A Letter from Europe: Neige's Acne-Healing Journey
Some of you remember Neige, whom we introduced in a past newsletter and in a blog post, a discerning and thoughtful European woman who loves artisanal skincare and who is often compelled to render her favorite maker's potions in ink and watercolor on paper. This time we asked Neige to tell us the long story. About her struggles with acne and acne scars, about the food and lifestyle adjustments she has made along the way in hopes of clearing up her skin–things I had glimpsed from her Instagram posts. Read on and tell us you have learned something new, and that you find it easier to accept your skin wherever it is now.
My Skin-Healing Journey
My skin remained in relatively good shape during my teenage years, so I was completely taken aback when I started suffering from acne in my early twenties. So much so that for some time I didn't do anything about it, thinking the issue would solve itself. When I realized things were not improving, I first turned to French pharmacy creams, which didn't make any difference. I then consulted a dermatologist, who put me on antibiotics for several months. Of course, as soon as the treatment ended, the acne came back. Not knowing what to do, I temporarily gave up and went through a rather "Spartan" phase. Having noticed that Parisian tap water didn't suit my sensitive skin, I decided a water-free routine was probably better. I switched to micellar water, which I would meticulously rub on my face with a non-organic cotton pad and would follow with a few drops of highly synthetic moisturizer, when I remembered to. Needless to say, things did not improve much with such a routine!
Having been raised in a relatively "alternative" household, I then figured natural remedies could be the answer to my issue, and began a long phase of unfortunate experiments. I initially tried products from the few natural skincare brands available at that time, without any luck (there wasn't anything tailored to the needs of acne-prone skin back then). Then I tried things like green clay masks, followed by nothing(!), which left my skin raw and red. I also researched essential oils, and went on to apply them to my spots undiluted, thinking it would make them vanish. Of course, it only irritated my skin more. Noticing that essential oils were not helping, I carried on with my research and discovered Manuka honey. With its antibacterial and healing properties, it seemed like the perfect fit for me. Never one to do things by halves, I got the most potent I could find and started to do pure Manuka honey masks twice a day, sometimes for up to an hour. Unsurprisingly, after some time, I began to suffer from rashes and irritation and had to discontinue my masking routine. The impact on my skin was so great that to this day I still have to be careful not to use products containing honey for too long.
Sometime in 2014 I stumbled upon an article about a green beauty brand, and something instantly clicked. Suddenly, I became aware that I was never going to be able to heal my skin by being at war with it. A turning point was understanding the connection between inflammation and acne, and I started researching and reading as much as I could. At that point it was still difficult to find most of the green beauty brands in Europe, but after some time I did manage to get my hands on a few products. When I received the first little bottle, I felt like I was holding a treasure. The scent was delightful, the color seemed to radiate sunlight, and the initial results blew me away. In just a few days, my skin looked completely different. The redness, rashes, and dry patches started to go away, and the acne scars began to fade. I couldn't believe it! I started doing mental calculations: Just a few weeks more and my skin would finally be porcelain-like again! Of course, I was underestimating the complexity of the issue I was dealing with.
After these initial good results, I couldn't help but feel disappointed to see that, while my skin was in much better shape, its issues had not been cured yet. As a consequence, I finally began paying attention to the different factors that were affecting my skin. One of the most obvious things was makeup. In order to cover spots and scars, I would use foundation, which would in turn make me break out. The first thing I did was switch from a conventional liquid foundation to a clean one, which unfortunately didn't make much of a difference. I then started using mineral foundation and saw some improvements, but not enough for daily use. So I had to get used to going makeup free. It was an interesting exercise, which touched on deeper issues such as my self-confidence, sense of worth, and sense of being identified by my appearance. I also began identifying ingredients that my skin reacted to, both positively and negatively: For instance, I quickly noticed that big concentrations of coconut oil and shea butter simply didn't work for me, while turmeric and aloe seemed to be beneficial.
It was also at that time that I started to make bigger lifestyle changes. Having read that gluten could aggravate skin issues such as acne, I decided to cut it out of my diet. The results were almost immediate: I felt lighter after meals, felt much more energetic, and my skin looked better. But while the improvement was unmistakable, there was still a long way to go. I was already a vegetarian and had cut alcohol out of my diet years before, so the next potential culprit on my list was dairy. This one sounds easy on paper, but having been born and raised in France, bread and cheese were some of my favorite comfort foods. Giving up both was a big sacrifice, but I managed it little by little. We probably all know that our relationships to food have an emotional component, but this particular phase made it even more obvious to me. It taught me to notice the cravings and dig deeper to see what was making me look for comfort in that particular moment. This in turn helped me to become more attentive to my inner state.
Little did I know that I was about to face another challenge! Homemade pies and pastries are inextricably linked to many of my childhood memories. I must have been around two years old when I started helping my mother to bake cakes, and had kept on baking since then. While I didn't eat sweets on a daily basis, nor in big quantities, I did eat them regularly enough that cutting refined sugars out of my diet took some getting used to.
By that point, my skin had begun to get much better. I still had spots, but fewer than before, and aside from the blemishes, my skin looked much healthier. But even more importantly, some health issues I had been dealing with had disappeared thanks to the changes in my diet. I felt healthier and more in tune with my body, to the point that I was able to tell after just a few bites if my body was going to react badly to a certain dish. For instance, it quickly became clear that whenever I ate out, heavily fried foods did not agree with me, but I had no problem with them when I cooked them myself.
I thought I had done all I could regarding diet adjustments, so I carried on like this for some time. Then a few months ago someone suggested I try a soy-free diet. As surprising as it might sound, it had never occurred to me that soy could be a trigger. I diligently cut it out of my diet and was amazed by the results: no more post-meal somnolence, and a significant decrease in breakouts.
Another aspect I had never really considered was the quantity of food I ate, until, due to some benign health troubles, I had to spend a whole day without ingesting anything other than water. When I looked at myself in the mirror the next day, I was stunned to see that my skin was flawless. Fasting is something serious, and it obviously isn't a way to treat skin concerns, but it made me want to investigate the connection between food intake and skin. I soon realized that whenever I really overate—which I did out of nervousness most of the time—I tended to break out the next day. (Just a side note here: I love cooking and eating tasty food, so I happily overeat from time to time if I feel like it. I simply found it very interesting to discover how one thing impacted the other.) Having read that chlorella was supposed to support the liver and the digestive system, I decided to give it a try, too, and like many things I did in order to heal my skin, it turned out to be extremely beneficial for my health in general.
While food proved to be a key factor in my skin issues, I discovered that there was another crucial element I had to consider as well: sleep. Despite my clean diet and extensive skincare routine, I soon found out that none of it was enough if I was lacking sleep. As a matter of fact, lack of sleep seemed to have an even greater impact on my skin than inadequate foods. In our fast-paced world, this has been the most difficult thing to maintain.
It has been four years since I started to use green beauty products, and what I have discovered throughout this healing journey is that lifestyle changes are as important as the right routine. When one aspect is unbalanced, it quickly becomes noticeable on my face. My skin is quite picky, so I am very careful about which products I use, having learned the hard way that the wrong products can wreak havoc on my face. I usually research extensively before starting to use something: I investigate the ingredients one by one and often contact the brand founder to get recommendations or to ask specific questions. I tend to prefer "mainly botanical" products (by which I mean products that do not include synthetic ingredients) that are made of organic or responsibly wildcrafted ingredients and produced in small batches, because I have noticed that these are the products that seem to benefit my skin the most. Aside from the positive impact on my skin, becoming aware of all the processes that go into making a truly natural product has been so fascinating that I don't think I could ever go back to conventional skincare. And I love the fact that by purchasing such products, I am also supporting small businesses that are committed to practices that matter to me (for instance, no animal testing, fair trade production, and women’s empowerment).
Since I first started implementing all these changes, the way my skin looks has improved tremendously. I have many fewer spots, and those I do have are usually quite small, which is a welcome change as I used to suffer from cystic acne. But while my skin is much healthier than it used to be, it still isn't perfect. It still doesn't match the unrealistic ideals we are fed through advertisements, commercials, and social media posts on a daily basis, and it probably never will. This used to bother me, but somehow I've learned to accept it. I do think it would be very beneficial if we could come to see healthy skin as the goal, instead of viewing poreless, wrinkleless, porcelain-like skin as the ideal. Most women, even those genetically blessed with outstanding complexions, break out from time to time, yet that is never, ever shown in any media.
I also find it interesting that spots are seen as "blemishes": While they are definitely not enjoyable, I do have to acknowledge how much I have learned thanks to these red dots on my face. My body seems to work in such ways that any imbalance will show up as a spot. It is both frustrating and incredibly helpful, as it makes it impossible for me to overlook it when something is off balance. While subtler signals might go unnoticed, or be easy to ignore, these warning signs are so obvious that it forces me to pay attention. Without these persistent red dots, I probably would have never embarked on the healing journey that ended up improving my health and teaching me how to listen to my own body.