Throughout my twenties I had the most awful acne along my jawline. I would hide it behind my long hair and was constantly slapping on make-up in a bid to conceal the sore, red bumps beneath. Working in beauty I would ask every skin expert I saw about my problem and, luckily, this scatter gun approach eventually came through for me. A few years ago, I met Kate Kerr, clinical facialist and founder of SkinHQ, who helped me swap oils for the clear skin I so desperately wanted.
Now, when it comes to our complexions there are two types of oil; the sebum we produce and the oils we find in skincare. Neither get glowing reports from Kerr. “The oil produced by our skin is an irritant, it no longer has a function and our bodies have evolved past the point of needing it,” explains Kerr, who links oil production to issues like acne, seborrheic dermatitis and even hyperpigmentation.
“Oils congest the skin, upsetting our own moisturising processes and preventing product penetration,” Kerr tells me. She believes people should ditch oils and moisturisers and instead load up on lightweight serums. And when you think about it, it makes sense. “By using a moisturiser our skin’s surface sends a signal down to its water reservoirs telling them that there is plenty of moisture and to halt production. This makes the skin sluggish and lacking in moisture, so we reach for more moisturiser, thus exacerbating the problem,” says Kerr.
Skin soon becomes dehydrated and produces more sebum in response. Now if your skin isn’t working as efficiently as it should (read: it’s become lazy and reliant on rich creams) dead skin cells will build up preventing the oil from escaping resulting in blackheads, whiteheads and, in my case, full blown acne. “Waking up the skin’s natural moisturising processes helps to balance oil production thus preventing skin congestion and subsequent breakouts,” says Kerr.
So, how do you trigger those natural moisturising processes—essentially your skin’s in-built moisturiser? “Urea, low to medium levels of glycerine, hyaluronic acid and water—these ingredients are part of our skin’s natural moisturising mechanisms and when applied topically they won’t upset the skin’s functionality,” explains Kerr.
During our meeting, Kerr went through the ingredient list of every product I owned before making me ditch anything with oil. She prescribed a routine that would give my skin the wake-up call it needed, along with some rules to follow:
Rule 1: Cleanse AM and PM to remove oil.
Rule 2: Exfoliate daily, to slough away any dead skin cells that could potentially shut the oil in. You can do this with a mechanical scrub or something containing AHAs, known as a chemical exfoliator.
Rule 3: Always use SPF in the morning.
Rule 4: At night apply a retinol-based product. Retinol, a Vitamin A derivative, is a wonder ingredient that does everything from gently exfoliating and repairing the skin’s barrier function, to reducing oil production and tackling pigmentation.
I layered serums instead of relying on rich creams, I looked to hyaluronic acid and Vitamin C in the day and then retinol and hyaluronic acid (again) at night. I followed Kerr’s rules to the letter and within weeks my acne had cleared up. It was a miracle.
Being a beauty editor, it’s hard to avoid oils all the time. I still swerve straight-up oils and rich, oily cleansing balms, but when it comes to other products I always give the contents a once over. On all products the ingredients are listed in order of concentration, so the first makes up the biggest proportion of the contents through to the last which is the least. So, if a product contains an oil quite far down the list then, as long as I’m exfoliating regularly, I know my skin can handle it.
There are experts and editors who will defend oils to the death, but for me giving them up and now using them very sparingly has worked. If you’re experiencing any kind of acne right now, it can’t hurt to streamline your routine, ditch the oils and rich creams and see how you get on. As long as you’re supplementing with those hydrating ingredients I can all but guarantee it will help.
Amy Lawrenson is Editorial Director of beauty and wellness website Byrdie.co.uk.