"Clearing up a Few Things" Part 1: A Sudden Attack
In The Beginning
This is supposed to help me somehow, I thought, skimming through the ingredients list on the back of Dr. Dennis Gross’ Clarifying Colloidal Sulfur Mask: colloidal sulfur, retinol, licorice root extract, bentonite, and prickly pear. It sounded like I would be applying a concoction of cactus, candy flavoring, minerals, and volcanic ash to my face—one to three times a day to affected areas. After thoughtfully turning the bright packaging in my hands, I set it back on the shelf with a sigh to survey the brightly lit aisles of Sephora: well-groomed and heavily make-upped sales associates hovering nearby if I had any questions, just in case I needed to get shade-matched for concealer.
Then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror: a harsh smattering of blemishes swept up my cheeks and down my jaw, the uneven topography thrown into sharp relief from the cosmetic lighting above the mirror. A sales associate in shiny black heels and bright red lipstick appeared in the corner of my vision—her perfectly contoured cheeks and forehead shimmering slightly in my periphery. I could see her look of polite concern, as I’d unconsciously lifted my hand a few centimeters away from my face, my fingers itching to once and for all evict the acne. Afraid I’d have to face admitting that I’d randomly been hit with acne at twenty-four for no apparent reason and with no idea how to fix it, I scuttled away and out the door, my eyes trained on my feet.
Basically, Out of Nowhere
I survived teenage acne, reading almost every article with the words “T-zone” and “sebaceous gland” found in the likes of Seventeen and Teen Vogue and committing religiously to salicylic acid face scrubs. I then enjoyed several blissful years with low-maintenance skin (or as low maintenance as you can hope for): perhaps some blemishes here and there during the humid summer months. But all in all, my face rarely broke out, and when it did, it cleared up quickly—a summer rainstorm, here and gone. My only scars were years-old, shallow pock marks etched along my chin and jawline from childhood chickenpox, seemingly as ancient to me as valleys carved away by glaciers.
At the tail end of my early twenties, my life was moving along fairly well—a job and a boyfriend and a life in NYC that I’d cobbled together. My skin care routine played out day after day, composed on recommendations from blogs and friends, a neat rhythm of face washing and moisturizing. But that winter, a new pattern of acne slowly crept across my face, like a poisonous plant weaving around the trellis of my pores, attaching firmly, then blooming monstrously. Each morning, I’d awake to new zits and pimples, angry whiteheads bubbling on my cheeks. Unlike breakouts of years past, this acne conquered the planes of my cheeks, my chin, my jaw—previously unmarred, unoccupied territory. Sometimes, for a day or two, it looked as if the acne had retreated, only to return with a vengeance, as if making up for lost ground.
I turned to my arsenal of old tricks, but salicylic acid turned my skin cracked and chafed. I overcorrected with moisturizing oils, seeking balance where there was no equilibrium to be found. So the aisles of skin care products beckoned to me—their promises of secret ingredients and newly cracked chemical codes called. The solution was so simple: change my skincare routine! I could wage trench warfare on my skin with the newest, best formulated, most sophisticated creams and cleansers and treatments. If I could only fit all the brightly colored tubes and bottles in just the right order, then the lock would click, and the answer would become clear.
In 2003, the Economist, in aptly titled article called “Pots of Promise,” reported that skin care is a $24 billion global industry, a number that has surely grown in the almost decade-and-a-half since. The US skincare market alone is predicted to be $11 billion by 2018. Google “beauty product cost,” and you will be regaled with articles about the high prices women pay—both in time and money—to style their hair, care for their skin, acquire makeup. Retailers from Target to Ulta to department stores feature rows of creams and tonics and cleansing foams. Living in New York, I had 16 Sephora stores in a 5-mile radius of my zip code, and after that first almost-encounter in Sephora, I did as any young person wanting to avoid in-person contact would do: I went online.
On Sephora’s website under the Skin Care tab, you can shop by skin care concern (“Anti-Aging,” “Acne & Blemishes,” “Dark Spots,” “Dryness,” and “Fine Lines & Wrinkles”). Within each category, you can refine by ingredient preferences like fragrance-free, Vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, AHA/Glycolic acid, benzoyl peroxide, hyaluronic acid, retinoid, salicylic acid, and so on. And you can be even more granular with specific skin concerns like pores and uneven skin tone, not to mention “Loss of Firmness/Elasticity.” I was sure that if I checked the correct combination of boxes, the product finder would serve up a regimen to cure my acne woes.
I didn’t approach the problem with a scientist’s zeal: after all, the percentage you see on the front of the bottle saying how many people saw improved skin after just 3 days is from a consumer survey, not a rigorous peer-reviewed study. For that, you’d need to dive into the annals of medical journals to see if anyone has performed a double-blind controlled study on squalene in moisturizing oils—firmly outside the scope of your prescription-strength topical medicines that are thoroughly tested when getting approved by the FDA.
A little overwhelmed, I looked for guidance by taking Sephora’s Skincare IQ quiz, which again can be broken down by skin concern, brand, and product type. After going through the quiz, selecting my concern of Acne/Blemishes, I landed on a page with 35 product results with many filters and preferences and ingredients. Here. Here I’d find the open sesame.
The 21st Century Apothecary
Today we treat skincare as modern-day alchemy. Use the cleanser with witch hazel or sesame seed extract or charcoal or green tea oil; pair it with the moisturizer with chamomile or squalene or arnica; exfoliate with walnut shells or dead sea salts, and you can transform your rough, tired skin something soft and smooth as silk. Treat with myrtle leaf water, bitter orange flower water, Umbrian clay, sandalwood oil, natural oat extract. If one doesn’t work, change the ingredients to argan extract or willow bark extract; then mix, brew, and watch water turn to wine, lead to gold.
Each ingredient has its own special purpose. The Ole Henriksen mattifying cream’s ingredients contained both exotic and familiar that performed active verbs like “stimulate” and “lighten” that would have made my writing professors proud:
-Aloe Vera: Moisturizing, calming, healing.
-Horse Chestnut: Lightens and calms sensitive skin.
-Korean Ginseng: Stimulates microcirculation.
-Hazelnut oil: Nourishing anti-oxidant.
I wasn’t quite sure what horse chestnut was or what “microcirculation” referred to, so I moved on to The Boscia clear complexion cleanser, which sounded like a spa treatment in your own home, a mystical garden of ingredients, a humoralist’s salve to draw out impurities:
-Willow Bark Extract: Exfoliates to unclog, purify, and refine the appearance of pores and minimizes dark spots from prior breakouts as a natural beta hydroxy acid—salicylic acid—derived from the willow tree.
-Rosemary Leaf Extract: Acts as an effective antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic that visibly firms the skin and minimizes the appearance of pores.
-Geranium: Balances sebum (oil) production, visibly improves elasticity, and boosts the skin’s natural circulation.
One after the other, randomly combined sets of ingredients appeared on my screen, all offering a unique and nigh supernatural ability to address my skin's shortcoming. The message was clear: you can be repaired. And if the botanical ingredients don’t work, try each chemical in turn: alpha hydroxy acid, beta hydroxy acid, hyaluronic acid, malic acid, allantoin, amino acids like azelaic and L-Carnitine, antioxidants, peptides, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids. Brands like Dr. Jart+ and Dr. Brandt provide the illusion that you’re getting straight-up, scientifically proven treatment.
Cutting-edge technology buzzwords like Patented Botanical Complex are mixed with wholesome honey extract and rice bran extract and things like foam-activated technology to boost your potions into the twenty-first century. One anti-redness serum listed its ingredients as the product of a drunken botanist and mad scientist:
-Milk Polypeptide from Milk Protein: Calms redness and inflammation while it strengthens skin's lipid barrier.
-Beta Glucan from Yeast Polysaccharide: Helps to calm and soothe redness and irritation.
-Tyrosinase Inhibitor from Wild Canadian Rumex: Protects blood vessels and helps to decongest and stop swelling, while reducing hyperpigmentation.
-Hyaluronic Acid from Yeast: Boosts hydration and plumps skin.
Even if high school chemistry isn’t locked away in the junk drawer of your memory, I imagine you will not remember polypeptides and polysaccharides.* And I’d wager a bet that tyrosinase enzyme, which controls the production of melanin and skin darkening, may never have been covered in your biology class.
I clicked last on Tria beauty, which seemed home chemistry meets nineteenth-century poultice.
-Salicylic Acid: Unclogs the skin's hair follicles where blemishes form.
-Retinyl Palmitate: Helps clear breakouts and encourages cell renewal without irritation.
-Lipid-Soluble Vitamin C: Brightens discoloration associated with blemishes.
-Black Tea Ferment: Soothes skin with natural phytonutrients.
I pored through page after page of ingredients lists, attempting to find an elixir that would cure and heal me, a balm for my wounds but something more—both magical and scientific, the witch’s brew and the scientist’s formula. Each product failed on its promises, but I decided that I'd simply chosen the wrong one for my skin and could try again. But my alchemical ablutions didn’t defeat my acne, even with my credit card screaming in protest and my Sephora rewards climbing at an alarming rate. Special, acne-fighting makeup neither covered nor treated as promised. In every work meeting and watercooler chat, I prayed that no one was looking too closely, wishing my short hair could grow out overnight and act as curtains around my inflamed cheeks. The almost-forgotten but all-too-familiar feeling of crippling self-consciousness wrapped around me like a cloak every time I opened the front door.
*Polypeptides are chains of amino acids that form the part or whole of a protein molecule, and a polysaccharide is a bunch of sugar molecules bonded together to form a carbohydrate like a starch. How these help treat your skin, I’m not fully sure.