The One About Acne

Also mineral SPF for dark skin

Real quick before we talk about zits, I want to point to this IG account by Funmi Monet who is (a) great, and (b) trying out mineral sunscreens. This is important because she’s a (gorgeous) Black woman, and mineral sunscreens are always marketing themselves like “goes on sheer! for all skin tones!” and it is almost always a FILTHY LIE. (Which fyi the whiteness of the product is the fault of the actual materials involved, it’s like trying to make a lotion out of chalk.) Even when they tint it, and have a shade of tint that would theoretically work for a deep skin tone, it often still makes you look like a corpse. For anyone who has sensitive skin, mineral SPF is the way to go, and that’s obviously a hellish predicament if you have dark skin.

Anyway, she tries on sunscreens and has saved these to her IG story highlights, the one called “SPF Try On” and “SPF with BFF” (her BFF has a deeper skin tone than her) (oh and she had her dad try one on too, and he’s adorable) (does anyone else feel weird calling older people “adorable”? like it’s so condescending/infantilizing? I try to refrain because I am Not A Fan but sometimes people seem so sweet that they just make me go “awww” like Funmi’s dad, and I can’t find a better word than “adorable”, I need to start trying out other words, but I digress.)

If you want the bottom line, the new sunscreen by Venus Williams is a MAJOR HIT and it will now be my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a purely mineral sunscreen.

Okay so now for the zits.

According to market research (so I hear), the top two skincare problems that people want help with are acne and wrinkles, so let’s go on and tackle one of them. But also an important thing for me to say is that I have personally never had an acne problem. So I am limited in my knowledge, is what I’m saying. But like with a lot of skincare stuff, I hear things and my brain tucks the info away and that’s why you subscribed to this newsletter. If you have a real acne problem, one that is more problematic than the garden-variety pimples and blackheads that I too experience, then you probably already have your own tailor-made action plan and don’t need much from me here.

One of you came into my inbox recently with acne woes and I answered and I’m just mostly going to paste my response here since honestly my brain is not cooperating with the whole “create content” plan. There is good info here and please always ask for more detail if you need it - I’ll leave the comments open to all. If you have a real Acne Problem, this is for you - but even those of you who, like me, just get an occasional breakout will find some useful stuff in here.


The first thing I’m gonna ask everyone to do is stop thinking of acne as the enemy. The language used in discussing acne is pretty violent (fight pimples! zap zits! eliminate! eradicate!) and we are taught to actually, truly, deeply, madly hate our skin if it’s anything less than crystal clear. This develops early in life, with teenagers cursing their faces and looking for products that will lay waste to all signs of pimples and oil, like they would 100% spread napalm on their face if we’d let them.

My advice is to stop the hate. You don’t have to love your zits with all your heart and swear undying devotion, but it’s far less mentally-fucked-up AND far more productive to think of zits as, like, employee complaints. I tend to think of them as little protests written on my skin, and it’s up to me to meet their demands and improve conditions as best I can - not squeeze them into submission and curse their ancestors and vow revenge.

Stop the violence, is what I’m saying. Skin with pimples is inflamed and therefore, by definition, sensitive skin. As I have said before, treat it like a petulant dauphin and you will get better results.

Double check

Okay I have said this before BUT if it’s chronic and bad and always appearing around your mouth and chin, first you gotta be sure that it's not actually perioral dermatitis. PD is chronic, can flare up periodically over a lifetime, and looks like acne. Google it, browse some pictures, and check with a dermatologist if you think it could be that. If it is, this video might be helpful in terms of treatment.

First Do No Harm

But! Let's assume it's definitely acne. The first thing is to be sure you're treating your whole face right. As mentioned above, skin that has acne is, by definition, sensitive - it's inflamed all the time! That means you have to avoid anything that irritates. So let’s do a quick check of your routine:

Sun protection: You have got to use SPF. You HAVE to. It makes a massive difference, and we have discussed how UV rays are radiation and how radiating your skin is bad bad bad, right? (Hint: YES WE HAVE.) In the evening, take the time to really clean the SPF off your face - this is a common problem, and people will think the SPF is causing clogged pores when really it's just that they didn't get it all off.

Also, wearing a hat/visor or staying in the shade on sunny days helps your skin to stay calm. Don’t discount the value of it. Plus you look fantastic in a floppy big-brimmed hat. And so cute in a ball cap. And a straw hat? C’mon!

Cleanser: It should be something gentle but very very thorough. There's a tendency for acne sufferers to choose products that are very strong, that give a tingling feeling and/or leave your skin feeling tight (equating "tight" with "squeaky clean") and that's the exact opposite of what your skin needs. So many cleansers have mint or menthol in them to give that tingly “fresh” feeling, but that sensation actually means you’ve stimulated your oil glands. Just…ugh. If you need recs, here’s the screed on cleansers. Definitely consider a cleanser with salicylic acid.

To be really thorough at the end of the day, consider doing the double cleanse using an oil or balm for the first cleanse. This really helps to break up SPF (and makeup if you wear it - are any of us routinely bothering with makeup in Pandemicworld?) but if done correctly it also means less irritation, which is what you want.

Exfoliation: Don't use a gritty scrub or even a cloth/tool. Use a good, strong BHA like Paula's Choice 2% BHA. I really can't recommend it highly enough. Azelaic acid is also very worth using in addition to (or instead of) BHA. And an AHA is a smart move, even a nice mild one like mandelic acid. You can try out different exfoliation products over time and find which kind of exfoliation, and how often, works best for you. Here is the very long guide to exfoliation, and its addendum.

Moisturize/hydrate: Find a nice, plain, light moisturizer that your skin likes and don't be afraid to use it regularly. Lots of people with acne hate the feel of well hydrated skin because they associate it with an oily feeling, and prefer the sensation of dryness. But acne is, among other things, a disruption of the skin barrier and that barrier cannot stay healthy if it's not properly hydrated at all times. I recommended plenty of basic moisturizers in the moisturizer newsletter.


First, an overall recommendation to check out Vanessa on this topic. She has an IG story highlight on acne that is full of product reviews. I know she is a HUGE fan of the Peter Thomas Roth AHA/BHA Gel (I think I’m remembering that right) for spot treatment of acne. She actually does have experience with acne (unlike moi), has tried a ton of products, and does the best, most thorough reviews.

Once you have the basics down and definitely need something to target a chronic zit problem, I'd also strongly recommend working a healthy dose of niacinamide into your routine. It’s great for every skin type but especially helps regulate sebum production while also strengthening the skin barrier. The Ordinary has a niacinamide + zinc serum which is a gamechanger for a lot of people, and wonderfully inexpensive. The Inkey List has an affordable one too, and there’s also the cult fave Shark Sauce. There seem to be a lot more products out there lately with niacinamide, at a range of prices, from indie brands to big drugstore names - but whichever you try, just make sure it has at least 5% niacinamide, not less.

It's extremely effective against acne. Adapalene is what’s most commonly used to target acne and it’s available over the counter, at least in the US - look for Differin and La Roche Posay’s Effaclar. Other forms of retinoid - like tretinoin, only available through a dermatologist in the US - also work on acne. I did a newsletter about working it into your routine, because it's a process, but it's a very worthwhile investment of time and effort. Especially considering it tackles the two most common skin issues people worry about, the wrinkles and the zits.

Benzoyl peroxide
Fave of teenagers, destroyer of pillowcases. It just works on chronic, bad acne. Get it in a wash, a gel, a cream - whatever works for you. The nice thing is that it’s cheap and everywhere. One drugstore fave is the Stridex pads in the red box (they apparently have to be the ones in the red box!) but there are a TON of options at the drugstore for this. It works by killing the bacteria that helps to cause pimples, and is generally most effective on the pus-filled kinda inflamed acne (as opposed to simple whiteheads or blackheads.) It's very drying, but can do some real good for spot treatment of breakouts and for long-term care of severely acne-prone skin.

Full disclosure, I don’t know much about it but I hear about it from time to time, from people who have really just the most intransigent acne. It stinks (like literally, it’s smelly) and it is very drying but if your zits are eternal and nonresponsive to other things, then my suggestion is to type “sulphur for acne” into Google and see what you find. It might be an answer for you.

Spot treatment
I swear to god, don’t put toothpaste on your zit, okay? I still see this happening sometimes, as though it’s cutting edge DIY skincare advice and not something I learned at a slumber party in the 70s, ffs. Also, do not follow the ubiquitous advice to dab spots with apple cider vinegar or pure tea tree oil, for that way lies more inflammation.

No, just slap a hydrocolloid patch on there - like the Cosrx master pimple patch. They help most garden variety zits to vanish overnight, it’s like magic. There are other brands besides Cosrx, but just make sure you get hydrocolloid patches, that word should be on the packaging. There are others with dissolving microdart-type medicated spikes (like Zitsticka, and I think Dr Jart has some) that are supposed to work well on more serous zits, including cystic acne. They are expensive, though, and the packaging required to keep them intact before they get to your face is extremely far from eco-friendly, so they are a considerable commitment.

There are probably ten million other spot treatment things out there of varying effectiveness, but honestly the less you mess with a zit once it arrives, the better. It’s much preferable to focus your energy on preventing them. Oh, but also the Aztec Clay mask and the Queen Helene are terrific for industrial oil mop-ups, just don’t overuse them. Like once a week, max, and only if you’re a sebum factory in overdrive.

Random Shit
Here’s where we get into Miscellaneous Shit I Have Heard.

Diet: Anecdotally, there are SO MANY people who report an improvement in acne when they give up dairy. I KNOW. But if you have a real problem, try eliminating milk products from your diet for a few weeks and see what happens. Excessive caffeine can also be a culprit, as can sugar, so if you're drinking tons of coffee every day (or whatever), cut back and see if it helps.

Spearmint: Another weird anecdotal thing is spearmint - either supplements or tea. I have no idea why, but I've heard it too many times to discount it. Just like a couple of cups of spearmint tea every day. You can google and see people talk about it. Sometimes the effect doesn't last forever - like you get a good year out of the spearmint, and then your acne comes back. But sometimes it goes away forever.


  • A clean pillowcase is key. It's so basic but lots of people overlook it. Flip the pillow to the fresh side on the second night, then change the pillowcase every other day.

  • Disinfect your phone like mad. It's a big cause of acne - not because you're holding it to your face, but because it's covered in bacteria, you touch it and then touch your face.

  • Bacne - that’s back acne - is often caused/made worse by your hair conditioner, how it runs down your back when you rinse it out. So just tip your head to the side as you’re rinsing.

Okay, that's all I got. Or at least all I can think of. If you do add anything new to your routine, be sure to do one at a time so you can really assess what works, and so as not to freak out your skin.

Again, the best advice I can give is to be gentle with your skin. Don’t give in to the compulsion to squeeze and pick and scrub and attack when acne appears. It does nothing but traumatize already traumatized skin. Be kind to it and it will be more kind to you.

Over and out,