Hello, my dear fellow acne sufferer. If you’ve arrived at this post, I’m sorry—because it means that you (or someone you love) is going through a hard time with acne, and it truly can wear down your hope and your self-esteem. I know the pain, and I know it can be extremely isolating. You are not alone.
In this post, I’m going to give you a detailed history my acne, which I’ve had for 15 years, and how I finally cleared it (though, of course, I still get some acne; it’s just not as bad as before).
My Acne Story: What I’ve Tried
I first started getting pimples before I even entered high school, so I must have been about 13 years old (I am 29 years old as I write this). All I can remember is being in middle-school science class with a huge zit on my forehead, and one of my classmates pointing to his forehead and taunting “pimple, pimple, pimple” (thankfully, a good friend stood up for me and told him to stop).
2004: Doxycycline + Retin-A
Things got worse when high school started. My freshman year, I had horrible cystic acne on my cheeks, forehead, and chin. I went to the dermatologist, and he prescribed Doxycycline and Retin-A and told me to give it 3 months to work. He told me things would get worse before they got better—I had no idea just how much worse things would get.
Taking the antibiotics and applying the Retin-A cream made my skin angry; clumps of my skin were peeling off, the pimples got larger and more numerous; it became impossible to hide it with makeup. Because my skin was peeling so badly, my concealer and powder just settled between the lines in my seriously dried-out skin. I felt like a monster.
I remember breaking down one day at home because my face was so unrecognizable. My dad saw me and asked what was wrong, but I was so ashamed that I didn’t want to tell him.
“Is this about how you look?” he asked, which only made me feel worse. I know he was just trying to help, but I was so disgusted with my face that I didn’t want to talk about it.
Because my acne was getting so bad, I decided to stop the Doxycycline and Retin-A about one month into the treatment.
2004: Light Therapy
After quitting the treatment, my face calmed down a bit, but my acne was still severe. My dad did some research and heard about light therapy for skin. This was about 2004, so it wasn’t very advanced. He ordered a light for me. It was about one foot tall and 6 inches wide. I could stand it up on my desk, and the idea was that I was supposed to put my face in front of it for like 30 minutes a day.
I did this pretty regularly, but I can’t remember how often or how long I did it. Eventually, after seeing no improvements, I gave up on this.
2005-2012: Laser Treatments
My dad then suggested I try laser treatments, where they literally zap your pimples with a laser. It is supposed to help with acne scarring too by encouraging your skin to create more collagen.
I did a couple of these laser treatments. They would numb my face, then zap it with a laser, and it would take several days to heal.
This helped somewhat. But I still was getting zits and cystic acne on my cheeks, forehead, and chin. I think it was worst on my cheeks.
2005-2019: Benzoyl Peroxide (Acne.org)
Finally, I did some research on my own and came across Acne.org and Daniel Kern’s story. He said he cleared his acne with Benzoyl Peroxide, and he had created a special formula of BP that was strong and effective but, relatively, gentle on the skin.
I ordered his Acne Regimen and decided to give it a try.
The Regimen requires slathering on LOTS of Benzoyl Peroxide on your face, which is extremely drying. You have to start small and then work your way up.
It did dry out my face, making it red and flaky. But it worked better than anything I had ever used before. If I saw a pimple forming one day, I would layer on the BP, and by the morning, it would shrink.
I still, of course, got pimples. And I ha acne scarring (deep pitting, large pores, and red marks on my face), but it calmed down a bit to where I could feel somewhat confident if I wore makeup.
Benzoyl Peroxide from Acne.org is what I relied on to tame my acne from about age 14 to 28. During this time, my acne never went away. I would still get occasional large pimples on my forehead, between my eyes, on my cheeks, or on my chin (sometimes, even on my neck or chest). But it was manageable and I learned to disguise it with makeup.
What I hated about BP is that it puts bleach stains on everything. I kept accidentally staining towels and sheets when I traveled. I learned to only buy white sheets and white towels.
On top of that, I’m convinced BP gave me premature wrinkles from how it dried out my skin. Unfortunately, I never paid much attention to moisturizing my skin because it was SO DANG OILY. But that was a mistake. Often, when your skin gets too dry, it will overproduce oil to make up for it. You need to moisturize your skin well, even if it’s oily. You especially need to moisturize your skin if you use Benzoyl Peroxide because it dries it out so badly.
By age 28, I wanted to stop using BP because of the two reasons I mentioned above. I no longer slathered it all over my face (like the Acne.org Regimen recommends). Instead, I used it every day and night as a spot treatment. I felt like I couldn’t quit, though, because I was afraid my acne would come back in full force if I did.
2017: The ReNew Diet (Similar to Keto)
In 2016, I had some health issues (chronic acid reflux, mostly) that I wanted to resolve. I went to a functional medicine doctor and he recommended I try the ReNew Diet for 30 days.
During this time, my eczema on my hands cleared (a pleasant surprise because we were not trying to treat it!). But my acne remained about the same. The acne was mild at this point in my life, so I wasn’t concerned about it.
2017: Clindamycin + Differin
Okay, so at this point in my life (age 27), I had accepted face acne as something I would never get rid of. Again, I still got zits, mostly on my cheeks, forehead, and chin. Occasionally, I would get a cyst on my chin or forehead. I also had tiny bumps (maybe closed comedones?) and very bad acne scarring, but I just learned to cover it with makeup and pretend it didn’t bother me.
The only thing I was using to treat my acne was Benzoyl Peroxide. I applied it in the morning underneath my makeup and at night before going to bed.
However, in the summer of 2017, I had a flare-up of hand eczema, so I went to a new dermatologist to treat this. Of course, she saw my face, and she wanted to treat the acne too. I told her I’d already tried everything, so I wasn’t interested in treating it.
That’s when she told me I should take Accutane. She told me all the warnings about it, and how I would have to go on birth control and come in every month for a pregnancy test. I told her I wasn’t interested. Still, she insisted I should try Accutane. Again, I refused.
So instead, she prescribed Clindamycin wipes and Differin gel, which is like a milder form of Retin-A. I decided to give it a try since it was available over-the-counter and it was milder. I used both of these for a couple of months, and surprisingly, I did see an improvement! My acne didn’t completely go away, but I didn’t get any large pimples or cysts.
Unfortunately, I then had this weird rash situation that spread all over my body a few months later, and I thought it might be a reaction to the Clindamycin wipes, so I stopped using it.
2018: Differin Again (On Its Own)
In fall 2017, I went to another dermatologist for my recurring eczema, and she noticed I had acne on my face, mostly on my chin, so she wanted to treat it.
I was very frustrated because, again, I was trying to treat my eczema and had given up hope of ever clearing my acne.
She wanted me to try Accutane since by this point I was already 27 years old, and it’s kind of the “last resort” treatment. I told her I did not want to take Accutane, so she recommended Spironolactone for my chin acne (which is often caused by hormones), but she said it would not help with the mild acne I had on other places on my face.
She also prescribed Differin, so I decided to start using it again.
I didn’t really notice any difference.
2018: Doxycycline Again
In summer 2018, I got what we think was a tick bite. I had a bite on the inner part of my left elbow, and it started turning it a red bullseye-like rash. So, to be safe, my dermatologist wanted me to take a course of Doxycycline to kill any Lyme Disease I might have contracted from the supposed tick bite.
A “nice” side effect of the Doxycycline treatment is that my acne cleared! Like, it was the clearest my face had been since I was 13 years old! I felt so amazing and beautiful.
At the time, though, I didn’t realize that it was the Doxycycline that had cleared my skin. I had just started using these oils-based, all-natural skincare items, and I thought that was what cleared my acne.
So when I stopped taking antibiotics, I also stopped using Benzoyl Peroxide and kept using the oils-based skincare items, thinking that that’s what helped me.
The Worst Acne of My Life
In October 2018, I started developing what would become the worst case of acne I’ve had in my entire life.
During this time, I was still only using the essential-oils-based skincare products. This included:
- Rosewater spray
- Oil-based cream cleanser
- Oil-based acne serum
It started as hundreds of tiny bumps on my forehead, which I assumed were tiny zits, or closed comedones. They were so numerous that it actually looked like I had a rash on my forehead! But they didn’t itch, and I could pop them. In fact, that’s what I did for weeks. I would take a hot shower and then pop them, one by one, with my fingernails. White, hard sebum would come out. By morning, though, the bumps would be back.
By the end of October, the tiny bumps spread to my cheeks and chin. It seriously looked like a rash across my face, but it didn’t itch and you couldn’t really notice it unless you were up close or if I were standing beneath harsh lighting.
October 2018: Nizoral Shampoo
Okay, so I had read on the internet that hundreds of tiny bumps on your forehead might be something called “fungal acne.” I decided to try Nizoral shampoo because it’s an antifungal and a lot of people on the internet recommended it. What I would do is slather the shampoo on my forehead like a mask and leave it one for about 10 minutes and then wash it off.
I did this for weeks and saw zero improvement, so I stopped doing it. I now no longer think it was fungal acne.
Around this time, I also started developing cystic acne on my chin and jawline.
By the middle of November 2018, I was in a panic. The tiny bumps were now almost completely covering my face, and the cystic acne on my jawline was SO bad that it hurt to smile. It was painful, and I felt like a monster.
Photo from November 2018
2018: Drinking an Insane Amount of Water
I got so panicked I went on an extreme diet. I tried drinking several liters of water for 3 days. Things didn’t improve.
I then quit drinking coffee, and as someone who drank coffee every day for the past 7 years, I went through painful caffeine withdrawals—intense headaches, muscle pain. That didn’t help the acne.
2018: Dapsone + Differin
I knew I should see a dermatologist, but the idea of going out of the house and having someone look closely at my face was terrifying. So I tried telemedicine. I submitted my photos online to a dermatologist and wrote out my symptoms.
She prescribed me Dapsone and Differin. Both are topical treatments. They dried out my skin, and my acne continued to get worse.
2018: Sulfur Masks + Benzoyl Peroxide
I gave up on the Dapsone and Differin, mostly because it’s widely accepted that Differin has to make the acne worse before it can get better. That’s because Differin draws the pimples to the surface in order to clear them. I couldn’t bear the thought of my acne getting any worse than it already was, so I stopped using Differin and Dapsone.
Instead, I returned to my old, trusted friend: Benzoyl Peroxide. I had stopped using it while I was using the oils-based products, but I ordered it again from Acne.org and started slathering it all over my face.
In my frenzy, I even added Sulfur mask treatments. By this point, my face was so dry and tight that I couldn’t even smile! It felt like my face would split in two because my skin was so tight. It was also extremely red, and the cysts kept coming.
2018: The Clear Skin Diet (Low Fat, High Carb)
I then decided to try The Clear Skin Diet, which is also a book written by two twins who claim to have cleared their cystic acne by following a strict, high-carb, low-fat, plant-based diet.
I went an entire week without leaving my house while I tried The Clear Skin Diet; I was so ashamed of how I looked. I obsessively Googled “how to clear my acne” and watched dozens of YouTube videos about people’s acne stories.
But after all these things—drinking insane amounts of water, cutting out caffeine, eating the Clear Skin Diet—my acne wasn’t getting better. In fact, it was getting worse. I hated looking in the mirror; I hardly recognized my face. My chin throbbed from the pain of deep cysts forming along my jawline.
I was desperate. I finally went to yet another dermatologist, and you know what he told me? “Accutane is all we have to offer you.”
He didn’t think anything else would help, but I still didn’t want to take Accutane. I felt hopeless. I desperately wanted to find natural alternatives to Accutane.
Though I’d never tried them before, I had read online that facials are a “fast” way to get “instant” improvement in your acne. That’s because the esthetician can do extractions, which are exactly what they sound like: They pop and squeeze out your pimples.
I was so desperate to see an improvement as quickly as possible, that I went to a fancy spa nearby to get a facial. I was so embarrassed by my acne (at this point, it was the WORST it had ever been in my life), that I wore a ton of makeup to the appointment, even though I knew they would ask me to wash it off before the treatment began.
When the esthetician came out to ask me what treatment I would like, I burst into tears right then and there. I told her I was desperate, that I would do anything to make this acne go away.
“Can you help me?” I begged her.
She was so incredibly kind and compassionate; she told me that her acne used to be as bad as mine, so she knew how I felt. She cleared her acne by getting regular facials.
Then she took me to the treatment room and promised to do whatever she could to help me.
That facial/extraction was the most painful treatment I have ever undergone. Because I had so many large, deep, and painful cysts, she had to spend a lot of time and dig really deep and squeeze out all the gunk. Unfortunately, she couldn’t numb my face, so I felt everything.
She took a razor and punctured each cyst and squeeze until all the blood and sebum came out. I was in tears, but I didn’t protest because I wanted these suckers to be gone.
After the facial was over, my face was red with cuts all over it. That’s normal. After a facial, you need at least 3 days to heal, especially if you have extractions done. She gave me hyaluronic acid cream and begged me to stop using Benzoyl Peroxide. She said my skin was so insanely dry. She gave me a big hug, and I went home to recover.
The facial helped somewhat. It definitely got rid of the deep, painful cysts (they were painful because they were “trapped” beneath the surface and needed to be extracted).
Unfortunately, I now have pretty bad scarring along my jawline where she did the extractions. I think my skin was so traumatized by the cysts themselves and then also by the razor cuts.
Photos from December 2018
Here’s What Finally Cleared My Acne
2019: LED Light Therapy Mask + DIM
In January 2019, my dad did some research and came across LED Light Therapy. This was more advanced than the light therapy I had tried back in high school. He ordered a mask on Amazon and had it shipped to me.
I was very doubtful, but I would try anything at this point.
I also started taking DIM, which is supposed to help women with hormonal acne.
And oh my gosh, you guys—it WORKED!
Because I tried two things at once, it was hard to tell which thing was what helped. But I think the LED light mask is what helped the most, because when I stopped using it a couple months later (thinking my acne was gone for good), it started coming back.
So I do have to keep using the LED light to keep my acne at bay. The DIM, I think, also helps because I had started getting acne on the back of my neck, right underneath my hairline, and it went away. It had to be from the DIM, because obviously, the LED light couldn’t reach back there.
My acne is the best it’s ever been since it started. I still do get the occasional small zit, and right now, I’m battling those darn tiny bumps all over my forehead again, but it’s manageable.
For me, the LED light therapy and DIM combination have been natural alternatives to Accutane.
Here’s what my face looks like as of September 2019:
What Do I Think Caused My Acne?
Why did my acne get SO bad in the winter of 2018? I think it was a combination of things:
- I was under the worst stress of my life. Actually, it was severe anxiety that I hadn’t gotten treated for.
- I was using essential-oils-based products on my skin. I already have very oily skin, so I think adding more oils actually could have made it worse. Though some people will say that’s not true.
- I had started using Progesterone cream in October 2018 to help with what my nurse practitioner thought was a hormonal imbalance. I have read some stories that Progesterone cream can actually make your acne worse because it changes your hormones. I can’t confirm if this is true, but I stopped using the cream in November 2018, and I don’t plan on ever using it again.
- As mentioned above, I may have had a hormonal imbalance. The DIM might have helped treat this.
What I Am Currently Doing to Keep My Acne in Check
- LED Face Mask – At least 30 minutes every night on the blue LED mode
- DIM – Two capsules once a day
- Salicylic acid face wash – Morning and night
- Pimple patches – At night, whenever I get an occasional pimple that I want gone by the morning!
- Tarte Amazonian Clay BB Cream – For makeup during the day
- Hexomedine Transcutanée – At night. I’m currently traveling in Europe, and this is available at French pharmacies. It’s basically an antibacterial solution that you wipe across your face. Supposedly, it draws out the acne. I’ve been using it only on my forehead to try to get rid of the tiny bumps. I think it helps a little, but the bumps still have not gone away.
- La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo + – At night. This is another popular French product that I bought at a pharmacy in Paris. It supposedly helps with acne scarring and reduces red marks. It also has salicylic acid, so it can help with active zits. I think it might be helping to reduce my scarring/redness.
That may seem like a lot, but the two main things that I definitely think help me and I would not stop using are: the LED Face Mask and the DIM supplements.
For you, I would recommend trying an LED face mask. DIM affects your hormones, so I would NOT recommend taking it without first checking with your doctor. The LED lights are very safe.
Hang In There. I Hope Things Improve for You Soon
Now, of course, what worked for me may not work for you. That’s the frustrating thing about acne advice. I read and tried SO many things that other people said cleared their acne, but it did nothing for me.
If you want to try Accutane and your doctor recommends it, that is your choice to make, and I do not judge you for it. Personally, I chose not to take it because I couldn’t accept the potential side effects.
If you haven’t yet tried it, I really recommend trying LED light therapy as an alternative to Accutane. I think that’s what helped me the most, and since it’s safe, it’s worth a shot.
The most important thing I want you to remember is this: You are beautiful with or without your acne. Now, feel free to roll your eyes. I know I would have back in November 2018, at the peak of my worst acne crisis. But it’s true.
I have accepted, at age 29, that I may always struggle with acne. But I will not let it rule my life. I won’t let it dissuade me from going out. I won’t let it stop me from being confident.
I know it’s hard. Believe me, I know. I can’t make you any promises, but it is my hope and prayer that you heal soon.
I hope this helps!
**Note: The LED Face Mask I link to is not the exact same model as mine. That’s because the models keep changing; they’re almost all made by Chinese manufacturers and it’s hard to track them down.
The DIM Detox that I link to is, however, the exact same one I am taking.