Adult-onset acne has to be the worst trade deal in the history of trade deals. It’s like…congrats on having to pay for health insurance, here’s a string of jawline acne the size of the Hawaiian Islands to go with it. My friends hated me in high school because I maintained perfectly clear, smooth skin despite the fact that I used Dial hand soap as face wash for four years (don’t do this), but now in my 20s, my skin hasn’t been as good to me.
Right after I graduated from college in May 2018 I moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City, which, if you haven’t heard, is very much full of garbage. Even though it’s a ~magical utopia~ and I love every second of living here…everything is dirty, including the air. Think you want to take a nice stroll down Fifth Avenue in the peak of August? Think again…your sweaty face will become a magnet for grime. On top of getting used to the new levels of gross in the air, I was also dealing with the added stress of graduating from college, interviewing for my dream gig, getting said dream gig, and moving to New York City all within a two week span. (And fine, I was eating a lot of takeout. Sue me!) My skin was less than thrilled, to say the least.
My skin on June 23, one week after moving to NYC.
I did everything the internet told me to do to help combat the breakouts. I removed sugar and dairy from my diet. I washed my face religiously with salicylic acid cleansers day and night. I double cleansed with exfoliating scrubs. I slathered on benozyl peroxide like I was icing a cake. And still, my breakouts didn’t budge. In fact, things got worse.
Tired, desperate, and life clearly over, I made a trip to the dermatologist. And as it turned out, I was my won worst enemy all along. My acne was like the She-Wolf from Dante’s Inferno—the more I treated it, the more inflamed it got. The solution? Pretty simple. Per my derm, I needed to be more gentle.
“The main problem is the gritty scrubs you’re using. Toss all of your scrubs,” my dermatologist over at Manhattan Dermatology explained. “Anything that feels remotely like sandpaper is too rough for your sensitive skin. It’s just going to dry you out and inflame your acne. And, while you’re at it, let’s ditch any face wash with an acid in it. Leave the salicylic acid and the benzoyl peroxide to the spot treatments, which should be exactly that. A spot treatment you use 1-2 times a week. “
I was told to swap my scrubs for chemical exfoliators, i.e., serums with active ingredients that gently dissolve excess oil and dead skin cells. In theory, swapping the physical exfoliators for their chemical cousins (and switching to a gentler cleanser) would bring down my inflammation. Bonus: My skin would be more responsive to spot treatments down the road since using a daily cleanser with acne medication builds your tolerance to its potent ingredients. (Think of it like alcohol…the less you drink it, the less it takes to get you drunk when you do decide to ball out.) The only caveat: my dermatologist insisted I stick to one brand.
“When it comes to these resurfacing treatments, you want to follow the instructions exactly and stick to one brand’s suggested regiment,” she explained. “When a skincare line offers a nightly resurfacing serum, that same brand’s morning serum is going to be the best partner. Some chemical exfoliators are stronger than others, which means your skin needs more soothing ingredients—like Vitamin C—in the morning. Staying within one brand offers the most perfect balance possible. Using a resurfacing serum at night from one brand and following up with a morning serum from another in the morning is like wearing mismatched socks.”
Prior to my talk with my derm, I’d only ever seen chemical exfoliation in action on Instagram. The countless beauty editors I follow swear by chemical resurfacing treatments, and one brand in particular came to memory: Drunk Elephant. The brand is famous on the ‘gram because 1) its Insta-worthy, minimalist packaging and 2) its chemical resurfacing serums that load up on the potent ingredients and skip out on the perfumes and dyes. Jawline ablaze with fresh new whiteheads joining in on the acne party, I decided to give the brand a go.
I started out with the basics: a cleanser, a morning serum, a nightly resurfacing serum (the chemical exfoliator my derm had raved about), and a moisturizer. Unfortunately I truly am this extra, and these are “the basics” to me. Here’s a breakdown of the exact products I used, and when.
1) I wash my face with warm (not hot) water and Drunk Elephant’s Beste No. 9 Jelly Cleanser, rubbing the product onto my face in circular motions until it’s nice and foamy.
2) Next, I dry my face completely with a clean, microfiber towel (which is gentler than a wash cloth).
3) After that, I apply Drunk Elephant’s C-Firma Day Serum to my face and neck using upward motions. I let that my skin soak that up while I make coffee and brush my teeth.
4) Once my skin has completely absorbed the C-Firma Day Serum, I use a moisturizing face sunscreen as primer for my makeup to seal the deal (anything oil-free with SPF 30+ will be your new best friend, but I use Coola’s Sun Silk Drops).
1) At night, I start by removing my makeup and cleansing my face with warm water and Drunk Elephant’s jelly cleanser, just like I did in the morning. The jelly texture melts my makeup away with ease, so I don’t use any makeup remover.
2) I dry my face completely with the same microfiber towel from the morning (I start with a fresh one each day), and then it’s serum time again.
3) I follow up with another Drunk Elephant serum, but at night, I substitute the day serum for T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum—this one’s the chemical exfoliator. I don’t want to say this stings, but the resurfacing acids do make your skin tingle. I let that seep into my skin while I put on my pajamas, get a cup of water that I won’t drink, and waste time blabbing to my roommate about the latest Meghan Markle moment. Then, I climb into bed.
4) I keep my nightly moisturizer (Drunk Elephant’sProtini Polypeptide Cream) on my nightstand so it’s impossible to forget to apply after the DE night serum dries (plus, it feels so luxurious putting on face cream while I’m nestled into bed).
The final results
I followed this routine religiously for two weeks and, drum roll please, my skin drastically improved! My cluster breakout went from three almost dime-sized lumps along my jawline to one flattened red spot, which completely disappeared the following week (with no signs of new breakouts popping up!).
My skin exactly two weeks after starting Drunk Elephant.
Now in October, more than three full months into my Drunk Elephant routine, my skin is free of breakouts, visibly brighter in tone, and noticeably smoother. My makeup blends seamlessly into my bump-free, resurfaced skin thanks to the exfoliating night serum and the brand’s Vitamin C day serum lightened my acne scars by at least three shades.
My skin today—no filter, no foundation. Just concealer under my eyes and a touch of bronzer.
So why did it work?
The Jelly No. 9 Cleanser
Part of the reason why my jawline breakout took up so much…surface area is because the harsh cleanser I was using dried the skin around the breakout, making the surrounding area peel and appear reddish in tone. Drunk Elephant’s jelly texture was much gentler, and my skin responded beautifully.
The C-Firma Day Serum
Vitamin C is a key ingredient when it comes to brightening the skin’s overall tone and works to plump the skin, making it appear smoother and more moisturized. In my case, C-Firma Day Serum’s potent Vitamin C helped to lighten acne scars from where I popped pimples around my jawline and all over my face. Drunk Elephant’s specific formulation also has what the brand calls a “reservoir effect,” meaning it stays active on the skin for up to 72 hours (even after you wash your face).
The T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
This gel-like formula is seriously high-tech. AHA and BHA acids chemically exfoliate the top layer of the skin (the word “chemically” sounds harsh, but this is way more gentle than a scrub), which not only brings newer, softer skin to the surface, but clears away dead skin so spot treatments can make a beeline for your pores.
The Protini Polypeptide Cream
In my humble opinion, most moisturizers do the trick just fine as a nightcap (in the morning, you want to make sure you’re using something with SPF). But, if acne caused by excess oil is a concern for you, this is one of those luxurious-feeling lightweight moisturizers that leans more toward a gel than a cream. It’s fast-absorbing and packed with skin-restoring proteins your skin will drink up, but there are plenty of more cost-effective options that do the trick just fine. The power is in the serums!
Shop more of Drunk Elephant’s beloved products below.