Adult acne
(Art by David Yi)

When I was younger, there were several things that I assumed would eventually happen.

I thought that I would go to my high school reunion and impress the pants off everyone with my style and grace (thank you, Romy & Michelle, for that delusion). I assumed that Jake Gyllenhaal would come out of the closet and that we would be dating. And, of course, I figured that I would someday be free of acne.

As I approach 30, I realize that only one of these things has happened. (Hint: it’s Jake.) I never made it to my high school reunion, opting instead to be a plus one at a wedding in Mexico. (Why hash out history with old acquaintances when you can make new ones in a foreign country? Also, cake.) Sadly, Jake and I have gone our separate ways, but at least our romance was fodder for a slightly obnoxious song about not getting back together. And while I haven’t been completely clear-faced in years, I’m at a place where I can at least control my acne, if not abolish it altogether.

That’s not to say that acne isn’t still a total pain in the ass. Like a high school boy crush minus the cute factor, it’s embarrassing, painful, and has a tendency to pop up at inopportune times. Everyone’s breakouts are little different, and mine are a special brand of deep cystic acne (large, red, painful breakouts under the skin). It hurts like hell and takes forever to heal – talk about a winning combination.

I first started getting acne in my junior year of high school. I had breezed through puberty fresh-faced, thinking that I’d been given a free pass as a consolation for the tortured cat sound that had become (and remains) my voice. But just when everyone else was finishing up with all that nonsense, my skin decided “better late than never,” and acne came on with a vengeance.

My skin decided “better late than never,” and acne came on with a vengeance.

When the breakouts first started, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was causing them. But as my derm Rachel says, acne can be caused by a lot of things: stress, diet, hormonal changes, or simply genetics (THANKS, MOM!). And the worst part is that none of these are particularly actionable. Like, how do you get rid of stress?! Honey child, do you see this working girl haircut? As for my hormones, let’s not even go there.

The author seen here, writes about fighting acne as an adult. (Photo courtesy Paolo Benvenuto)
The author writes about fighting acne as an adult. (Photo courtesy Paolo Benvenuto)

So instead, I started focusing on the products I use and the way that I treat my skin, which turned out to be much more effective, and something I could actually control. After many years of trial and error, I finally found a regimen that works for me. Below, are some tips on cleansing and treating acne. However, it’s important to note that you’re a special flower, and what works for this petunia might not make your rose bud bloom. From one blemished boy to another, I won’t promise you that these will work. But I definitely think that they’re worth a try.


That’s right – it’s next to godliness. I’ve found that being a little OCD with cleanliness really helps reduce both the severity and the frequency of my breakouts. Acne can be caused by bacteria coming into contact with your skin, so I try to make sure nothing dirty touches this money maker. I wash my hands before applying any products, and use headphones whenever I talk on my phone (if you have Grindr or Tinder, you get it.) I also try to change my pillowcase and towel every other day. Excessive, maybe, but I figure if I’m going to be a diva, I might as well go all the way.

I also try to change my pillowcase and towel every other day. Excessive, maybe, but I figure if I’m going to be a diva, I might as well go all the way.

No matter how careful you are, there is still going to be something on your face by the end of the day, so make sure to wash before going to bed. While a lot of acne-prone people use face wash with benzoyl peroxide (think: Clean & Clear or Proactiv), I don’t like the way it leaves my skin feeling like plastic wrap pulled over hamburger meat. Instead, I like to use products with acid. While it sounds scary, ingredients like salicylic or lactic acid help promote cell turnover, opening clogged pores and neutralizing bacteria. My tried and true is Dermalogica Age Smart Skin Resurfacing Cleanser, but I only use it at night because the cell turnover it promotes can make your skin more susceptible to UV damage. So in the morning I like using charcoal-based products, which claim to absorb oil, dirt and other toxins. If you want to get a drugstore brand, try a bar like Yes to Tomatoes Clear Skin Activated Charcoal Bar Soap. If liquid is more your thing, Boscia Detoxifying Black Cleanser is great.


I would say that I have acne about 95% of the time, so treating it is just another step in my regimen. In the morning I wash my face and then apply Mario Badescu Buffering Lotion. directly to any spots. It’s a little bit runny, so give it a good shake and then squeeze a small amount onto your finger before applying. If I have a particularly bad blemish, I’ll then apply an Acne-Clear Individual Dot by Peter Thomas Roth (make sure that your beard is trimmed and your skin is completely dry before you apply or they’ll peel off). These look like clear stickers, and they’re great if you have a tendency to pick or scratch during the day. While they don’t disappear completely, they’re pretty DL and you can put a little bit of tinted moisturizer on top to further camouflage them.

In the evenings, I wash my face and then apply the buffering lotion again before the rest of my night potions. After I’m done with my beauty voodoo, I dip a Q-Tip into , and apply the cream directly to all of my spots.It’s my all-time acne fighting super product, and I never go anywhere without it. Just make sure NOT to shake this one before applying – it should look like a smoothie that’s completely separated (yummy).  

A quick word on popping zits. Most dermatologists caution against doing it because it opens the infected pore up to additional bacteria exposure, and can increase the likelihood of scarring. But we’re all humans here, so let’s be realistic. If you have to pop a zit, try to do it at night after washing your face so that it’s not exposed to pollution and bacteria throughout the day. Rather than using your hands, soak a clean washcloth in hot water and gently hold it to the spot. Don’t rub or pinch – just let the heat work on the skin (as with another unspeakable activity, if that cherry don’t pop, don’t force it). After the deed is done, apply a product like the ones mentioned above to disinfect, and then pat yourself on the back for kicking some serious acne ass.

If you’ve been struggling with it for a while, like me, try seeing a dermatologist . And most of all, be kind to yourself, and to your skin. If it’s acting out, don’t punish it. Spoil it and watch as it flowers into the pampered child of your dreams, like the one that I’ll be having with Jake.

Paolo is a pasty princess living in sun-kissed LA who believes that magazines are real books. Last week, he discovered that coconut shampoo doesn’t taste as good as it smells. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @dearpaolo