I'll put it like this: Caring for and keeping up with my tyrannical, acne-prone skin has basically become a sport. A sport, mind you, that I definitely didn't elect to join, and considering my historically un-problematic complexion, never thought I'd wear a jersey for. Alas, here we are.
I'll spare you every trial and tribulation my face has endured since freshman year of college when it started to flare, and I'll cut to the current quick: due to lots of hormonal changes, lots of stress, and lots and lots of product tries (I'm a beauty editor and it's in the job description), my acne-prone skin, quite frankly, has been hating me. I was consistently plagued with a frustrating dusting of whiteheads, and I was sick of doing battle with stubborn and painful blemishes overtaking my mouth, chin, jawline, and temples. Basically, my face felt like a game of Whac-a-Mole—as soon as I'd semi-successfully defeat one pimple, three more would pop up in its place.
While it may sound dramatic, my skin was ruining my life—or at least my self-confidence. Even though I love getting dolled up with makeup (and have gotten really, really good at hiding every last "imperfection"), I actually prefer to be completely makeup-free. It's where I feel most like myself and comfortable, but that starts to get complicated when you feel like acne is the first thing people see when they look at you.
Frustrated, I took a friend's advice and went to see L.A.-based esthetician Vanessa Hernandez of Vanessa Hernandez Skincare. According to my previously acne-ridden confidante, Vanessa had completely transformed her skin and has an aggressive (albeit very successful) approach to acne treatment. I'm also extremely loyal to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau (she's magic!), who has helped treat my acne since I first started my gig as a beauty editor. But since she's based in Austin, not L.A., our sessions are sporadic, which doesn't bode well for acne-prone skin that begs for regular and consistent clean-outs.
Fast-forward a few months, and lots of extractions, facials, and at-home maintenance later, and, true to my friend's prediction, Vanessa and her team of amazing assistants and estheticians (hi, Dakota!) have transformed my skin. During my first visit, Vanessa butchered my skin with about 50 extractions (painful but necessary and game-changing) and evaluated my skin to personalize a four to six-month-long "boot camp" for me and my acne. One of the biggest changes? My skincare routine. Whereas before I was a little loosey goosy with the products I was using—there was little rhyme or reason—I'm now married to a simplified, back-to-basics morning and evening routine that has truly helped my acne. It's not fancy, it's not glamorous, but it's what has worked. So, I'm sharing! Ahead, every detail of my morning and evening acne-geared skincare routine, complete with tips and product recommendations. Keep scrolling!
Step one: an exfoliating face wash
As I've learned from both Hernandez and Rouleau, regular (but gentle!) exfoliation is one of the most important things when it comes to caring for acne-prone skin. That said, it's easy to get too aggressive, which will ultimately hurt a pimply situation. The key is to find a gentle and hydrating daily exfoliating solution to use straight away in the morning.
A high-quality gentle formula won't injure or overly excite the skin and will nix the excess cells, sebum, and buildup your skin has naturally generated overnight. I swear by the three options below and have noticed a huge difference in the texture, brightness, and overall health of my skin since I started exfoliating on a daily basis first thing when I wake up.
Hernandez recommended this under-the-radar cleanser to me after my first appoitnment with her, and I've been obsessed with it ever since. In fact, it has such an underground cult following it's almost always sold out or on backorder both on the brand's website and in Hernandez's L.A. office. (Amazon to the rescue!) . Formula-wise, it features essential exfoliating beads along with anti-bacterial sidekicks like micro- fine benzoyl peroxide and tea tree and manuka oils for de-clogging and disinfection.
I've been using this cleanser regularly ever since I met Rouleau almost two years ago. This is one of her best-selling products and is a staple in my daily acne skincare routine. In addition to the tiny biodegradable jojoba beads that gently slough off dead skin cells, it's also infused with acne-busting exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid and lactic acid and other strategic additions like papaya fruit extract, Hawaiian red marine algae, and mangosteen peel extract to banish lingering bacteria while simultaneously soothing and hydrating the skin.
Even though Aēsop's offerings are spendy, it has the dreamiest, high-quality formulas, and if you're able or willing to make the splurge, you won't be disappointed. I keep a few of the brand's products on hand, but when I'm on strict acne duty, this purifying facial paste is a morning must. The base is nice and creamy, which offsets the graininess that comes from the exfoliating riverbed quartz. It also contains lactic acid, which lends a mild chemical exfoliation to help clean, soften, and polish your skin to perfection.
Step two: sunscreen or moisturizer
So here's the thing. Sunscreen is important. You know this. I know this. The whole world knows this. But if you have the kind of skin that jumps at the chance to blemish, most sunscreen formulations are more of a foe than a friend. Even though I've found a few options that don't seem to clog my skin or worsen my breakouts, I still tread carefully and only wear sunscreen if I'm actually going to be in the sun.
For instance, if I'm washing my face and heading straight to the office for the day, I'm just not going to use it. I'll simply follow my morning cleanse with my favorite moisturizer and be off. That's right—no serums or toners in between. Remember, if you're truly struggling with acne and stubborn cycles of breakouts, the leaner and more basic your routine the better.
As Vanessa and Dakota always explain to me, it can be hard to know which ingredients in a complex serum or toner might be causing or worsening breakouts, and really, if you're using high-quality cleansers, and moisturizers, and a few strategic add-ons, your skin shouldn't need much else.
I completely swear by this moisturizing cream from Ayur-Medic. It came as a recommendation from Dakota and Vanessa, and I use it both morning and night—even when my skin has been on better behavior. It's extremely lightweight, absorbs like a dream, and is free of oils and other irritants. It keeps my skin hydrated while also exfoliating away pore-clogging buildup and treating existing blemishes and leftover pigmentation from pimples past. It smells a little funky, but that's a price I'm willing to pay for something that will actually help heal my skin.
As far as sunscreen brands and products go, my bumpy skin and I have had the most luck with EltaMD. This SPF formula, in particular, is my favorite for acne-prone skin. While EltaMD has plenty of amazing product options, this one is specifically formulated for those with blemishes and sensitive skin issues. It's free of oils, fragrances, parabens, and is noncomedogenic. It also contains strategic ingredients to calm, brighten, and hydrate like niacinamide (vitamin B3), hyaluronic acid, and lactic acid.
That said, if my skin is being particularly feisty (translation: prone to clogging), or if I know I'll only be in the sun for part of the day and don't want to commit to a full day of sunscreen wearing, Vanessa suggests packing this cult-classic brush-on formula from Colorscience. It's easy to stow, filled with great ingredients, and safe for those with acne.
If I'm feeling really lazy or just don't know where the day is going to take me schedule-wise, I'll apply a few of these ingenious SPF-spike serum drops from Dr. Barbara Sturm. They're designed to go on post-cleanse and pre-cream or makeup, and you just have to let them sit on your skin for five minutes or so before you apply anything on afterward. I love the serum vibe versus an actual cream, and since they're from Dr. Barbara Sturm, (the holy grail of skincare) you know they're brimming with tons of other amazing ingredients like cassia extract, vitamin E, beta-glucan, Purslane, hyaluronic acid, green tea leaf, and chamomile flower extract.
Step three: eye and lip hydration
I never leave the house without applying eye cream and some kind of lip balm. And, since the rest of my complexion is so insanely finicky, my lips and under-eyes are where I can have the most fun experimenting with products. That said, when choosing products for my lips, I'm still vigilant about ingredients and stay far, far away from things like coconut oil, which quickly results in angry red pimples are around my lip line. (Brands, stop putting coconut oil in your lip products!)
As far as an eye cream, in the morning my main goal is to disguise the look of my dark circles as much as possible, so I always reach for something that's geared toward brightening. At night, I'll pat something on that's more preventative and angled toward anti-aging. Below, my fave morning lip and eye picks of the moment.
I love anything that will plump up my lips, and I've been so obsessed with La Mer's new summer launch, The Volumizer. Normally I'm not a gloss person, but this one isn't sticky, and it lightly melts into your pout so you're left with a smooth, pillowy sheen rather than a tacky trap for wind-strewn strands. So far it hasn't caused any breakouts around my mouth, but I'll keep you posted.
This is a best seller at Sephora, and one of my personal morning favorites. It's one of the best formulas in the eye cream market for brightening and is interestingly inspired by an age-old makeup artist trick of the trade, banana powder. It's great by itself or under concealer and is loaded up with vitamin C.
If I'm dealing with darkness and puffiness, I reach for this eye contour from Sunday Riley, which is probably my all-time favorite product from the cult-loved brand. It has an impressive roster of ingredients that each cater to different targeted concerns; caffeine and Brazilian ginseng root for puff and circles, horse chestnut and acamella oleracea for lift and lines, lutein for glow, and cocoa butter, shea butter, watermelon rind extract, and sodium PCA to plump and hydrate.
Even though it's targeted as an anti-aging formula, it's never too early for strategic preventative measures, and this luxe serum from RéVive is literally my favorite skincare item I own. Yes, it's insanely expensive, but I've gotten countless skeptical people hooked on it and a little goes a long way so you get more bang for your buck. It contains brightening ingredients like mica so you're instantly gifted with a bright and radiant illusion that masks and improves the scariest of scary dark circles.
Step one: a gentle, basic, deep-cleaning face wash
As Vanessa explained to me, the best rule of thumb for anyone with acne is to wash with an exfoliating formula in the morning (as I explained earlier) and then to follow with an ultra-basic but deep cleaning acne wash at night. The key is to find something that will nix bacteria and residual makeup or debris from your day but that's gentle and uncomplicated before you prep for sleep. Essentially, you're just trying to clean the day away, here—no fuss, no frills, people.
I'm obsessed with this face wash. Obsessed. It's not fancy, it's not pretty, but oh how it works. My skin feels so clean and fresh after I use it, but not in that tight overly stripped way so many acne cleansers cause. It maintains the skin's natural moisture balance thanks to rich botanical oils and amino acids and never irritates the skin. I keep it in the shower and also use it on my body if I'm coming from an extra sweaty workout and want to be extra vigilant about ever-threatening pore clog. (As a note, if I've worn makeup that day, I always remove it with a wipe pre-cleanse!)
Step two: an oil-free, hydrating moisturizer
Yep, you read that right! I just skipped second and third base and went straight from cleanser to face cream. As I said before, when you're in the initial or stubborn dredges of acne care, it's safer to steer clear of extra additions like toners or serums—a strategy I've found absolutely pivotal when I'm clearing my skin. (And this is me speaking, someone who absolutely loves the fun and exciting add-ons!)
Sure, when breakouts have abated and you feel like your skin is in a better place, you can begin thinking about adding strategic serums like hyaluronic acid or retinol, (discuss with your derm beforehand for customized recommendations), but if you're really serious about addressing your acne, a short and simple skincare routine is what your complexion is probably craving the most. Initially, I was so skeptical about abandoning my collection of potions and elixirs, but now I love how fast, easy, and uncomplicated my skincare routine is. Packing and traveling is a cinch, and my wallet is heavier (and happier!) than ever.
When it comes to choosing a moisturizer for nighttime, always opt for something that's oil-free and lightweight. It may be tempting to starve your skin of hydration if you're dealing with oil and pimples, infusing your skin with hydration is crucial for the healing process and will actually help the situation. The secret is being picky about the formula you choose. Typically, I reach for the same Clarifying Cream from Ayur-Medic that I use in the morning, but I also have a few other favorites shown below.
(See morning routine for why I love this one!)
When it comes to skincare products, it doesn't get better than iS Clinical. All of its formulations are extremely high in quality and, when I'm on the serum train, iS Clinical has a few of my favorites. I'm also obsessed with this moisturizer, which delivers the dreamiest hit of hydration and which has only helped (never hurt) my skin during breakout battle. Plus, it's backed with other key ingredients backed by science like hyaluronic acid, copper tripeptide growth factor, and antioxidant-rich enzymes.
Another old trusted from my dear friend and skin guru, Renée! I love this oil-free formula so much. You can use this morning or night, but I especially love it in the evening as it regulates sebum, which helps keep my pores free of oil and other icky buildup while I sleep. It also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredients like witch hazel extract, totarol, hyaluronic acid, and honeysuckle flower extract. I also love Rouleau's Sheer Moisture Lotion ($42), but I prefer it in the winter when my skin is naturally drier.
Goldfaden MD is one of those sleeper brands that is so, so good but still falls under the radar compared to other buzzier (albeit lesser-quality!) brands. This oil-free moisturizer is one of my favorite offerings and is so nourishing and soothing. It's boosted with salicylic acid, mallow extract, and the brand's signature's Detox Complex, which blends high-grade fruit extracts and active botanicals to improve and heal the skin.
Step three: eye and lip hydration
Again, just like in the morning, I end my evening routine with eye and lip treatments that will lend hydration and nourishment without compromising the integrity of the other acne-busting products I've used. I keep it simple with my favorite-EVER lip product. (Your lips will never be chapped again!) and eye creams geared toward prevention, plumping, and anti-aging. My favorites are below!
This lip plumping serum from PCA Skin (a beloved brand among top dermatologists) is the bomb dot com, guys. I've never tried another formula that lasts as long in terms of durable hydration, I love that it's not at all sticky, and I love the subtle plumpness it gifts my lips with. I'm obsessed, you'll be obsessed, everyone will be obsessed! Just try it. You'll see!
Though it's hard to choose, this is one of my favorite products from our new sister skincare line, Versed. It imparts this really pretty luminosity which helps with brightening (thanks to ethically sourced mica) and has other buttering ingredients the fragile and dehydrated eye area loves like algae extract, peptides, and olive oil.
Yep, this amazing eye cream is equipped with snake venom, and it's one of my favorite skincare products of all time. I swear it makes me look like I've had an eye lift overnight, and it also boosts circulation, which gives a girl a hand when dark circles and puffiness loom (which is always). Other all-star ingredients include the brand's designer peptides, vitamin C, arbutin, kojic acid, arnica montana, B vitamins, and bilberry for good measure.
When I'm not using retinol on the rest of my face, I'm using it under my eyes. This formula from O.G. skincare goddess Kate Somerville is a best seller and I love that it's packed with all the perks I want from an eye cream—hydration, firming, and brightening. Plus, how pretty is that packaging?!
These are the products that I love and that have helped my acne-prevention efforts, but I don't use them every day. I use them on an as-needed basis as to not overwhelm or confuse my skin. Again, simplicity is key when you're creating an acne skincare routine.
When Dakota from my Vanessa Hernandez family told me about these "facial in a pad" peels, I immediately went out and purchased a pack. Since I regularly exfoliate every morning, my sensitive, acne-prone skin and I don't need anything too additional or harsh in the way of peels or hydration, but once or twice a week I'll use these pads to help heal existing blemishes and fade away scars and residual pigmentation. I use them post-cleanse, pre-moisturizer. In a nutshell, they contain a resurfacing mix of glycolic and salicylic acid, which help reduce the look of pores and boost cell turnover.
Even though I have way more masks than I know what to do with. (You'd be amazed to see what a beauty editor amasses on a daily, weekly, and oh god, a yearly basis), this cult-loved detox mask from Renée Rouleau is the only one I regularly use and completely swear by and rely on. I'll use it once or twice a week after cleansing and before moisturizing and let it marinate on my skin for a good 20 to 40 minutes. It looks like magical sparkling honey, and the morning after using it, my skin looks brighter, more clear, and any existing pimples are much less horrifying.
Whenever I go in to see Vanessa Hernandez, they'll treat my heavily extracted face to a really dreamy masking/treatment situation that involves, oxygen, gold, and rose, and this Rose Gold Brightening Mask from 111Skin is the closest thing I've found to mimic the ritual at home. It's a hydrogel design so it actually stays put and doesn't slide (the reason I despise so many sheet-style masks) and the luxurious ingredients like 24K gold and rosa damascus extract help to increase cell turnover (good for acne!) moisturize (good for acne!) and brighten for extra radiance (good for life in general!)
The jury is still out on acne spot-treatments—some people swear by them and some people say they're a complete waste of time and energy. However, applying this specific formula (again, another recommendation from Vaness and the gang!) directly onto my open wounds (aka not the skin-colored bumps just sitting under the skin) has served me very, very well. Plus, since the formula is tinted, it acts as a cover-up for breakouts that are distracting and angry red. The only thing worth warning you about is that the hero ingredient is sulfur. So, while it works wonders on acne, you will, indeed, smell. (Sorry!)
I'm a huge gym rat and cutting out my regular workouts and their accompanying buckets of sweat just wasn't an option for me. So, Dakota instructed me to wash my face as soon as possible after my workouts, or at the very least, use these tea tree oil enriched cleansing pads from TJ's to tide me over until I'm able to hit the shower. As she explained to me, when you're working out, hot, and sweating, your pores open. Which is great! Until that is, they close back up again. And if that happens before you get a chance to clean away sweat, dead skin, and lingering oil and makeup, all that ish is getting sucked back into, and then trapped, inside your pores. So get these pads! I swipe my face with them the second I leave a workout and then do my evening skincare routine as fast as I can get to a sink or shower afterward. Next up: Cassandra Grey Can't Live Without These 12 Holy Grail Skincare Products. This piece was published at an earlier date and has since been updated.