You know how sometimes when we’re talking about makeup and someone—usually a guy— goes and says “Girls who wear makeup are fake and hate themselves and are hiding something from the world! False advertisement!” When we see these kinds of statements girls do tend to— quite reasonably, I have to add— jump to the defence. “Makeup is self-expression!” It goes. “Girls don’t wear makeup for anyone but themselves! We wear it because it’s art!” Then you’ll probably see a dual-selfie, one with makeup and one without. Caption: “Slaying both ways”.
The message there, of course, is “I am confident with or without makeup, but I have chosen to wear it as a form of self-expression… the same way we express ourselves through our clothes or hair.” And that part is true, too! But then— is it really? Or is it only true for those who are already perfect… even without makeup?
I got through my teen years fairly free of acne. That teen curse didn’t hit me, except a short time when I was 15 when I had a small bout of pimples. That turned out to be stress-related, as they went away almost immediately once PMR was over. For the rest of my not-so-carefree teen years, my skin stayed clear. I got into makeup and wore a ton of it. I wore oily, heavy BB creams in the heat of the day, all while I was staying in campus where the default weather was hot and hotter. I never cleaned my makeup off properly, thinking— “Well, it will be all gone the next day, anyway”.
Then I turned 21.
Can you imagine being a fully-legal, grown-ass adult— completely capable of entering contracts and becoming a trustee and whatever— being surrounded by your peers who have pretty much all grown out of their pimply stages while you were suddenly covered in huge, red, pulsating zits as if you were going through puberty all over again?
That was when makeup went from ‘fun’ to a crutch for me. I hated the way I looked without foundation, and I realised that it was probably that way for a lot of girls as well. How can we argue that makeup is always, always, always just ‘fun’, ‘a hobby’ and ‘self expression’ when, for a lot of girls, our confidence and ability to get through the day is tied up upon whether or not we’re wearing enough of it? Or is it only self expression for girls with clear skin? At the peak of my acne, I swore to myself over and over that if my skin ever cleared up, I would never wear foundation ever again.
But for a long time it didn’t look as if my skin would ever clear out. Trying to fix things, I went through a stage where I stopped wearing makeup and would wear my hair in a ponytail everyday— the point was to keep my bangs from depositing oil onto my face. It did nothing. I purchased the simplest, ‘cleanest’, most un-fragranced skincare you could get— just facial wash and moisturiser, because I figured you had to keep things simple so as not to irritate your skin. I was convinced that a complicated method with tons of skincare products would ‘do nothing’. Yet, my acne remained.
Sometimes Googling ‘how to cure acne’ doesn’t help, either, because all you’ll get are a bunch of unhelpful articles telling you to ‘wash your face everyday!’ No shit, Sherlock? ‘Get a ton of sleep!’ they suggested, and I started going to bed at nine and rising at six. No difference. ‘Eat healthy!’ they declared, so I started eating salad and still no difference. ‘Remove stress from your life!’ They chirped, and I nearly exploded.
The thing about curing your acne is that it involves a lot more reading than you’d expect for something so ‘cosmetic’. Read like you’re studying for finals, and for God’s sake avoid mainstream magazines (and their online versions) like the plague. I think this site helped me the most in understanding exactly what I had to look for, but I perused a number of resources such as Beautypedia and Acne.org. Before, I was just buying randomly— throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. Through there, I finally learned about things like pH levels and chemical exfoliation— things that I would have dismissed as just corporate psychobabble beforehand.
It took about a year, but I finally fixed the acne problem I had. It took a ton of trial and error— a ton of money, too, which I don’t want to think about— but now even the scars are gone. There wasn’t a miracle product which solved everything. What it was instead was a cocktail of products which slowly decreased the amount of acne I had— bit by bit— until it was all gone. Maybe the right word isn’t a ‘guide’, as nobody’s skin is the same and what works for me maybe wouldn’t work for you, but nevertheless here are the products which worked for me.
We talk endlessly about double cleansing on My Lipstick Stain, for good reason. By that point, I had tried Biore Cleansing Oil before and liked it, but I didn’t make cleansing oil an important part of my routine since I’d rather use the money for other things (skincare wasn’t exciting to me, back then). When acne became a problem, I realised that I wasn’t really doing anything to properly remove my makeup (in fact, years of not properly removing my makeup may have contributed to the sudden acne outbreak), so I bought myself a bottle of Garden of Eden Gentle Milk Cleanser— because it was cheap. It worked fairly well, actually! It didn’t visibly remove any of my acne, but I’d like to think it helped somewhat… Double cleansing is always a good habit to have.
I was noticing that despite my acne, my skin still remained dry and chapped. I had flaky skin all over my nose and mouth and around my eyebrows. Imagine that: acne and chapped skin! I’d read up that dehydrated skin can be a contributor to acne as well, since your skin is overcompensating for its lack of moisture so I decided that my routine of cleanser followed by moisturiser wasn’t going to cut it.
Because it got so many raves from some famous beauty bloggers, I was seriously considering Indeed Labs’ Hyaluron. However, due to it’s high price (RM92… at the time. It’s RM115 now) and lack of accessibility (back then it was only available at Muse@Watsons but it’s now available at regular Watsons stores) I decided not to, and instead went back to the OG hyaluronic acid product— Hada Labo Super Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Lotion. Although it didn’t completely eliminate my flakes, it did improve it tremendously. At this point, I began to notice that my skin— although still covered in acne— was less red and was more ‘soothed’.
In my readings about overcoming acne, I kept hearing about AHAs— more specifically, ‘alpha hydroxy acids’. Someone else might be able to explain this more accurately and scientifically, but to keep things simple: AHAs are chemical exfoliators (a scrub which uses those tiny beads, on the other hand, would be what is considered a physical exfoliator— they wouldn’t work here) and the logic behind how they help cure acne is that all the bad stuff which causes acne is trapped underneath your skin. They need to come out— to ‘purge’— before we can fully get rid of them. I saw a lot of the usage of the words “it has to get worse before it gets better”. So that is how chemical exfoliators do it. They remove the top layer of the skin to allow all the bad stuff trapped in the bottom layers to come out faster and thus go away faster, instead of excruciatingly waiting for them to come out bit by bit.
AHAs aren’t really easy to get in Malaysia, at least not at an affordable price. I know there is at least one brand which has it in our local Sephora stores— First Aid Beauty, which comes in the form of those little pads soaked with solution— but I decided to spring for Mizon 8% AHA Peeling Serum instead. It’s a lot cheaper than any of the brands I can get locally. Of course, I have to order it online and have it imported from Korea, which can take a couple of weeks but I consider the wait worth it. This product, I can say, gave me the highest amount of improvements in my quest to banish my acne. When I first started out using it, the purging was ridiculous! I really did look like I was infected, there wasn’t a single square inch of my face which wasn’t covered in acne. Big ones, little tiny ones which are somehow more disturbing than the big ones… I was a bit freaked out, but I was anticipating it since all the articles online had warned that this is exactly what will happen.
So I persevered. Then, at some point— I don’t know for sure, maybe one week? Two?— the acne disappeared. Like, it just cleared up. No, my face didn’t instantly become this glowing, clear beacon of light… but it was no longer at that point where it was just blanketed by acne. I had a few pimples lingering here and there, and my acne scars were… well… terrible. But I was really happy with the results and finally felt hopeful that maybe things would get better after all.
Oh, just as a primer: AHA is used as the first step in your skincare routine. Although Mizon Peeling Serum is titled as a ‘serum’, it isn’t used like one. I only use it once a day, at night, right after washing my face. Then I just potter around for roughly 15-20 minutes before proceeding to the next step in my routine. The AHA needs to ‘cook’ on its own to work as best as it can. Furthermore, AHAs make your skin more sensitive to sunlight so always make sure you use sunblock— although you should be using it whether or not you use AHA, anyway.
Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturising Gel
Thanks to my newfound AHA, my skin was a lot better. No longer did my face look like it was colonised by acne. Instead, it looked like Malaya in the 1960s— with a few colonists still lingering about, but no longer with the same volume and power as before. After a while, it started to annoy me. These pimples were so persistent! Why wouldn’t they just go away? I realised that there had to be something in my skincare routine that disagreed with my skin.
At the time, I was using The Face Shop Green Tea Moistfull Emulsion as a moisturiser. Why? I don’t know. I basically just walked into the shop one day and bought it because 1) it was cheap and 2) green tea is supposedly good for your skin? Refer back to what I said earlier, about how when you’re suffering of acne you basically just buy anything and everything and pray that it works. This was one of those purchases.
Anyway, I originally kind of liked this moisturiser (I’m going to count Korean emulsions as moisturisers, okay?) because it was super, super moisturising. Moisturising to the point where it kind of made me oily, but then as someone with dry skin I didn’t think there was anything too bad about having a bit of shine. But I came to my senses and realised that this was probably what was causing the residual acne to stick around.
So off to Beautypedia, to find a good, no-frills moisturiser. I wanted a simple, light one which only moisturises (and does it well) and doesn’t claim to reduce lines or whiten skin or any other claptrap. The most attainable suggestion was Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturising Gel. I knew that you could get little travel sized ones for only RM39 at Sephora— perfect for someone who just wanted to try it out— so I got one.
And it worked! I brought the travel sized one on vacation with me and was surprised by the improvements that I saw. I almost instantly saw a huge reduction in my pimples. The ‘clusters’ vanished, what was left were only a few stubborn individual pimples here and there. I immediately got myself a full-sized bottle of Clinique and used up the rest of my The Face Shop emulsion as a body lotion.
The few pimples I had left were still resilient, though. They were the big, angry types and my rather gentle skincare routine wasn’t working against them. I wasn’t too worried, though. I mean, less than two months ago I was battling straight up pizza face so the odd pimple here and there was like a blessing to me. I figured that time would heal them, and I couldn’t wait so that I could start thinking about getting rid of the acne scars instead.
But one day, I was loitering around in Guardian, when I somehow found myself checking out benzoyl peroxide. I, like every other teenager in Malaysia, had used OXY to cure pimples. What I used to do back then was take a tiny amount and just kind of leave it, unblended, on top of the pimple. I always found that it didn’t really do anything.
I was actually using it wrongly, though. Through a video made for Acne.org, I learned that you’re supposed to use quite a generous amount of the benzoyl peroxide (squeeze it out through the length of your finger) and yeah, you totally can blend it in instead of just leaving it sitting on your skin like toothpaste. I opted not to go for OXY, though and instead went for one by Galderma which to me looked more medicinal and more trustworthy.
Note: despite what you might expect, the lower the percentage of Benzoyl Peroxide, the better it works. The best one you can get is apparently 2%, but the ones I found in our local stores are only 5% and 12%. The Galderma Benzoyl Peroxide that I bought was 5%, and— duh— it totally worked! I used it only at night, since it’s drying as hell, but by the next morning you can see that any ‘fresh’ pimples you might have had the day before has been shrivelled up and already in its final stages. Without benzoyl peroxide, I’d have to wait nearly a week for that to happen.
So as you can see, there’s no single miracle product that can rid all the acne from your skin. My journey was long and laborious and kind of very, very expensive. It’s now been about a year and a half since my skin cleared up, and it’s never been in better condition. I don’t use all the products mentioned here anymore since my issues with acne are pretty much over and done. For instance, I don’t have a single tube of benzoyl peroxide in the house at the moment and I am now slowly running out of my AHA but have yet to make a repurchase (I’ve skipped it a few days in a row before and my skin remained fine. Maybe my need for chemical exfoliation has subsided?).
Consider this not so much a guide as it is just a tip on what works for me. That doesn’t mean it’s definitely going to work for everyone. Still, there’s got to be a few of you out there who will benefit from it.
Thanks for reading and have a nice day!