I first realized I had acne when I was 11-years old, and my skin looked more, um, colorful than the other girls in my class. Back then, I had no idea how to treat acne and I was even worse at hiding it. People would point and laugh at giant cystic pimples on my cheeks, ask to touch my forehead, and call me a long-list of nicknames that callously described what was happening on my face.
As I got older, I got better at hiding the acne, but not necessarily taking care of it. I would spend hours at beauty counters begging the professionals to try anything on my skin so that my red bumps didn’t show up in photos or become the first impression when I met people. Makeup became my new best friend, but really, it became my skin’s biggest enemy.
I tried every kind of concealer, foundation, airbrush makeup machine, and even once, started using Band-aids on an unruly pimple that I just didn’t feel like worrying about all day. But while it may have boosted my confidence to cover my face in a layer of makeup, it was likely doing me more harm than good.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Mount Sinai Hospital, says that just because makeup is labeled as “long wear” does not mean that you should necessarily use it that way.
“In fact overuse of makeup, especially foundations, can lead to skin irritation or acne breakouts. Taking a break from makeup can help the skin repair itself,” says Dr. Zeichner.
But taking a break from makeup never seemed like a viable option. I have places to go and people to see! So over the years, I’ve done everything short of packing away my makeup bag in hopes of helping my skin. I’ve tried every topical option out there, not to mention cosmetic procedures like facials, chemical peels, cryotherapy and face massages (yes, that’s a thing). I’ve tried eliminating food in hopes the acne would calm down. But it never fixed the underlying cause of my acne, which dermatologists over the years have diagnosed as hormonal and stress-related, and worsened by wearing too much makeup and not washing it off properly. (I’m guilty of going to sleep with my makeup on and wearing it at the gym.)
When all else failed, I was left with nothing else in my arsenal but to part with the makeup bag I held clutched to my chest.
“Taking a break from makeup can help the skin repair itself. Removing physical blockages from the surface of the skin can help clear pores and improve any makeup-related acne,” says Zeichner. “If you have a condition where the skin barrier is disrupted, for example in severe dryness or eczema, not wearing makeup can allow the skin to heal itself.”
So I finally decided to spend two weeks going sans make-up, putting all of my favorite concealers and foundations in a bag and hiding it in the back of my closet. Here’s what happened to my skin during those two weeks.
First, things got worse
The first couple of days of the experiment, I felt my skin panic. It was so used to the same makeup routine that I had been doing for years, when I skipped it, even for a day, my skin still felt irritated, and the pimples didn’t immediately go away, or get better, like I hoped they would.
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I felt extremely self-conscious not wearing makeup, so I did notice that for the first few days, I would have my hands on my face, blocking the patches of acne, so that people wouldn’t see. That didn’t help my skin at all.
By day three, I wondered if I would make it the full two weeks and I wondered if my skin, at this point in my life, was capable of change.
A positive sign: my face felt smoother
By the fifth day makeup free, the tiny whiteheads on my forehead cleared up and I noticed the stubborn cystic pimples I always have on my chin were getting smaller. When I’d wake up in the morning, after washing my face, I noticed my skin felt smoother and softer than ever before.
Dr. Michele Green, MD, an cosmetic dermatologist, agreed that giving skin a rest from makeup can help reduce and improve breakouts. “There’s more oxygen that’ll be delivered to your face; your skin will have more time to repair itself and regenerate its elastin and collagen,” says Dr. Green.
One week sans makeup: Irritation started to clear up
I noticed by day seven, my skin also felt less irritated. When I’d take my makeup off every night, I’d had bright red throbbing pimples staring back at me. I also noticed just a general constant red tint to my skin. Without makeup, I noticed less discoloration on my cheeks and forehead.
Dr. Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified NYC dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says that we don’t realize the effects that wearing heavy makeup, every day, can have on our skin.
“Our skin is absorbing the chemicals and oils in these products,” says Dr. Jaliman. “For some, this doesn’t affect them but for others it could aggravate acne and cause irritation.” Clearly, by how my skin seemed to be responding, I was the latter.
An unexpected change: I felt more confident being my natural self
One of the biggest downsides of this experiment was how I felt about myself at the beginning without my usual makeup routine. I felt self-conscious and people noticed, asking me what was different. A few people asked if I was sick. Others wanted to know if everything was okay. I looked paler than usual. I felt like I looked tired and dull. One person even commented that they never knew I had acne. I grunted with frustration because my makeup tricks were working so well and now my secret was out.
This feeling lasted for half the experiment, but by the start of week two, I started feeling confident in my natural skin, which was less dull and looked fresh and clearer than ever.
Yes, I still had acne and my decade-old acne scars didn’t go anywhere, but my skin didn’t have as many nasty breakouts or sudden spurts of pimples. I had my usual hormonal acne on my chin and cheeks, but less than usual. When my confidence came through, people started to comment less on my skin and lack of makeup and I started to hardly notice my face wasn’t painted.
After the experiment: Time to clean out my makeup bag
When the experiment ended, I was happy to be able to grab my makeup bag and rummage through it. But this time I didn’t quickly load on concealer, instead I took inventory.
Zeichner says that it’s important to look at the makeup we’re using and if we don’t want to go makeup free entirely, we should switch from a liquid foundation to powder-based makeup.
“Powder or mineral makeup tends not to block pores or be as heavy on the surface of the skin,” says Zeichner. “Alternatively, stick to a tinge of moisturizer that can help improve skin hydration while offering some degree of cosmetic coverage.”
Jaliman recommends using lighter products like BB or CC creams or just an under eye concealer to help minimize the appearance of circles and dark bags if you want to try going makeup free. Dr. Peterson Pierre of the Pierre Skin Care Institute says to choose oil-free and non-comedogenic products so you don’t clog pores and possibly cause breakouts.
I decided to toss out products that were old or had ingredients that are known to clog pores. I also vowed to myself that when I was wearing makeup, I would work extra hard to make sure I was taking it off properly and cleansing at the end of the day.
Since the experiment, I’ve gone back to wearing makeup, but have picked 2-3 days a week to go makeup free to let my skin breathe, heal and do it’s thing without anything getting in the way. And I leave the house just as confident on those days I go au natural as I do the days I paint over my scars and bumps. And that may be the most positive takeaway of all.