The year was 2017, I was 22, and IMO, finally safe from the hormonal wreckage of acne-filled puberty and teenagehood. Aside from the occasional breakout here and there, I had safely sailed into adulthood with surprisingly clear skin. But suddenly, amidst my new life of exciting ~adulting~ things, like working at my first corporate job and moving into my first apartment, my face exploded with acne. I’m talkin’ painful, throbbing, always-leaves-a-scar acne. I was so perplexed. Now? After all these years? As an adult? why?!
I spent months trying different skincare routines and brands (including “sworn-by” products from No. 7, Rodan + Fields, and Clinique, plus every drugstore acne face wash in existence). I meditated until my brain turned to mush. I said affirmations into my mirror every morning. I stopped wearing makeup to work, because it only seemed to make my skin worse (although not wearing makeup didn’t make it better either). In the end, nothing worked, and I felt hopeless—I really understood the intense impact acne can have on mental health.
The DIY Skincare
My bad year of acne happened to collide with my first attempt at living a low-waste and clean beauty-based lifestyle. As I scrolled through another endless Pinterest list of eco-friendly projects, I came across a recipe for a DIY moisturizer and a cleanser. Having tried everything else I could think of for my skin, I clicked on it, figuring if I was going to use products that had seemingly no positive effect on my skin, I’d rather make them myself instead of wasting another $25 on something store -bought.
So I headed to the local health-food store to get my ingredients for the moisturizer (shea butter, coconut oil, jojoba oil, vitamin E oil, carrot seed oil, and tea tree oil) and the cleanser (honey, castile soap, jojoba oil, tea tree oil, and lavender oil). I mixed them in my kitchen, feeling like a mad scientist, until I had a somewhat lumpy bowl of white moisturizer in front of me and a milky brown cleanser (I know, yum).
I assumed nothing would change, except maybe my face would be extra-greasy from all these oily ingredients. But after a week of cleansing and moisturizing with my two DIY concoctions, my skin started to magically clear up† Knowing what I know now about these ingredients—like how coconut oil can be majorly pore-clogging and essential oils can be super irritating—I’m shocked I didn’t make things much, much worse. But as it turns out, I accidentally concocted the perfect routine for my acne?
“When we look at all the ingredients in your DIY skincare routine, the overarching pattern is that all the ingredients have anti-inflammatory properties,” says dermatologist Joyce Imahiyerobo-IpMD, CEO of Vibrant Dermatology in Boston, MA. Obviously, not as effective as hydrocortisone cream or prescription anti-inflammatories, but still—surprisingly good for some kitchen staples.
Not only that, but both of my recipes contained tea tree oil, which “targets acne-causing bacteria called Cutibacterium acnes, or C. acnes,” says dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip, along with a bunch of other MVP ingredients, like honey (anti-inflammatory) and carrot seed and vitamin E oils (antioxidant-like properties). Even coconut oil—enemy #1 for most people’s skin—seemed to have a positive effect on my acne-causing bacteria, most likely due to its high lauric acid content.
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Looking back, it’s pretty clear that I had a major case of beginner’s luck. All the things I tried happened to be exactly what my face needed. but if I could go back, the first thing I would do is to go to a dermatologist (I didn’t know about virtual derm appointments at the time). Not only can a dermatologist immediately diagnose your issues and set you up with a proper skincare regimen (not all acne is the same—hi, fungal acne—and can rebel with at-home treatments), but it’ll also save you from a ton of trial-and-error. Which brings us to…
†There are several potential risks of using these products in a DIY skincare routine,says Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. “First, many essential oils can cause contact allergies or severe rashes on the skin if they are not properly diluted.” And, FYI, a ton of DIY skincare recipes on the internet are straight-up wrong about proper dilution, since it’s not an exact science (at least, not for us regular folks). So basically, you’re playing with fire when you try to mess with essential oils.
Second issue? “For those with oily, acne-prone skin, many of these oils may be pore-clogging,” says Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. Again, I was lucky here, but would I recommend someone else slather their breakouts in coconut oil? Hell no, especially knowing what I know now in my career. There’s also hygienic risks, Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip says, like the fact that DIY products don’t contain the preservatives that store-bought products have, which prevent bacteria from growing and creating an opportunity for skin infections.
And again—just because something looks like acne, it doesn’t mean it actually is. “Sometimes, other skin conditions can have acne-like symptoms, but it’s not actually acne,” says Naana BoakyeMD, dermatologist and owner of Mountains Dermatology at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. “So then you’re using these DIY products, and it’s not helping, and it might actually be making it worse.”
Not good, right? So while DIY products worked out well for me, I had very little information, and it could have gone way worse. “With so many amazing acne products on the market, I generally don’t recommend DIY acne treatments,” says dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. “A number of products have been developed that incorporate these natural acne fighters at concentrations that are safe for the skin.”
If you’re set on making your own products like me, Dr. Boakye says you can still go that route—but get a dermatologist involved. “You can tell them you’re considering DIY products, and they can help you pick certain products that fit your needs or guide you in the right direction,” she says.
FWIW, here are the exact recipes I used for myself. But be sure to talk to a dermatologist first and patch-test anything you want to try on your arm or neck and wait a full 24 hours first, to see if you have a reaction.
✨ My DIY cleanser recipe:
- 1/3 cup of castile soap
- 1/3 cup of raw honey
- 3 tbsp of distilled or boiled water
- 1 tsp of jojoba oil
- 1 tsp of tea tree oil
- 1 tsp lavender oil (optional)
- Add all the ingredients to a medium-sized bowl and mix throughly. Then pour the mixture into a small spray bottle (I used a funnel to avoid spilling), and shake before each use, since the oils tend to separate.
✨ My DIY moisturizer recipe:
- Add all the ingredients to a medium-sized bowl and whisk them together vigorously. Note: An electric mixer works best to break up any chunks of coconut oil, but whisking manually works too.
And again, don’t just assume that these recipes will work for your skin; definitely talk to a doctor first about your skin concerns before you dive in. And be patient with yourself and your skincare. Because even if the new skincare routine your derm gives you doesn’t show results instantly, Dr. Boakye says, it doesn’t mean it won’t start working, it just takes time.
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