Olivia Muenter
Updated Mar 25, 2020 @ 10:59 am
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Olivia Muenter

Welcome to The Spot, a monthly column tackling acne and our relationships to it. We’re asking women how they approach blemishes and consulting with skincare experts to find out what really works.

For most of my life, I struggled with cystic acne—though it took me a long time to realize that’s what it actually was. For a while, I chalked up the monthly, extremely painful (and, though this may be TMI, impossible to pop) pimples to run-of-the-mill acne. I figured that getting the occasional nightmare pimple is something that everyone went through. My cystic acne was frustrating, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Most months, pimples popped up right before I got my period and stuck around for about a week (or longer, if I picked at them). I never considered that this was anything out of the ordinary, though, and thus never saw a dermatologist. It wasn’t until I hit a particularly stressful time in my life about a year ago that I realized that something had to change when it came to my skin.

One year ago, I was in the process of quitting my job, starting a new freelance career, moving to a different city, and planning a wedding all at once. I was anxious, terrified of change, and overwhelmed—and my skin knew it. For about a month, I had a series of cystic breakouts that only seemed to get worse. For weeks, a new pimple (or group of pimples) seemed to form at the exact second an old one faded. Even as time passed and my stress subsided, the breakouts stuck around, though they weren’t quite as severe as before. I gave myself a few weeks to test out new products to see if anything helped. Luckily, I found a game-changing toner (Nuria Pore Minimizer Toner) that calmed and soothed old breakouts and seemed to prevent new ones. It was the one thing that seemed to keep my skin under control before and during my period, but I was still getting the cystic breakouts every now and then during the rest of the month. Then, mostly by accident, I stopped washing my face.

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I had run out of cleanser and was dragging my feet when it came to replacing it. Because I had no other option, I started using micellar water to remove my makeup and water to wash my face after. And that was it. I expected my face to erupt with acne shortly after, but a week later, my skin was still okay. Three weeks after that, I noticed I hadn’t had any cysts at all. Not a single one. Now, it’s been a year since I’ve used any sort of cleanser on my face and I can count the number of cystic acne spots I’ve had on one hand.

I no longer worry about waking up with a massive, painful breakout that will stick around for days or weeks—even when I’m stressed. I grew up thinking that, to make my skin as “clean” as possible, it had to feel tight. As a pre-teen, I would use those round, stinging face pads until my face felt raw; later, I would only use face products that had the most salicylic acid possible. These days, I am much more concerned with having skin that feels hydrated, dewy, and, above all, healthy. As it turns out, that doesn’t mean using a salicylic acid-filled cleanser every day. According to Maggie Kober, M.D., a dermatologist with Apostrophe (a skin care service that connects people to board-certified dermatologists online), this actually isn’t that shocking—especially if I was using the wrong cleanser or cleansing too harshly.

“If your skin improved after stopping cleansers, it may mean that your previous cleanser was too harsh,” Dr. Kober says. “Certain cleansers strip away the natural skin barrier, and this actually makes skin more susceptible to acne and irritation. Over-exfoliating can also leave skin inflamed.”

As Dr. Kober points out, my experience with quitting cleanser won’t be everyone’s experience with cleanser. So if you’re considering completely going cold turkey like I did, it might be worth simply changing cleansers first (Dr. Kober suggests a “gentle, pH-balanced” option) and going from there. And, hey—if you do end up going cold turkey and like the results, you might even save some money on your skin care routine in the long run, too.