I finally cleared up my acne and these are the must-have ingredients that did it

One woman recounts her journey from heavily blemished 27-year-old to a fresh-faced, acne-free woman who no longer feels the need to wear foundation,,,

Words by Lamya Tilmatine

I was staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror with a face riddled with pimples and scars. This was no regular breakout – I had acne.

The pimples, some red and swollen others with white heads, were angry and quite painful, particularly to look at. At the time I was a 26-year-old teacher in Dubai, literally living the dream. Only, my skin had completely hijacked my life.

I couldn’t wear make-up without it caking around my spots, evenings out were ruined by my low self-esteem and feeling self-conscious and the heat only seemed to make it worse.

To top it off, I spent hundreds trying excessive amounts of high-street branded skincare with big names, bigger promises and a long ingredient list, which later I learned made my acne much worse.

Nothing was working and I started to hate going out – I didn’t even want my husband to look at me for long periods of time during conversation.

I decided it was time to take back control of my skin.

What I did first (and what didn’t work)

The first thing I did was research the best acne treatments that had worked for others, but they were either too expensive or completely unfounded – like the use of apple cider vinegar.

Sudocrem helped with inflammation and reduced the swelling of some pimples, but that’s it. However I did find plenty of information on key ingredients that help with acne – salicylic acid being the main one.

I popped down to the local shop and bought a generic face wash with matching moisturiser that had salicylic acid listed in the ocean of ingredients printed on the back.

After a week, it seemed to have made my skin worse.

I then tried Tea Tree oil, the holy grail of essential oils that claims to help fight acne – it had some effect but after months of using it as a toner, wash and spot treatment my skin became dry, flaky and immune to its extreme antibacterial properties.

I ended up having dark patches of dry skin around my chin and mouth so I dialled it down to only using it as a toner.

Call the doctor

After months of practicing my new skincare routine, little had changed and  so I booked an appointment with my doctor.

She prescribed antibiotics, which I wasn’t too pleased with about as I wanted something I could sustain long term; I didn’t want to have to rely on antibiotics for clearer skin.

After two weeks it did help with one or two pimples, but it couldn’t keep up with the rate at which my pimples were forming. In a day, I could easily have two new pimples to join the pimple party that I had on my face.

It was time to try something else.

What causes acne?

‘I commonly see the following cycle – girl breaks out, girl panics, girl applies heavy-duty makeup to conceal blemishes… the acne worsens so she applies more make-up,’ says Dr Sam Bunting, a lead dermatologist and skincare expert, summing up my life with acne.

It is really important to understand what type of acne you have and how it is caused. With acne, the skin’s sebaceous glands are over producing oil (sebum), which clogs our pores, causing them to become infected and resulting in acne.

Acne can be ‘small red bumps – papules, red bumps with a white head – pustules or deeper, tender more lumps lesions – nodules and cysts’, explains Dr Bunting. These spots develop from blocked pores, too much oil and clogging of follicles with dead skin cells and grime from the day.

The little bumps found on our skin are sometimes open to air (blackheads), Dr Bunting explains, which the P. acnes bacteria thrives on if clogged and oily.

Sugar, dairy and acne

I then looked at changing my lifestyle in the hope of pinpointing a trigger.

I began by drinking more water, cutting out all processed food including genetically modified meat and dairy, as it ‘contains male-like hormones (androgens) and triggers our sebaceous glands into clogging up,’ Dr Bunting explains. ‘It’s much like the effect of our androgens in the week before our period.’

There’s also a link between high refined sugar intake and acne (goodbye chocolate), ‘as it increases insulin-like growth factor… this has been shown in some studies to increase acne lesion count, especially in women.’

After a few weeks of watching my diary and sugar intake I noticed my skins texture improved and my skin was less volatile; my adult acne seemed to have been brought on by a change in either my hormones or stress level and evidently my diet too.

What finally worked

Limiting your dairy and sugar intake is an essential first step with a proper skincare routine to beating acne.

Dr Bunting also stresses that ‘the right skincare and make-up make a huge different’ and ‘the key is to use non-comedogenic products’ – meaning they won’t aggravate blemish-prone skin by further clogging your pores.

The game-changing ingredients that should be included in your skincare routine are salicylic acid and glycolic acid. ‘Inflammatory acne is best treated with topical agents like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid’ and ‘non-inflammatory lesions [aka whiteheads and blackheads] are best treated with retinoids’ – a powerful acne fighting ingredient and scar healer says Dr Bunting.

I used Barbara Sturm’s Cleanser, £40, Space NK, which contains salicylic acid and was extremely gentle to the skin. The acid helps to unclog the pores and sloshes away build-up of dirt and dead skin cells, which prevents pores and blackheads from becoming infected.

I’d also recommend La Roche-Posay Effaclar Purifying Cleansing Gel, £12, Boots, as it’s ideal for calming and minimising inflamed pimples. Glycolic acid, also known as AHA (alpha-hydroxy-acid), offers a deeper clean as it penetrates further into the skin due to its smaller molecules.

I used Proactiv’s Glycolic Mark Fading Pads, £22.99, Amazon, as a toner treatment and SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight, £80, Lookfantastic, as a peel for extensive exfoliation of dead skin cells.

Lixir Skin’s Night Switch PHA/AHA 10%, £20, Liberty, offers a great alternative, a small bottle but a potent product which you can add to your face oils or moisturisers for an overnight treatment. Another overnight treatment is Retinol product Bioelements Oil Control Sleepwear – it helps with redness, inflammation and helps clear clogged pores.

To treat those testy pimples head on I used another salicylic acid product, Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion, £16, Beauty Bay – I used this by dotting on each of my pimples. It packed a punch and stung slightly but it was working as pimples were visibly smaller due to the anti-inflammatory properties of zinc and calamine lotion.

To moisturise? Oils! You literally fight oil with oil and I cannot stress this enough. Try and stay away from mineral oils and incorporate acne friendly ingredients like rosehip oil and jojoba oil.

Products that help treat acne and blemish-prone skin which I found safe to use were Rå’s Eternal Radiance Oil, £65, Cult Beauty, and Herbivore Lapis Balancing Facial Oil, £60, Space NK, which contains hero ingredient azulene that fights bacteria and is anti-inflammatory.

Trilogy’s Rosehip Oil, £34.50, John Lewis, is another great facial oil, high in fatty acids, it leaves skin feeling silky smooth, refined with a slight healthy glow. If you prefer a cream, La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo+, £16, Boots, is a winner for hydrating, correcting and reducing inflammation.

Dr Sam Bunting’s acne tips:

  • Stress can trigger our sebaceous glands to produce more oil, so chill.
  • The sun thickens up our skin’s protective outer layer which makes it susceptible to clogging. SPF is essential.
  • The wrong skincare can cause acne – using anti-ageing ingredients is ‘poorly formulated for blemish-prone skin’.
  • Stay away from heavy-coverage long-wear foundations.
  • Powders are prone to clogging pores
  • Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods with micronutrients like nuts, spices and omega 3 fatty acids helps maintain an anti-inflammatory diet.
  • PCOS is a common condition that affects women and will often trigger acne as well as hair loss and excess facial/body hair. If this a concern, please see your doctor.

I have spent an entire year scouring the planet for ingredients that are affordable, which you can use at home and for those that don’t want to spend a shed load on clinical treatments.

I hope that my journey to acne-free skin helps you along yours – good luck!

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