Beauty wise, there are certain things that have always eluded me, like the successful achievement and retention of a cowlick-free head of hair (how on earth do you get your hair part to not snake its way down the back of your head? If you know, email me!)
Great skin, however, has not. Maybe it’s genetics or maybe cleansing and moisturing my face twice daily is the only piece of advice my mother's given me that I've unfailingly followed since I was 13, but I’ve never really had to worry about open pores, blackheads, or zits.
All of that changed overnight last year, when my skin went through some sort of weird identity crisis and decided to lash out at me (me, who’s never, not once, gone to bed without taking all my makeup off) by sending a barrage of angry red zits my way, all concentrated on the left side of my face.
There’s little that can test your idea of vanity with more ferocity than a good old fashioned breakout. Besides, the irony of being a beauty editor with the oldest beauty gripe in the book was not lost on me. Out came all the zit-zapping, skin-plumbing, deep cleansing remedies I could get my hands on, which only left me with a bathroom shelf that looked like it was straight out of a pharmacy, even more irritated skin, and a new zit about every other day. Good times!
Then a friend recommended I visit Dr. Bryan Nobbay, a dermatologist who had diagnosed her mother’s skin cancer at a mercifully early stage last year.
She helped me make my decision with the very convincing “If anyone can fix your skin, it’s him." So I made the appointment and, one afternoon about six months ago, showed up at his office with a large travel pouch filled with all the skincare products I’d been using at the time, which we’ll round off to, oh, say about twenty. Desperate times, desperate measures and all that.
“You’re nuts,” was his initial diagnosis. “Nobody needs to be using these many products on their skin. It’s no wonder it’s acting out – it’s crying out for help!” He then proceeded to enact a story in which my skin played a starring role as a damsel in distress, while I was the evil villain inflicting torture upon it by periodically extending and then taking away its water supply, his analogy for the havoc my self-diagnosed salicylic / glycolic / lactic acid-heavy regime was wreaking upon it. Underneath all the dramatics (never have I met a doctor more deserving of his own reality show), he had a point.
Dr. Nobbay’s first step: paring my skincare regime down to soap and water only, which was a bit of a tough pill to swallow. No sunscreen? Surely that goes against everything every dermatologist believes in? Not when your skin is in a state of crisis, as it turns out.
Next, he said that considering the placement of the acne (on the left side of my face, where my hair falls, and a smattering on my upper back – bacne! The horror.), the real culprit might be my hair care products.
This was interesting; in all my research about what might be causing my skin to freak out, I never considered that it might’ve had anything to do with my hair, of all things.
Still, I was willing to give anything Dr. Nobbay said a shot, and so for the first phase of figuring out the cause by elimination, I went cleanser, moisturiser, sunscreen, serum and makeup free for two weeks. You can probably guess what happened next – my skin reacted rather well to the new stripped down, bare bones regime. My pores started looking smaller and my face looked calmer overall, but the acne still didn’t stop – it just slowed down a bit.
Two weeks later, Dr. Nobbay, skincare investigator at large, decided that it was almost definitely my hair care products that were causing the acne. Why they’d suddenly started disagreeing with my skin is anyone’s guess – hormones are shifty things, and can often cause you to react to things that you were perfectly fine with earlier – and so we zeroed in on my longstanding love for leave in hair treatments.
I’ve always been partial to a good deep conditioner but turns out most conditioners, masks and serums, whether leave-in or otherwise, are pretty heavy on comedogenic, or pore-clogging, ingredients. The worst offender? Cetearyl alcohol. I checked my erstwhile favourite hair mask and sure enough, there it was, second on the list of ingredients. Note: the higher up an ingredient appears on the list, the stronger its concentration.
Dr. Nobbay’s advice? Switch to shampoo only. This was near unthinkable at the time – I’d just bleached my hair white, was considering dyeing it pink, and surely that messing around meant that I’d have to up the ante on my hair maintenance?
No go. Instead, he told me to zero in on the most nourishing shampoo I could find, one that was specially formulated for dry, nuclear level damaged hair, and to use just that.
I’ll be honest – I’ve never been good at doing what I’ve been told. Just ask my mother, and every teacher I’ve ever had since kindergarten. I wanted to fix my skin, sure, but I didn't want to choose between great skin and great hair.
So I listened to Dr. Nobbay’s advice – at first. I bought French hair care brand Klorane’s famous Mango Butter Shampoo online at Escentual, and started using it to the exclusion of all else. Turns out it really is surprisingly good at nourishing all types of damaged hair, even the kind that’s been bleached to within an inch of its life, and does just what it says on the bottle. Shiny hair? Check. Soft hair? Check check. Colour me impressed! (Then shoot me for the cliché.)
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere out there lay an as yet unbeknownst to me deep conditioner which would be the one – a repairing, nourishing formula that was also willing to get along with my skin, or at least try.
I experimented, albeit cautiously, with several possible matches, including loads of high end ones that smelled like lavender and fresh laundry and old timey perfume, but no dice; after each try, the telltale clogged pores and patches of itchy, bumpy skin would be back.
Finally, on a grocery run one day, I wandered past the cosmetics section at the supermarket, and my eye fell on Pantene’s Hair Fall Control Intensive Hair Mask. ‘Professional quality intensive repair for dramatically reduced hair fall due to breakage,’ it said. “What the hell,” I thought. “It can’t hurt to try.”
And that’s when things really started falling into place. In addition to smelling like a fruit cocktail (which automatically makes me feel like a 12-year-old, but in the best possible way), when combined with the Klorane, this stuff has given me the hair of my dreams – soft, shiny but still bouncy, tangle-free. Best of all, there's not a hint of ceateryl alcohol in sight.
It’s been a few months since I’ve been using just these two products on my hair and sticking to a regular, but still pared down skincare routine – cleanser, sunscreen and a great foundation – and my skin is, in the words of Oprah, baaaaack!
It might even be better than it was before. My pores are so tiny you’d need a microscope to find them, I’m never too shiny (but always just shiny enough to look like a healthy, normal human being) and, best of all, the zits are all gone! I might get one little one every month, but it’s nothing a dab of Mario Badescu’s Buffering Lotion can’t fix (that stuff is magic in a bottle).
So while I’m not promising a fix-it for all your acne problems, if you’ve tried everything but still can’t figure out why you keep breaking out, it might be worth reassessing your hair products – and investing in some good old French supermarket hair care.
SHOP THE STORY