Monday, February 10, 2014

When Good Skin Goes Bad (or: All About Exfoliants), Part I

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
This is a detective story, but also a story about the decisions we make when we're broke. It's a long one, so I'll just jump right in. I've never had flawless skin - occasional breakout, etc. - but the last 6 weeks or so it seemed to be getting progressively worse. Not only worse acne, but rougher texture, bigger pores and lines - not a change I was pleased with. There's a photo below, hidden behind the jump for the squeamish. I mean, it's not nasty or anything, but it's also not pretty.

I felt like there had to be something behind this downturn, but these things are hard to figure out, especially when multiple factors had changed roughly the same period, i.e. late December-early January. What exactly was to blame for the mess? These are the possibilities I came up with:
  • I'd been moisturizing a lot more, especially before bed. My skin was extra dry from the weather, combined with the horrible dry heat in my apartment. (I mentioned this frustrating change back in November.) Recently, my skin seems to have acclimatized and doesn't feel nearly as parched, so I've cut back on the moisturizing.
  • I ran out of my BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliant and didn't replace it, because I felt like it probably wasn't doing much of anything.
  • I had been slowly and steadily adding more and more wheat to my diet, despite knowing that it fucks with my body. More on that later.
  • I started using one of those battery-powered rotating face brush thingies. I started by using it 1-2 times a week, and then after a few weeks went up to about every second day when my skin kept getting worse.
I'm sure there are other things, but those changes seemed like the most worthwhile ones to consider. The best way to isolate the cause of a problem like this is, of course, to remove/change one suspect at a time and see if anything improves. That can be difficult if you're impatient, and especially if you don't make a connection immediately between skin problems and some kind of behavior. 

In this case, the first thing I decided to do was try some BHA again (mostly because it was simply the first thing that occurred to me). I'd thought that it hadn't been doing much for my skin, but I realized that maybe I was behaving like someone who stops taking their medication when they feel better, even though the medication is the thing that's actually making them feel better. (Or like people who abolish the VRA because it's effective.) I made the decision to try some BHA again at the end of January - and since it was the end of the month, funds were running low. At the same time, I was annoyed enough at my stupid fucking face that I wanted to do something about it immediately.

I had been using Paula's Choice CLEAR Extra Strength Acne Exfoliant. But that shit costs $23 a bottle, and I just didn't have it in my budget before payday. I started browsing Beautypedia to see if there was a decent, but cheaper, option available. I reasoned that if the Paula's Choice version had actually been working for me, then something else they recommended would be likely to work too. 

But holy shit, BHA exfoliants are not cheap, folks. Sure, there are lots of products out there with salicylic acid in them, which is what BHA is, but they're not all exfoliants. BHA has been shown not only to exfoliate the surface of the skin, but also the inside of pores, which is what makes it good for both anti-aging purposes and also acne. (AHA, on the other hand, only does the surface exfoliating, which means it's good if you are sensitive to BHA or have clear skin, but not what I personally needed.) Not every product with BHA will act as an exfoliant, however - it has to have the right pH. 

So I was pleased to find a $7 product that Beautypedia says will work as an exfoliant: Clean & Clear Advantage Oil Absorbing Treatment. You can read what they have to say about it here. Sweet, right? I didn't have to spend $23. If you actually break it down, though, the Clean & Clear option actually costs almost as much per unit as the Paula's Choice exfoliant. It's $7 for 1.5 oz. of the C&C stuff (i.e. $4.67 per oz.) and $23 for 4 oz. of the Paula's Choice product (i.e. $5.75 per oz.). There is a difference there, for sure, but it's not as huge as it seems when you initially consider the full price of each product. It's also important to consider that these two exfoliants are very different in terms of formulation. The C&C one is a cream, while the PC one is a clear liquid. I've found that to cover my entire face with the C&C product, I actually need to use significantly more than I would with the thinner PC liquid. The latter only requires a few drops on a cotton ball (maybe 4-5 drops max), which the C&C cream requires an amount between the size of a nickel and a quarter. (Since it's about the same thickness as shampoo or conditioner, just picture that when I describe it in terms of coins.)

Because of these differences, I think that in terms of actual cost per use, the two products are quite close. The Paula's Choice exfoliant might even come out as being the more economical of the two.

Despite that fact, I ultimately chose to buy the $7 tube instead of the $23 bottle. This is what people mean when they say that it is expensive to be poor. Not that I am claiming extreme poverty, but there are definitely months when I'm living paycheck to paycheck. Anyone who has been in that situation knows that you often have to choose something that has a lesser overall value, because it also represents a lesser immediate investment. These things end up being more expensive over time, but usually you can't do anything about that. I was going to get paid, so I could have waited, but I decided to go with the slightly cheaper immediate gratification and hope it would work as well as the more familiar, but more expensive, option.

Here are my results. First, take a look at my skin before:

I actually think this photo made my skin's texture look better than it was. I'm not saying my skin is horrible and embarrassing here (though looking at it in a closeup photo is not the most fun I've ever had). I'm just saying that it seemed to have been getting rapidly worse in a short period of time, and I wanted to curtail that and figure out what was causing it. Pores were getting larger and darker/more clogged, more black heads, more zits, more prominent lines (especially on either side of my nose). Those moles are not going anywhere, though.

So I started using the Clean & Clear exfoliant. Note that it is not actually marketed as an exfoliant, so for those who didn't happen upon Beautypedia review, that wouldn't be clear. It claims to control oil and shine and to treat acne. It's a thick cream (with the viscosity and appearance of white glue) that dries quickly to a matte finish. I don't particularly love the texture. It leaves a residue that is much rougher than your typical mattifying silicone primer, for example. Slightly scratchy. It will also ball up in not a pretty way if you rub your finger against your skin after it dries. I wouldn't recommend using this during the day, if you wear makeup, for that reason. Or if you do, try to apply a very, very thin layer. I didn't try applying foundation over it, but I would think it would be tricky. In addition, I wear sunscreen every day, and it's particularly important if you're using an exfoliant, so applying sunscreen on top of this stuff would undo some of the mattifying effect. For that reason, I only used this at night before bed.

It does absorb oil, just as it claims to do. A little too much, in my opinion. I like to use rosehip oil at night, and normally I can cover my whole face with 2-3 drops. When I apply the oil over the C&C cream, it absorbs too quickly and so it takes a lot more oil to do my face. So that's annoying, but specific to my routine. It also smells kind of bad. It's has an obnoxious floral fragrance. It fades after a while, but I could really do without it.

But probably you'd rather just see the results. Here's how my skin looked after using the C&C exfoliant every night for 2 weeks:

It's . . . a little better? Maybe? The breakouts on my chin have shrunken and started to fade a bit, but I have new ones on my upper lip. I don't think the pores and lines really look much better. Of course, two weeks isn't a very long time to erase problems that had started to show up at least 6 weeks prior, but it would be nice if new problems (zits) didn't replace them. Also, that damned pimple on the right side of the photo is improved, but still there, and it had been there at least a week before the first photo was taken. I don't usually have cystic acne that sticks around for more than 3 weeks at a time. Fuck you, skin.

So the Clean & Clear product doesn't seem to have been the solution to all of my problems, at least not in two weeks time. That doesn't mean that if I stick with it longer or use it more frequently, I won't see some results, though.

At this point, this is my recommendation: if you're interested in trying a BHA exfoliant, and you have the cash, I'd just got for the Paula's choice option. The Clean & Clear stuff is only a bit less expensive per unit, and that combined with the other criticisms I have of its formula mean that I consider the Paula's Choice exfoliant to be the better overall value. However, if you want something that mattifies, you'd have to use an extra product along with the Paula's Choice exfoliant, so that would add to the expense.

What I plan to do is to keep using the Clean & Clear Advantage Oil Absorbing Treatment in the meantime and order some of the Paula's Choice CLEAR Extra Strength Acne Exfoliant. I'll do another before and after once I've had the chance to use the latter for a few weeks. We'll see if BHA is what my skin wants right now, or if I was originally right that it wasn't making any difference in my skin's condition while I was using it.

As for the other possible culprits for my skin's degeneration that I listed above (moisturizer, wheat, facial brush), I'll write a separate post about those too. I think I've kept you long enough here.

Note: I've mentioned this before, but if you've never tried Paula's Choice products (they are generally awesome) and would like to, you can get $10 off your first order of $15 or more by using this link (it's an invite link, so I get a $10 credit too).


  1. For a cheaper BHA product, I love the Stridex alcohol free pads - they are around $5 for 90 of them, and one pad is plenty to do your face & chest (if like me, you occasionally break out there). You could probably cut them in half too, but they're cheap and I'm lazy. Highly recommended, they have been fantastic for me (& my wife too). Oh also, I just use them on my chin & chest now, they are slightly drying of course, and I mostly break out in those areas.

    1. Oh, you know what, I'd heard of those and then completely forgotten! Hmmmm. Maybe I should order some of them instead. Thanks!

    2. They might not have the right pH for exfoliating, which means they wouldn't help with the other skin texture issues I'm having. But I am going to look into it.

  2. Do you mainly have those cystic pimples on your chin? Some say it's hormonal changes or even irregularity. Strangely enough, for the last 2 months I've been getting really painful ones one after the other and I realized the only change in my life was that I'd been eating grapefruits and oranges everyday, and a little more refined sugar. So, I cut out the citrus and fucking finally the ones I had came to a head, pus galore, and no more chin cysts have formed since. No more little annoying jerk pimples above my lips, either...sometimes if you overdo things (even healthy stuff like grapefruit) the body revolts.

    1. They're not all cystic and not all on my chin. Some are just really clogged pores that get inflamed (I mean, I guess that's all zits, but they're not all deep like these), and I also get them on my forehead and nose, etc. I just didn't take photos of everything. But I do think that my diet may have something to do with it, and I'll write more about that once I've thought it through a little more carefully.

    2. All bets are on irritation induced by the face brush plus too much wheat (which messes with your blood sugar causing a surge in certain hormones). Definitely take your time in figuring it out; good luck!

  3. Sorry to hear about your skin. Bad skin always sucks, especially during the winter. But mine has been super happy lately - not even the typical monthly hormonal breakouts. Weird. Not trying to brag about that. Still have general tomato redness that I can't abolish due to mixed Irish/Scottish genes.

    As for what I've been doing, I love the philosophy microexfoliating scrub for evening (yes I KNOW it's ridiculously expensive) and the philosophy purity made simple wash in the morning (again, expensive! don't judge, I got a 4-pack of philosophy products on Black Friday at Ulta). Then a couple times a week I use the Anastasia citrus zest facial scrub. It's amazing. Better than the Clarins one. Normally super expensive but snagged it for $5 in the day-after-Christmas sales. BUT the holy grail product is 100% the Alba botanica oil-free green tea moisturizer. I usually only put it on in the morning, but sometimes a little bit on dry patches before I go to sleep as well. I stopped using prescription-level acne treatment products (anything with acid, really) years ago and my skin was so, so much happier immediately.

    Sorry for the rant. Thought you might enjoy it for some weird reason.

    1. I did enjoy it! Thanks. I love hearing about other people's skincare routines. And hey, no shame, if you find what works for you, stick with it. I'd give philosophy more of a chance if I didn't hate the fragrance in every sample of their stuff I've tried. It's too much. I don't mind fragrance on my body, but I don't really like it in things i use on my face.

  4. Figuring out skin issues is so fucking annoying. I've been trying to get to the bottom (figuratively) of some recent breakouts that I now suspect are hormonal.

    I live for Neutrogena's now-discontinued Stress Relief 3in1 Hydrating Acne treatment, but I am nearing the end of my stash (I hoarded the shit for months when it was still for sale) and have to accept that I will need a permanent BHA replacement in the next two months. I've known for a while that my only other reasonable options are the Clean and Clear and Paula's Choice, but this helps me get a better sense of how each of them perform, so thanks!

    1. I'm glad it was useful. I'd heard of that Neutrogena one, but I didn't know it was discontinued. That explains why I couldn't find it. Why are these things so rare??

  5. I also use Paula's Choice BHA. I use their BHA 9, BHA 2% liquid and their BHA 4% foam. I never had acne growing up. I have only ever had a massive breakout 5 times in my life that lasted 1-2 months. Each time i got pregnant (x3) and once in my teens and once in my 20s. Nothing else. However i also get pimples on my chin if i touch my chin without fail or any part of my face. I do not allow my children or husband to EVER touch my face and I try to keep my hands from resting on my face. The ones on my chin hurt like ass and take months and months to go away. They never come to the surface and i gotta fuck with them over and over again till they come up and I can pop them. Plus to make matters worse the ones on my chin always leave dark marks. I have to use a spot lightening treatment always to get rid of that shit. Paula's Choice does work for me. So I would say stick with it though its expensive. However the their beautypedia is awesome for alternative products. I do that shit as well when I run low on funds. But BHA is truly the way to go!!


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