I like to think that I’m a completely different person than I was as a teenager. I no longer have braces, I’ve moved on from drinking neon-green Sour Puss apple liqueur at parties and my wardrobe now extends beyond Forever 21 (RIP) and Garage. One thing, however, that has been consistent from my teen years into adulthood is my acne.
According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, most teens will experience acne to some degree. Hi, it me. Starting around 12, my skin was bad enough that I ended up using prescription lotions throughout high school and into university. While my face did somewhat clear in my early 20s, I experienced an unwelcome resurgence of breakouts as I neared 30. During a recent trip to the California headquarters of skincare company Rodan + Fields (which was paid for by the brand), I learned that what I am experiencing are the *joys* of adult acne—a condition that affects an estimated 20 to 30% of adults between the ages 20 and 40, and is most common in women. Again, hi, it me.
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“The actual condition is the same, there’s no difference between teen acne and adult acne, except the skin in which the acne occurs,” says Tim Falla, Rodan + Fields’ Chief Scientific Officer. He explains that when treating adult acne, there are different challenges to take into account because, for instance, adults have more dead skin cells and less oily skin than teens. Our skin has also experienced more (i.e. aged), meaning it may have sun damage, loss of elasticity and increased sensitivity. As a result, steps like exfoliating and hydration are particularly important when treating adult acne.
While I’ve tried many a zit cream and even my grandmother’s tip of using toothpaste to combat visible pimples, Falla says that spot treatments don’t actually help improve your skin. “If you just treat the spot that you can see, you’re not doing anything about prevention. You’re playing Wack-A-Mole.”
With that in mind, Rodan + Fields—created by Dr. Katie Rodan and Dr. Kathy Fields, the inventors of bestselling over-the-counter teen acne solution Proactiv—is looking to switch up the skincare game for people with adult acne with their Unblemish regimen, which was launched in February. The four-step line ($216, rodanandfields.com) is specifically designed for those with adult acne and promises a clearer, healthier, younger-looking complexion.
Without getting too deep into the science, this new line of Rodan + Fields products began with research on the skin microbiome, which Falla describes as “the bacterial makeup of your skin.” He explains that their in-house testing showed that it’s specifically the lack of oxygen in blocked pores that prompts acne bacteria (i.e. P. acnes) to freak out and cause an inflammatory response—i.e. a big ol’ zit. In response, the new Rodan + Fields line, and the teen line, Spotless, are designed to deliver acne-fighting benzoyl peroxide and oxygen into pores, preventing those P. acnes from causing breakouts. Unblemish (the adult line of products), also includes ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and Vitamin C, intended to help soothe and brighten adult skin and combat signs of aging.
So my adult acne breakouts and I put Rodan + Fields’ Unblemish regimen to the test.
Here’s what happened:
Starting the Unblemish regimen
My typical skincare routine involves a gentle cleanser, a towel and a moisturizer. Sometimes, I throw in a scrub for good measure. To test the Rodan + Fields’ Unblemish method, my routine had to become decidedly more involved. The four-step skincare line begins with an exfoliating acne wash followed by a clarifying toner, dual-pump acne treatment and ends with a lotion containing SPF. The instructions provide a detailed calendar for how to introduce your skin to these products, initially using the products every other morning and building up to eventually using it twice a day by week four. A Rodan + Fields spokesperson explains the reason for this gradual approach is to allow for the skin to adjust to the ingredients. They also recommend using a gentle cleanser and moisturizer for the first three weeks when not using Unblemish, and avoiding additional exfoliating products, like washcloths or mechanical brushes.
I found the products easy and enjoyable to use. The purple exfoliating acne wash contains salicylic acid and small exfoliants to help remove dead skin, which is particularly helpful for aging skin. A lot of scrubs and exfoliants claim to be gentle enough for daily use, but this one truly lives up to that promise being delicate enough that I could use it twice daily without issue. Plus it smells like a spa. The next step, the clarifying toner, further helps clear any dead skin cells. It contains hyaluronic acid to firm skin, alpha-hydroxy acids to clear pores and brighten skin tone, and green tea, witch hazel and aloe to calm and soothe the skin. I applied it with a reusable wipe and found that like many acne products, it tingled, but not in the way that say an OXY pad does, but in a “I feel fresh and clean, but this doesn’t hurt” kind of way. Then, it’s onto the big guns, the intensive active treatment that comes in a dual pump container. Falla explains that this step mixes 2.5% benzoyl peroxide with a solution that helps drive these ingredients into the pores, rather than have the solution sit on the surface of the skin. The final product is a lotion that promises to reduce the appearance of oiliness and protect against UVA and UVB rays with SPF 20. It also contains Vitamin C, intended to brighten the complexion over time.
One month later…
Rodan + Fields, which sells products through their website and independent consultants, conducted an 8-week U.S. clinical trial where 72% of subjects reported a visible improvement in their skin after one week, and 94% saw an improvement after four weeks. While I personally didn’t end up looking JLo-level flawless after four weeks, I did notice that my skin felt smoother, the size and visibility of my pores on my cheeks and nose decreased. I still had pimples, but they were not as frequent or large and the zits that did pop up, primarily on my on my chin and jawline, didn’t seem to have the same staying power as before. Also, compared with other acne products I’ve used, each step of Unblemish was very gentle and this line of products didn’t dry out my skin the way other cleansers or regimens have in the past.
The SPF lotion worked wonders at mattifying my super-oily skin—seriously, I’m typically an oil slick by the end of the day—and basically replaced my need for a primer. However, on its own, I found that the lotion gave me a somewhat pallid appearance (something I’ve often experienced from sunscreens), so I had to layer it with full-face foundation.
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Sumita Butani, vice president of product development, explains that the Unblemish lotion is a mineral-based sunscreen, which is why it is more visible. “Mineral sunscreens are physical sunscreens that sit on top of skin to deflect the UVA/UVB rays,” Butani tells me, adding that the mineral sunscreens are well suited for mattifying skin. “They are better for those with sensitive and acne-prone skin. However, due to the mineral nature of the sunscreen agents, they tend to leave a cast.”
According to Rodan + Fields, the Unblemish regimen will continue to improve the skin’s appearance with regular use for three months. After my one-month trial, I kept using the regimen and my skin continued to clear. So, while the dramatic before-and-after pics make it seem like a quick fix, it seems with Rodan + Fields’ Unblemish, patience is part of the solution.