How 3 Women Fought Their Acne — & Won

Photographed by Tory Rust.
Acne can range from upsetting to frustrating to completely debilitating. This fact is just one of the many reasons we've devoted June to acne awareness here at Refinery29.

As you might have read, acne is the most common skin condition in the U.S., affecting over 50 million people — and it doesn't play favorites. This means actresses, makeup artists, beauty editors, and even aestheticians aren't exempt from blemishes. Through sharing personal stories about acne, we can seek comfort through knowing we're not alone, inspire each other to try new solutions, and rally together to keep fighting the good fight.

Today, we're sharing three stories from leading aestheticians who once suffered from acne and have found fixes that worked for them. Read on to find out what worked, what didn't, and what they're doing now to keep their breakouts at bay.
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Name: Alissa Chasen
Occupation: Aesthetician, founder of Porespective skin clinic and products
The Acne Trigger: Going off birth control
What Finally Worked: Changing her diet, never picking, and finding a product cocktail that worked

"In high school, I always had one 'monster' zit that I’m sure was caused by hormones. But then when I was 17, I started taking birth-control pills and didn’t have many problems until I got off of them when I was in my early 20s. Then, my face completely exploded! I started seeing a dermatologist for weekly cortisone injections and chemical peels, but it never really settled down, so I immediately got back on birth-control pills and it cleared up again pretty soon.

"In my mid-30s, my husband and I wanted to try to have a baby, so I discontinued my birth-control pills after taking them almost non-stop for 15 years, and my face exploded again. So here I was, selling an acne drug to dermatologists [Chasen was then a pharmaceutical rep for acne products], and showing up for sales calls with a face full of acne. The dermatologists who were my clients all had their suggestions on how to get me clear, from Retin-A to oral antibiotics, but nothing really worked and I didn’t want to go on Accutane. I had spent years reading medical journals and clinical studies, and working with some of the best doctors in the country, but nobody could get me clear. That’s when I enrolled in an esthetics program, received my license, and opened an acne clinic in Texas.

"The first two years of practicing, I was creating a small sample size of my own clinical study, just like the ones I had read about in medical journals. I started using different products through trial and error, first on myself and then on my clients.

The dermatologists who were my clients all had their suggestions on how to get me clear...but nothing really worked.

Alissa Chasen
"I got clear with an approach that is pretty uncommon: using strong medical-grade topical products, which I call my ‘clearing combos': an exfoliating serum and a prescription benzoyl peroxide. Then, I built on that...by eating clean and living clean. That meant no dairy, no peanuts, no seaweed, no sugar, and no gluten. Staying aware of everything that comes in contact with your problem areas — cell phones, makeup and brushes, pillowcases, your partner's facial hair, your hand cream — is also very important.

"My approach is to pull out the chemicals (what I call the “big guns”) on your face and then get really clean internally. It’s worked for myself and 100% of the clients that have come to me, as long as they are willing to follow the program religiously. I avoid use of antibiotics at all costs because of a real concern with antibiotic resistance.

"[My advice] is don’t pick. It never goes well. Ever. Once you start picking your skin, it gets completely out of control. I am a master extractor, doing extractions all day every day, but I never pick my own skin. That’s because I can’t see it as well on myself as I can see it under the magnifying lamp, and also because of the emotional component.

"Know that you are not alone. There are lots of ways to get clear. I always suggest trying topicals and a clean diet first. You can always go stronger, but why kill a fly with a shotgun?"
Name: Melanie Simon
Occupation: Aesthetician and founder of Ziip Beauty
The Acne Trigger: Monthly hormonal changes
What Finally Worked: Vitamin A supplements, exfoliating toners, and electrical-current treatments

"I went through my teenage years with only the occasional breakout, but when I hit my early 20s I started to get bimonthly cystic breakouts. They were so obscene. I would often tell others I had spiders in my house because they were giant boils that never came to a head. Of course, I picked and scarred myself, often trying to purge them. I tried antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide, and cortisone shots; I tried countless products and diets, but I [began to] truly believe it was a hormonal problem. Every ovulation and every period, I still deal with acne, even in my late 30s.

"By far the hardest thing in my life is still dealing with acne. I worry, Why didn’t I treat it early enough to stop the cysts? If I do break out, I'm too ashamed to go anywhere. I'm afraid I'll look like a hypocrite. Sadly, cystic acne is a tidal wave that cannot be fought off once the swell has formed. You have to strike the second you start to feel an inkling of a breakout brewing. If I'm not diligent, I break out like clockwork.
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Of course, I picked and scarred myself...

Melanie Simon
"I wouldn’t say I have beaten acne; I would say I have tamed it. I have a very specific recipe. First, as soon as the cyst starts (typically there's pain before an actual boil forms), I take internal vitamin A capsules, Thorne brand, 20,000 IU per day, until all signs of the breakout are gone. If you're going to try this, be aware you cannot take the pills more than 12 days a month or it can become toxic in your system.

"Next, I use my Ziip device on the total clearing program. Typically, it’s four to five days, twice a month. The program is an electrical cocktail I developed and has been used to treat acne in my professional treatments for over a decade. It helps the current acne from coming up and forming. You can also find a qualified aesthetician who knows how to treat acne with electrical current and make monthly appointments.
"[Then, to help prevent breakouts, I use] a toner with lactic acid (I like P50 by Biologique Recherche). When applying toner, let it treat your skin for at least one minute before applying your next product, like a cream. If you apply something else too soon, you stop the toner from working. I also tell my acne clients to switch from everyday sunscreen to [mineral foundation with SPF] that matches their skin tone. It won’t break you out and is a clean form of sunscreen.

"My best advice is not to look for a cure — but a way to manage your acne. Once you learn this and you do your due diligence, you can keep breakouts at bay. That's just as good as a cure."
Name: Kelly Viavattine
Occupation: Aesthetician at Kate Somerville in Los Angeles
What Finally Worked: Blue LED-light therapy and a consistent diet

"Growing up, I always had very clear skin — I didn’t have any issues or breakouts until I hit my late 20s. I got full adult-onset acne when I was 28. It was really hard; I was fresh out of beauty school and then new at Kate Somerville.

"I remember there was a woman who came in for a cystic-acne facial when I started, and when she saw me she asked, 'How can you be treating my skin for acne when your skin looks like that?' It was brutal; I was shocked and embarrassed but then I got mad as hell. It kind of ignited a passion in me to help people clear their skin — and never make anybody feel bad about it.

"The pattern I see in women in their 20s is a big hormonal change — and I think that’s what happened to me. I had the acne for four to six months before I found a treatment that worked. When I was in beauty school, I tried a prepackaged three-step acne routine and it backfired. Not only did it dry my skin out, making my breakouts worse, but on top of that I was allergic. It was horrible. Then I tried facials, and then drugstore acne products, but nothing helped. Nothing worked until I started getting blue-light treatments.
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When she saw me, she asked, 'How can you be treating my skin for acne when your skin looks like that?'

Kelly Viavattine
"I did two series of blue and red lights back-to-back. It was twice a week for four weeks each, so 16 treatments total. I really stuck with it for two months. I was very consistent, and it really got my skin under control. The blue lights specifically kill the 'acne p.' bacteria [propionibacterium bacteria] that breaks you out. I've seen lights clear everything from mild to severe cystic acne.

"Everyone is different, but you want a minimum of eight light treatments with an experienced aesthetician. You want to have your aesthetician cleanse your skin, do extractions, and then you go under the light for 20 minutes.

"I broke out again six years after I got acne, but it was nowhere near as bad as it was the first time. I was not being as careful with my diet — I had a lot of sugar and dairy, which can exacerbate acne. I did another round of eight treatments and it cleared it again. Now, I stick to a better diet and do maintenance: a treatment one to two times a month just to keep everything under control.

"I wish, at the time that I was struggling with acne, I could have [known] that my skin would eventually look better than it ever had. It’s a roller coaster; it can be painful, emotionally as well as physically, and it weighed on my confidence level. Just know that it can happen to anyone at any age."
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