A little routine goes a long way.
Sure, the dermatologist told me not to, and even though I told him I didn’t, the scarring that followed told a different story.
As I got older, I tried all the acne medications a girl could get her hands on: over-the-counter medicines, prescription topicals, oral medication, whatever. If it was available, I probably tried it. And while I saw results for a while when taking Accutane in my teens, an out-of-character bout of depression—one of the potential side effects—led to my mom taking me off the drug faster than you can say, “Watch this gross pimple-popping video.”
But despite a dedicated skin-care regimen and tinkering with my diet, acne has always ranged from “meh” to “out of control” for me. I consistently wake up to breakouts in the morning along the jawline, with the occasional pimple near my upper lip. I rarely ever feel comfortable going makeup free, making me the first to dash to the shower after a workout (partly because I know it’s bad for sweat to linger on my pores, but mostly because I don’t want anyone to see my face makeup-free for longer than necessary).
That’s why, finally, I decided enough was enough. So I scheduled a visit with Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, for a thorough skin consult.
First, he confirmed what every dermatologist has always told me: I have hormonal acne—more accurately called premenstrual acne because, “at its most basic level, all acne is due to your hormones,” he says. Premenstrual acne, though, is what happens when “hormones stimulate oil glands to go into overdrive, stimulating oil production that clogs the pores and feeds acne-causing bacteria,” he explains. “For a lot of women, the fluctuations in hormones that you experience throughout the menstrual cycle tend to make you cyclically break out.”
Then, after he heard about my day-to-day skin care routine, he suggested a few modifications. Mainly: regular facials. But he was quick to clarify that I couldn’t get any old facial. Anything with extractions was out because, for my acne specifically, picking would most definitely lead to scarring, he said. “Cysts, inflammatory lesions, or larger ‘undergrounder’ pimples are not pickable,” he explained. “Medications will help treat them, and picking will only make it worse.”
With that in mind, I opted out of any spa-like facial treatments, and instead made my way to Skin Laundry, which Zeichner approved of. Their treatments take only 15 minutes (a serious win in my always-overscheduled calendar) and cost $65. Rather than dealing with lots of oils, lotions and those no-go extractions, they use laser and light therapy. After an initial consultation, the challenge was on: I would get two treatments a week for one month, then scale back as needed.
I went into my first session—which was free, BTW—not sure what to expect. I mean, these are lasers. Being used on your face. Call me crazy, but I had no idea if it would hurt or if, god forbid, I would walk away with some ugly scarring.
Zeichner says it’s a legitimate concern, which is why he’s wary of lasers being used in spa locations. A check in the plus column for Skin Laundry: Rather than the services being performed by estheticians, nurse practitioners trained specifically in laser and light therapy administer each treatment. With that fear subsiding, I settled onto the table after a thorough wipe down to remove any makeup. My nurse started with a YAG laser, which their website says “penetrates 2.5 mm below the skin’s surface to deep clean by vaporizing dirt, dead skin cells, debris, and excess oil, killing acne-causing bacteria.”
The laser hurt the most during the first session, but I wouldn’t even describe it as painful. It felt more like pop rocks constantly crackling across my skin. In my problem areas—especially my chin—the crackling got louder, which my nurse said happens when there’s more dirt, dead skin, etc., to kill off. She went over my skin twice with the laser for a thorough deep clean, then applied a water-based lubricant to get ready for step number two.
That involved Intense Pulsed Light, or IPL, which “fades sunspots, helps get rid of acne scars and broken capillaries on the surface of the skin, and destroys light-sensitive acne-causing bacteria,” according to their website. “It also gives overall photo-rejuvenation for smoother brighter skin.”
The light therapy always shocked me the first few times she pressed the button, as it’s a bright red light flashing across your eyes (so I kind of felt like Cyclops from X-Men). But it wasn’t painful in the slightest, and before I knew it my nurse was finished and basically squeegeeing my face to wipe off the lubricant. Then, with a quick swipe of their branded toner and moisturizer with SPF (which is now my go-to), I was headed back to the office.
One major upside was immediately obvious: There was no redness all over my face. Whenever I had scheduled a spa facial in the past, my fair skin suffered from all-over redness after any treatment. But now that wasn’t a problem. Sure, my face was red while the laser was being used, but by the time I left the treatment room that splotchiness had subsided. And by the end of the month, the redness during treatment was even reduced drastically.
The best part, though, was that I started seeing results within the first two weeks of treatment. The amount of breakouts I was experiencing started to reduce, and the scars on my cheek started to fade. Zeichner said I can thank the laser for that, as it improves the appearance of irregular collagen and helps fade scars. I also noticed my face getting less red and splotchy after a workout. Zeichner said that could be due to the light. “IPL can help reduce inflammation in the skin and treat redness in the face,” he explained. “If you have extra redness in the face, it’s because you have an overgrowth of blood vessels supplying more blood flow to the skin. So if you can help eliminate that, you may help reduce some inflammation and of course cosmetically improve the appearance of skin.”
As my month drew to a close, I realized something pretty important: much like everything else in skincare, consistency was key. Every time I went in for an appointment, I noticed less crackling—even in my trouble spots—and if I went longer between treatments, there was a little more noise than usual. Having these regularly scheduled appointments also motivated me in my day-to-day care. Before, I often felt tired after a long day and questioned how much of my skincare routine I wanted to follow. But knowing I was going in for a facial kept me on point, as a small part of me didn’t want to disappoint my nurse—they noticed the results just as much as I did! And all of a sudden, using products became fun. Skin Laundry’s Hydrating Facial Sheet Mask ($48 for 5, sephora.com) became my favorite weeknight activity, and I used Neutrogena’s Light Therapy Acne Mask ($40, ulta.com) whenever I wanted an extra boost.
Now that I’m two months into my new routine—and still getting Skin Laundry facials at least once every two weeks—I’ve noticed a major change in my skin. I no longer wake up with a guaranteed breakout, and I don’t feel forced to put on a face full of makeup before walking out the door. When I’m done with a workout, I’ll still hop in the shower pretty quickly—but I’m not afraid to chat up a fellow Spinner. Best of all, I’ve figured out what works for me. Between the the regular facials and acne-fighting products, I finally have a game plan I can rely on.