease in carb intake, but as soon as I had even a little bit of sugar it came back with a vengeance. I had basically given up and resigned myself to a lifetime of terrible skin.

I haven’t even mentioned all the makeup I wore during this time, trying to “cover up” my terrible skin, as if a layer of foundation could hide the bumpy landscape that was my face. Through the makeup forums online I read about oil cleansing and it sounded promising, so I tried that. No matter what ratio of oils I tried, my skin just felt clogged and dirty. I tried it for a few months, but was never able to get through the adjustment period. That was when I threw up my hands and went bare bones with my skin care. I gave up all skincare lines and went with my gut.

I went through a few incarnations before settling on what I’ve been using for the past few years. Are you ready? You sure? Okay, here goes. I use Dr. Bronner’s Tea Tree Castille Soap (diluted, 1:3 Dr. Bronner’s to water - though I think I'm going to switch to Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild once I'm done with my current stash of Tea Tree) to wash and I use either organic jojoba oil (usually from Trader Joe's or Mountain Rose Herbs, though I've linked to one on Amazon if that's easier for y'all) or a homemade oil blend to moisturize. That’s it. Even more? I only wash my face once a day. If I’ve gotten really sweaty and/or dirty, I may use Thayers Natural alcohol-free witch hazel as a toner, but I find that I rarely do that anymore (though it is a quick way to clean your face if you’re hiking or camping!). If I feel the need to exfoliate, I use good old Arm & Hammer baking soda. Take a little in your hand, add water to make a paste, and gently scrub it on your skin.

At one point during my “new” skincare routine I started working at Sephora. I got a lot of free product and decided to try some of their fancy skincare lines. Guess what? I reacted to every one. I either broke out or turned bright red or had a burning sensation on my skin. I went back to my simplified routine and my skin normalized within a couple of weeks. Now, this isn’t to say that I’m completely breakout-free. I do get the occasional zit, but usually it’s small and it goes away quickly. If I get an unusually stubborn zit, I will sometimes put a little tea tree oil on it. Even with occasional breakouts my skin is so much better than it used to be.

Right-side, slight breakout
Right-side, slight breakout
Left-side, clear skin
Left-side, clear skin

Now, I rarely wear makeup (we’re talking probably less than 10 times a year) and am 100% comfortable going out in public with a bare face. In fact, I even get complimented on my skin! Listen, I’m not ever going to push my routine on anyone. I know how uncomfortable that is and how frustrating it is to be on the receiving end. I did, however, want to share what worked for me, after trying what seemed like EVERY SINGLE PRODUCT ON THE MARKET. Do what you will with the information. Everyone is different.

The nice things about this “regimen” so to speak is that it is really simple, very inexpensive and it fits swimmingly with a sustainable lifestyle.  Dr. Bronner’s products are organically produced and organic jojoba oil is not hard to find.  The soap is diluted, which makes it last a super long time, and you are only washing once a day, which makes that purchase go even farther.  Certainly, the health of your skin is affected not only by what you put on your skin, but also by how you eat and your stress level. 

As a matter of full disclosure, I do not smoke or drink alcohol or coffee and I eat a diet composed mostly of organic foods. I run my own acupuncture business, so I have a stressful day here and there, but on the whole, my job is pretty low stress.  I also receive acupuncture regularly, which helps to clear out any things that might be waiting around to aid the production of pimples. Regardless, I have recommended this regimen to many of my patients, friends, and Rachel, and most have seen dramatic results.  Rachel went from constant breakouts to only the occasional blemish.  If you are fed up with what the beauty and healthcare industry has to offer in regards to skin care for acne, give this a try, and commit to it for at least four weeks. Let me know if you have any questions or comments.

UPDATE 06.21.13: I've compiled a Skincare FAQ post to answer questions that y'all have been sending me. Check it out!


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