The Dangerous Acne-Fighting Treatment I Just Can't Quit

Photographed by Collins Nai.
I’ve said the words “I think I need to get really into wellness” roughly twice a week, every week, for the past two or three years. Usually, it's while scrolling vacantly through my Instagram feed, basking in the glow of a world not my own where everyone uses exclusively organic, eco-friendly makeup and enjoys £10 smoothies for every meal, and where boutique fitness classes are (evidently) free. I love it there.
And yet, I still haven't gotten “really into wellness.” This is probably because, as much as I try to keep things clean, especially where beauty is concerned, the wellness industrial complex was not built for people like me. Massaging lavender oil onto my pulse points won’t do shit for my anxiety — I’ll need my Valium, thanks. Activated charcoal clay masks stain my bath towels. Oil pulling makes me gag. And tea tree oil has never done anything for my breakouts other than make them smell weird.
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Acne sufferers don’t always have the luxury of going clean and green. Ridding their routines of “toxins” and “additives” and “byproducts” by ditching their prescription topicals and flushing their supply of antibiotics or Accutane won’t miraculously give them clear, radiant skin. Natural is not always better. Taking neem supplements for 30 days did not give me a flawless complexion, but a carefully engineered — and dermatologist-prescribed — combination of spironolactone (50 mg, twice a day), Aczone in the morning, and tretinoin at night has gotten me pretty damn close.
And then, for the most stubborn situations, the reddest, most painful hormonal cysts that just won’t budge, there is my secret weapon. It’s called Adult Acnomel, and it’s actually not that secret; I found it at the Rite Aid near my apartment, garish packaging and all, and you can probably find it at your local drugstore, too. For me, it's the only thing that works to demolish the worst of ‘em — and it’s also far from the kind of formula that would be marketed as “so gentle, you could use it on a baby,” or something like that. It’s dominated by resorcinol, an ingredient I was unfamiliar with, despite having what I had believed to be a vast knowledge of acne-fighting skin-care properties. Then I Googled it — and the results weren't exactly reassuring.
Let me first say that the dermatologists I’ve spoken to agree that resorcinol is safe for topical use, in the concentration recommended by the FDA, which is 2%, and only when accompanied by sulphur in concentrations between 3-8%. “Resorcinol is an acid used in the office as a chemical peel or in over-the-counter products for its anti-inflammatory and skin-renewing properties,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, told me. Heidi Waldorf, MD, Director of Laser and Cosmetic Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, referred to it as a “peeling ingredient.” I couldn't find a doctor who seemed too alarmed.
But Japan and Canada feel differently. Both countries have banned resorcinol for use in cosmetics. And the Environmental Working Group gives it an 8 out of 10 on the danger scale, for its potential as a thyroid function-disrupting, respiratory distress-causing, central nervous system-damaging, allergic reaction-causing risk to your health.
I haven't decided what to believe, so for now, I'm just hoping that using a resorcinol-based treatment every couple of weeks to stop an oncoming cyst dead in its tracks won't disrupt my endocrine system that badly. That’s the very real reality of the stuff we use to help us deal with the beauty problems that bother us the most — sometimes, apple cider vinegar and argan oil just aren’t enough, and that sucks. But fuck, my motto is "if it works, it works." I'll just have to remember to set my necessary toxins off to the side should I decide to showcase my skin-care routine in an Instagram flat lay — those FDA warning labels can be real buzzkills.
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