Pimples Don’t Make For Graceful Aging

I was a zitty teenager. I would have a picture to show you of the lovely rash of acne that flowered across my forehead in the late spring of my grade ten year, but that was back in the age of analog.  So I can’t treat you to the be-pimpled Schmutzie with a mouthful of braces circa 1987. You’re welcome.

I will, however, treat you to my latest pus baby, Myrtle:

wicked sexy zit

She’s a beauty, and she has brought along a number of her friends.  I am 38 years old, and I am so very done with this middle-aged acne business.

When I was a teenager battling zits with benzoyl peroxide, which left my face smelling like burning hair, I at least had the hopes of clearing up and experiencing less problematic skin into my twenties and thirties. What all the books and pamphlets I read on the subject failed to mention, though, is that it is fairly common for women to start breaking out again in their thirties, and that all my hopes for the future might be for naught.

I am glad that no one enlightened me, though, because my dreams? They were for naught. I can’t imagine the dramatic heartache I would have felt at fourteen. I’m sure I would have cried pitifully into my pillow while listening to Wham’s “Careless Whisper” and know, just knowing, that no one could ever love me ever like that guy in the song if they had to look at my perpetually infected face.

I’m rocking about ten angry pimples at the exact moment I am heading into several situations in which I would like to, pardon my play on a cliche, put my best face forward. In the past, I’ve tried various drugstore creams, more expensive as-seen-on-TV creams, antibiotics, battery-operated face scrubbers, cleansers without detergents and perfumes, turmeric capsules, witch hazel as a disinfecting astringent, toothpaste as a topical ointment, etcetera, etcetera, and on, and on.

My face is a veteran of almost every kind of zit treatment out there that I know of, but the world is a pretty big place.  I’m sure, though, that there has to be something out there for me, some system of skin treatment that will save me from looking like a really haggard fourteen-year-old. I am nothing if not hopeful.

If writing here at Aiming Low has taught me anything, it’s that you guys know the cures to my ills, whether I’m suffering from insomnia or am in dire need of nail care advice. I want your tips, tricks, and secrets, people.

Tell me about your face, or your kids’ faces, or your sister’s friend’s cousin’s cat with chin acne. I need your zit knowledge, please and thank-you.

About Schmutzie

Schmutzie can most commonly be found at Schmutzie.com, but she's also the founder of Ninjamatics and the Grace in Small Things social network in her ongoing efforts to make stuff on the internet and spread things that don't suck.

She gets social on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and StumbleUpon.


  1. Susannah says:

    Obagi. Clenziderm. SERIOUSLY. Worth every penny. I usually buy mine on ebay for a little less but you can find it at skinstore.com too. I cannot stress enough how much I adore it.

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  2. Schmutzie says:

    I’m heading off to look that up. Thank you!

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  3. Lacy says:

    I am 33 and I’ve been using Proactiv for several years. I tried Rx stuff first with no success. Proactiv is cheaper, easier, and more effective. Love it. Good luck!

  4. Willow says:

    The new Burt’s Bees acne system. I used every single step. RELIGIOUSLY. Like magic, srsly!

  5. I am in the same frustrating as hell boat! At the moment, tea tree oil seems to be working. Give it a shot.

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  6. Try Skin ID from Neutrogena. Works way better than Proactive or Acne Free!

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  7. Kat Suszczewicz says:

    I’m way too crunchy for pharm. Acne is a 2 step problem. first is dirt and oil. second is bacteria. chemistry being what it is, like attracts like…oil sticks to oil like velcro. So the only cure for acne is: remove oily dirt with an oily soap/cleanser. (olive oil anyone?) and send bacteria packing. (so, no touching! be surprised as a mouse in a cat’s mouth how much staph winds up on your fingers) the cheapest bacteria superhero is hydrogen peroxide.

    • Schmutzie says:

      See, this is kind of my leaning, too. I’m willing to try all the drugstore stuff, but I’m certain that we don’t need such complex chemical mixtures for something as simple and natural as skin.

      I’ve been thinking of giving the olive oil/sugar scrub I’ve heard of a try. Have you ever tried that?

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      • Kat Suszczewicz says:

        yes. do it! I have the crappiest skin and I do a baking soda scrub…keeps micro stuff in check, I think.

  8. mmrilla says:

    Please let me know if anything works! I’ve been breaking out like crazy, particularly around my monthly blues (or should I say reds?) and it is so frustrating.

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  9. Kate says:

    Hahaha, you’re going to get about a million recommendations. :) Mine is Paula’s Choice — the products, but mostly the education and advice. I still have crow’s feet and I still get the occasional zit, but her stuff has truly made my skin waaayyyy better. Here’s an article on dealing with acne and wrinkles at the same time: http://tinyurl.com/3uepg6f

  10. Jennie B says:

    I am right there with you. For me, it’s hormonal. And stress related. And neither of those things are going away any time soon.

    At least I no longer have the chest/shoulder/back acne that plagued me as a teenager. *shudder*

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  11. Tara says:

    Second the Obagi. Expensive. But worth it. Also, strangely, Olay cleansing cloths in the oily/combo skin variety. For some reason, it’s the only thing I can use at night and not break out.

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  12. Tracy says:

    I used Proactiv for years. Kiehls. La Mer. Cetaphil. Neutrogena- all of them. Everything. Then, you know what changed my life? Wearing my hair up at night in a bun/ponytail on the top of my head: I realized my hair products touching my face during sleep caused breakouts. Also, most importantly, changing my pillowcase really often. Like, every few days. The oils from my hair, face, dog, whatever were making me breakout.

    ALSO…stop washing your face. Not entirely, but only do it once a day. I wash it when I shower and that’s IT. Help to maintain the skin’s natural oils and keep it in balance.

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    • Schmutzie says:

      I definitely need to change my pillowcase more often. Now that you mention it, I can see that that could make a world of difference. And now I have a new thing on my to-do list for today: laundry!

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  13. IzzyMom says:

    I had nearly perfect skin all through my teen years but now? I have hormonally-triggered adult acne. It’s SO WRONG.

    What helps? Exfoliation (I use a mild lactic/glycolic acid blend), regular use of salicylic acid zit gel, not picking which is super hard sometimes.

    I’ll try the pillow case thing…that would probably help me a lot.

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    • schmutzie says:

      I’ve been told that exfoliation is key to keep dead skin from clogging up pores and bringing about infection, and I’m finding that as I age exfoliation really helps to keep my skin looking fresher.

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  14. Julie says:

    Ohh, I struggle with this too. I’m sorry you’re dealing with it, but know you’re not alone. Finally – after living with acne since I was eleven years old, I’m getting it to clear up. I bought the Burt’s Bees acne line – face wash and lotion. It’s not cheap, but it really does work. I tried Proactiv (made me break out in itchy hives) and all the cheap Clearasil junk, herbs and cleanses… but seriously, Burt’s Bees has worked wonders on my skin. I’ve been getting compliments on my complexion lately, and that’s amazing to me. Totally worth the money spent!

    • schmutzie says:

      I just splurged on some Burt’s Bees stuff last night, and have now used it twice. So far, the moisturizing lotion for clearing up acne is my favourite one I’ve used in years. A little bit goes a long ways, and my skin feels fantastic.

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  15. Suz says:

    I feel your pain — at 33 I hoped any acne issues would be long gone. Sadly, this is not the case. I am thankful I still do not get very many. Instead, I’m the “get one or two REALLY monstrous bastards” type. Usually directly in the middle of my forehead and on my nose. Simultaneously. Honestly, I just put toothpaste on them overnight and hope for the best. Almost invariably, the something-something-something in the toothpaste dries them out and by morning it’s just a spot rather than an oozing mess.

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    • schmutzie says:

      What is it with the toothpaste thing? Because that actually does a good number on my zits, too.

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      • Suz says:

        not sure – it could be the fluoride or maybe sulphur (i’ve heard sulphur is in toothpaste and i know proactiv has a sulphur mask). either way, it works. i’m also told it can seriously burn the skin, so be careful!

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  16. Christy says:

    I just made a comment but I’m wondering if it got eaten by some sort of spam software because I talked about a drug you can only get from a doctor. :( I’m legit, I swear, I’m not trying to sell it!

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    • schmutzie says:

      Sorry about the lost comment!

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      • Christy says:

        Heh, it’s not your fault, you didn’t do it!

        Anyway, I know you said above that you’re into natural cures, but you also wanted to know what worked for us. For me, it was Differin. The stuff is crazy expensive without insurance (though I know you’ve got that ~horrible socialized healthcare~) but one tube lasts a looong time.

        I’m 30 and I’ve had the same skin since I was 12. I’ve been using the Differin for the past nine months and my skin has never looked this good. It’s not PERFECT, but my pores aren’t full of gunk and the painful deep volcanic zits are few and far between now.

        OK, commercial over. In any case I hope you’re able to find something that works for you.

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  17. Deborah says:

    Wow, we all seem to have the same problem (except I’m 41, not 30-something). My skin has always been acne prone, and I’ve tried and rotated all sorts of products. For me, though, it came down to two requirements: benzoyl peroxide AND salicylic acid. Teen acne stuff usually uses the former, while adult acne stuff uses the latter. As long as I have elements in my routine that use BOTH, I’m acne free. Cleanser with BP and moisturizer with SA (I like Aveeno, cause I also have rosasea, and the oatmeal soy whatever soothes that), and BAM! Finally, picture perfect skin. I also follow the no-touchey your facey! rule, and I use Bare Minerals makeup, which is anti-bacterial by its very nature. Just remember to be a little more gentle with your aging skin, it doesn’t bounce back from abuse like a teen’s. Good luck! :)

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  18. John Cave Osborne says:

    say the phrase: i never wanna dance again ten times backwards.

    okay, that’s bullshit.

    try putting just a dad of toothpaste on the head of each one before going to bed.

    and i feel your pain. i went through a HUGE acne phase fresh year in college…

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  19. Gennie says:

    I’ve used almost everything there is over the years – from Clearasil to multiple different topicals and pills from the dermatologist. I’ve had acne since I was 11 (I’m 37 now), with the exception of the years when I was breastfeeding (big boobs AND clear skin? Those were some good years). About a year ago I was using Murad acne system, which worked really well, but was also really expensive (~$75/month). I still use the Murad spot treatment, but I use a teatree oil cleanser twice a day, a 2.5% benzoyl peroxide treatment (that I get from acne.org) in the evening and then an SPF 15 moisturizer I like in the morning. Dan (at acne.org) recommends the BP 2x/day, but that was too drying for my skin. This regimen has me 100% clear probably 75-80% of the time. I still get breakouts around my period, but the zits are smaller and hurt less and clear up faster.

    I feel your pain. I’ll be interested to hear what you try and what works for you. My regimen is the right balance for me of clearing up my skin without breaking the bank.

  20. Go KB says:

    Re: your preference for a simple/natural solution, I just yesterday saw this post on Kris Carr’s website about adult pimples: http://crazysexylife.com/2011/do-milk-and-sugar-cause-acne/

    Giant sparkly light bulbs went off for me when I read this.

    • schmutzie says:

      Giant light bulbs went off for me, too. I hate to do it, but I am going to drastically cut back on my dairy intake (I need cream in my coffee!). I have been eating a lot more of it lately with this Life cereal kick I’ve been on, and it seems to correspond with my recent outbreaks.

      Thanks for the link!

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  21. elaine says:

    same boat here.. really grey pubes and acne!????
    heres what seems to work for me:
    i lysol my pilow everynight before bed
    i wash my face with everyday unscented generic antibacterial hand soap (the dermatoligist said that was ok)
    i also follow that up with skin prep – hibiclens – it was given to me for a staff infection and it really kills the germies! just dont get it in your eyes!
    i occasionally will use prescription clindimycin and or metro gel(rosacea – which is commonly confused with adult acne)given to my by my derm.
    if i have a cyst-y one under the skin, i will use bactroban ointment or neosporin the minute i feel it and it usully clears up much sooner than usual.
    hope this helps!

  22. burghbaby says:

    I hate using chemical anything, so I started researching a bit and recently started to wonder if it was possible that mine is caused by food allergies. And, son of a hornless unicorn, I think it is. I’ve done three weeks of gluten elimination and there’s definitely improvement. Which, THE HELL? If anyone had mentioned that possibility to me 20 years ago, it would have made a HUGE difference in my life.

    • schmutzie says:

      I just mentioned in a previous comment that I’m going to drastically cut back on dairy, but guess what runs in my family? Gluten intolerance! Damn. I’m going to have to resort to healthy eating or something.

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  23. Micaela says:

    This stuff is harsh but works: Retin A.

  24. trishkfl says:

    Hate to burst your bubbles…does not matter what you use..once you turn 50 it starts all over again. Does not matter if you had perfect skin or bad skin…all heck breaks loose.

    I just go with it. Living in Florida I have the added humidity crap.

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  25. DanielleH says:

    I wash my face with sugar (in the shower), and in the sweaty, filthy summer I do an oil cleanse every night:


    SUPER CHEAP, works wonders. No soap.

    • schmutzie says:

      I was actually going to check in with you on this, because it sounds brilliant. When I want a facial scrub, I just want the scrubby part, not all the chemicals that come along with it.

      How do you store the sugar in your shower? Do you add water and rub it between your hands first? What kind of sugar do you use?

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      • DanielleH says:

        I just use the sugar from my kitchen and put it in an airtight container. Do you have a travel container, something you put your shampoo in when you travel? You can use something like that. An empty mayonnaise jar? A Snapple bottle? Anything that screws on tight! Then I just tip some into my hand, add water, and rub it on my face.

        You may want to try this after you try the oil cleanse, if what you want is to get rid of oil. The sugar thing is just an exfoliant. But doing that in the morning and oil cleansing at night has absolutely TRANSFORMED my skin. I don’t use moisturizers, I don’t wear makeup, and I do these two things only to my face.

  26. Washing with an olive oil and castor oil mix worked wonders for my aunt. You can check SimpleMom.com for instructions and proportions if you haven’t tried it before.

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    • schmutzie says:

      I’ve read about the oil cleansing thing, and all the reviews I’ve heard of it are positive. It makes sense, since stripping my skin of oils only seems to promote more oil production.

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  27. Karen says:

    Mine started flaring up around 37. Zits are ass holes.

    I finally went to the dermatologist, and she put me on anti-biotics, and also prescribed Differin and Aczone. This combination seemed to be the magic zit bullet.

    I recently switched from the antibiotics (Doxycycline) to birth control pills, one called Ortho-tricyclen. It’s reputed to help skin, and it certainly has for me. However, I become a raving lunatic on BCP’s, and this was no exception. Switched back to the Doxy.

    I also use a creamy cleanser called Cerave, available at drugstores, and the Cerave lotion. Very gentle. Sometimes scrubbing and squeezing and witch hazel-ing them to death makes them worse. If you strip the skin of the natural oils with that stuff your body rebounds it and overproduces.

    So, nice & gentle stuff, a visit to the derm is my best advice.

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    • schmutzie says:

      I go on antibiotics once or twice a year to kill the underlying infection, and then I look fabulous for about two weeks, which I’ll take.

      I’ve never heard of Cerave. I’ll have to see if we have it up here in Canada.

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  28. Kristen says:

    I still break out, too. And I’m a skin picker, which totally makes it worse.

    Lately I’ve had luck blending together generic Benzoyl Perozide and collagen cream. From what I’ve read these are the helpful active ingredients in zit and wrinkle products (respectively) so I just kind of make my own cheapskate version to address both. It does help, but it doesn’t stop me from picking. :/

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  29. MamaKaren says:

    I have rosacea with random monster zits (not the easy to hide forehead zits from HS that I could cover with my hair; now the breakouts like to be on my chin or next to my nose, and the size of a small European nation). I have the fun combination of dry, senstive skin and breakouts, so using something to combat the oily pimply problem will exacerbate the dry and moody skin.

    My best routine is Cetaphil cleanser when I shower in the morning(I just use makeup remover as needed and splash with tepid water at night) with a once-a-week exfoliating green tea scrub (St. Ives, I think) and a Eucerin SPF15 moisturizer. I use the Bare Minerals make up, and find that dabbing a bit of Mineral Veil on emerging zits before I go to bed sometimes prevents them from erupting.

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  30. Cati says:

    Arugh! This post intrigued me because I have such trouble with my skin. I am 21, but have been struggling with acne since I was 18. (Go figure… my teenage years were perfect!) I have given up dairy products, milk, even sugar… NOTHING. I have tried skin detox teas, creams, lotions, eating nothing but fruits and veggies, all the face washes and potions the store has to offer. I have tried different makeups, totally organic products, even ProActive (which dried my face out and made me flare up even more.) It’s a never ending battle, and one I am constantly trying to hide. It’s miserable… and ridiculous. The comment about keeping my hair up at night and changing my pillow case often is actually really good, and I might try that! I have often thought about that. Maybe that’s why the side of my face and jaw are what breaks out the most? I am also curious about the sugar wash and oil thing…. might give it a go. I just want it to go away. I want to be able to wear my hair up without embarrassment, and I am tired of my piano students asking me, “why do you have red dots all over your face?”

    • schmutzie says:

      Hopefully some of this helps! I’m trying the Burts Bees stuff now since reading about it yesterday, and I’m kicking most dairy out of my diet, and I’m going to try the pillowcase thing.

      I feel your pain. Good luck!

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  31. Beth says:

    I’m 34 and have had horrible acne since I was 11….even though my skin is pretty good now, it’s still my biggest insecurity. I also want to emphasize the pillowcase changing….I always wash my face before bed, so I didn’t think about it for years. But I have noticed that it really makes a difference. I know it’s just one more thing to add to your to-do list, but it’s totally worth the time! I don’t have much for product recommendations though, since I’ve used Proactiv for several years (I still break out like CRAZY if I don’t use it).
    I hope you find something soon that works….keeping my fingers crossed for you!!

  32. Jessi says:

    Rodan + Fields Unblemish Regimen, not as harsh as ProActiv but pricier. I work for the company and hear the testimonials every day. https://www.rodanandfields.com/Pages/Products/Results

  33. gina says:

    You didn’t mention if your skin is dry or oily. I have dry skin and pimples, so wrong on so many levels, and I use st ives apricot scrub and good ol fashioned noxema. I also use clean and clear morning burst mosturizer. I never had acne as a kid but the closer I get to 30 the worse it gets. This seems to help, all except for my monthly zits that aunt flow brings with her. My exhusband had oily skin and acne really bad, like his zits had zits, and he used a peppermint oatmeal glycerin soap and mary kay mosture control mosurizer, which I think is an oxy moron but whatever, and it cleared him right up. We used to buy his soap from an herbal store but bath and body works had a pretty good peppermint glycerin soap that he would use when we couldn’t make it to the other store. The dermatologist told him to only use glycerin soap and not regular bar soap, not sure why but it worked really well. Best of luck with getting your skin cleared up :-)

    Ps. I think burts bees acne treatment stinks, doesn’t smell nearly as yummy as the lip balm

  34. I have struggled with adult acne for a good portion of my adult life. Up until this past December, it was just light to moderate. I have no idea what happened in December, but my face went completely insane! I went from about 8-10 pimples, to almost thirty. And they were all HUGE an extremely painful.

    Like you, I’ve tried everything. From the toothpaste trick, to proactive, to antibiotics. I finally gave up and went to see my regular doctor. She put me on retin-a, which made things so much worse. My doctor said that would happen, but that after a month my face would be completely clear. What a lie!

    I waited 6 weeks and saw a dermatologist. First he told me to stop using the retin-a. Instead of the retin-a, he prescribed differin (a form of retin-a), Duac (benzoyl peroxide mixed with clindamyacin), Oracea (an antibiotic), and a face wash formulated by him. In addition to this new regimen, I was to add vitamin e and zinc. And, he gave me a chemical peel every three weeks.

    After a few months of this kind of working, he suggested I add spironilactone (something that surpresses testosterone) and start taking Yaz (birth control). At this point I was willing to try accutane, so I went with his advise.

    I’m glad to say that after all of this (I’m still using all of the above), my face is pimple free. Now I just have the horrible scarring to deal with.

    Now that that’s all said, your acne isn’t really that bad. So, I would suggest just adding the vitamins to a good face care routine. How long that will take to help is anyone’s guess. Good luck!

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  35. Megan says:

    I’m a Retin-A girl from way back (there is now a generic, at least in the U.S.). The bonus? It fights wrinkles and reverses sun damage.

    Also, do you have allergies? I didn’t have acne until my early twenties and it appeared at the same time my allergies did. I struggled for years to get it gone, but the thing that did the trick? Allergy shots. Once I started treating the allergies, the zits went away. I still break out once in a while – when my allergies are raging.

    Just a thought.

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  37. Leola says:

    Jeśli chcecie to sugeruję wykorzystywać natrysk prysznicowy.
    Jest to bardzo ciekawa opcja, która pozwala uczynić z łazienki
    wspólne miejsce, gdzie można uspokoić się oraz co najwżniejsze sybko
    wziąć kąpiel. Zrezygnowanie z wanny na korzyść kabiny prysznicowej niesie ze sobą widoczne różnice w rachunkach za wode.

    Korzystając z przysznica zużywamy dużo mniej wody i prądu.
    Oprócz tego, natrysk prysznicowy jest o wiele łatwiejszy w codziennym używaniu przede wszystkim ludzi

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