The other time I had cystic acne was the start of university and it was anxiety manifesting in a physical form.
This time is no different.
From early 2019, my otherwise clear skin became increasingly ravaged with pimples that came from deep within. I was going through a patch in my life and whew all those chemicals my body was releasing manifested in my cheeks and jaw. By October, it had exploded.
And apparently, it getting to what my acne is today was mostly by my own hands (literally).
When the nodules started appearing in waves, I resorted to skincare products. An actual bucket load of it. At my peak, I had 11 steps (*not daily).
- Cleansing balm
- Facial cleanser
- Exfoliation – e.g. Pixi Glow tonic (Glycolic acid)*
- Essence/lotion #1
- Essence/lotion #2
- Serum – e.g. Vitamin C
- Spot treatment #1 – e.g. Lactic acid
- Spot treatment #2 – e.g. Salicylic acid (the pink powder in liquid thingy)
- Sheet mask*
Looking back on that list, I see so many things wrong with it.
- I was using 4 different types of acids. 3 on a daily basis. BACK TO BACK. (Vitamin C, lactic acid and salicylic acid)
- Sun protection was non-existent because sunscreen is ‘thick and I’m gonna be indoors all day anyway.’
- The products were constantly being switched out. Meaning I had back-ups. I had 3 to 4 spot treatment products on hand. 2 toners and 2 exfoliators. It was insane.
And so was the amount of money I was splurging on these products.
Said products that were obviously not suitable for me, i.e. more breakouts, irritation, redness and tingling; I simply attributed it to purging. It is the process of the skin reacting to the product, where it increases skin cell turnover so as to quickly get rid of impurities.
Rowena & Felicia from Beauty Within covers the differences between purging and breakouts in this video. Their channel breaks down the biology and chemistry surrounding skincare products! ❤
My mind simply went, ‘if it hurts a little, it means it is working.’
Needless to say, my skin got increasingly scarred after waves of cystic pimples.
Keeping up with the crazy long skincare routine and the lack of results also took a mental toll. Frustration mounted and it became this vicious cycle. I refused to consider treating my body or my mind (which I now know is the root cause), believing that one day, these products would clear my skin. My confidence started to drop and putting on makeup made me feel guilty. It became a necessary evil.
This went on for 6 whole months, with a piling skincare inventory and becoming a Sephora Black card member.
Despite watching YouTube videos and reading articles about skincare products and their ingredients, what to use and not to use, how to mix them in your routine, I completely ignored and blocked out advice that I didn’t want to hear. Advice like chucking out products that do not work for your skin or that simply, ‘less is more’.
By the end of January this year, I was in a much better mental state (still a work in progress but daaaamn late 2019 was bleak). Looking back, I was imploding. And as a friend pointed out, I was lost. While navigating new roads and finding myself (lol, it’s such a cringe-y cliche but it’s so true), there were countless times that I had to face reality.
And that meant listening to advice that I didn’t want to hear.
I stripped my routine back to basics: cleanse, tone and moisturise. Listened to my skin.
‘Does it need exfoliating today?’
‘It feels stuffy, maybe I’ll leave the cream moisturiser out for today.’
And things got better. The frustration eased a little. The acne didn’t disappear (if not I wouldn’t be up here doing this) but my heart did feel lighter.
After careful budgeting and halting unnecessary spending on beauty products, I decided to seek professional help. I knew that my acne was mostly triggered by my psyche, ruled by hormones. Then again, the idea of medication sounds pretty drastic. So perhaps going to a dermatologist will be a last resort.
Because I was walking around without makeup, my acne made me a target for salespeople working for anything skin-related. However, I was on a lookout for professional skin treatments…so why not?
When I turned up for the trial, Ava* and Tina* (the manager and my therapist, names changed*) were visibly bothered by the screaming red nubs on my face. While doing the extractions, Tina was amazed at how that was my first facial, ever. She showed me how much guck was removed, and the amount was probably fit for a Dr Pimple Popper video.
At the end of a really long session, I came out looking not that different from before. Up close, my pores were definitely cleaner. Whiteheads were replaced with enlarged pores that were empty (and healing), inflamed under-the-skin pimples flattened out and in general, my skin was plump and less angry.
With a budget set aside, I took the plunge and got a package.
Two sessions in, coupled with two of their skincare products (my own ones were thrown into storage) things were starting to really look up. My skincare routine was down to just three to four steps. It was amazing. Then again, this would be financially unsustainable in a very long run.
Then the circuit breaker happened aaaaaand my pores got clogged. My mind screamed ‘CHANGE’ and my skin freaked.
It also did not help that my go-to products were running out.
When it eventually did, I had to experiment again. In the midst of the frustration, ‘it’s a good thing too,’ I remember thinking to myself. If it works, then I needn’t rely on the treatments after the package ends. Maybe the occasional one every few months?
I sighed audibly as I stared at the bottles in my cupboard. I reached out for an essence to replace a toner that ran out. My skin tingled but it stopped after a bit. I then reached out for my trusty Hada Labo that I’ve been using since my upper secondary school days and slathered it all over.
And my skin went, ‘NOPE.’ I kid you not, my face started to burn and it turned red and hot within a minute. With water dripping down my chin, I stood at the kitchen sink in utter disbelief.
Oof. That was the worst reaction I’ve had to a skincare product. What’s this I’m feeling? …Betrayal? Now that my holy-grail has fallen from grace, I bitterly passed the bottle to my brother.
After binge-(re)watching videos from Ro & Fel, I purchased a couple of sensitive-skin friendly products and repurchased one. Over the month of May, a whole new skincare routine was built and things that weren’t suitable were given away, repurposed as body lotion or chucked out decanted and its packaging recycled/upcycled.
My routine currently has 5-7 steps that varies on what I feel le skin needs:
- Cleansing balm*
On lazy nights, its just one step: a sheet mask and 15 minutes. Done.
At the moment, there are a couple of potatoes still growing underneath but this time, I’m sure its purging after incorporating niacinamide. The nodules are in places where I usually breakout and its surfacing faster than usual. So yeap, hopefully it clears a little before phase 2 begins. I’d hate to see Ava and Chrissy gasp in horror when they see me again (my current condition is worse than when I first went for the trial).
Overall, it’s an ongoing journey that I have been documenting lately so that I can have a clear idea of what works and what doesn’t. That includes making changes to my diet and lifestyle: cutting down dairy (watch this space!), sugar and oil, while increasing whole foods and vitamins. The effects of all these changes are gonna take a while to show results but updates will come.
If you’re also suffering from acne, I hope me sharing this ongoing journey reminds you that you ain’t alone. Don’t give up!! If you have clear skin, treasure it, you lucky soul!
Remember, when you leave the house for groceries: mask, phone, wallet, keys, reusable bag…
Till the next one,