These 12 Brands Are Shame-Free When It Comes To Acne

We’re weird about acne. It kind of goes without saying that as a culture, as people — the way we talk about acne, literally the most common skin condition, afflicting 50 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, is that we just…don't. We spend millions of dollars trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, which in and of itself is an acknowledgment that acne exists. I don’t get it! I really don’t, but I’m not alone in feeling that way. As a beauty writer, I’ve noticed a shift in the conversation around acne, and some brands are doing everything they can to be a part of the transformation. We’re not "suffering" from acne anymore, it’s just something we’re all dealing with, and so what? I was lucky enough to speak with 11 brand founders about the cultural shift, innovations in acne care, and the future of how we treat and speak about acne.
Almost universally, every founder I spoke to for this story launched their brand out of need and necessity. They were not getting what they wanted out of acne care, whether it was a treatment for adult acne ailments, skin afflictions like eczema, or not seeing themselves (or their skin tone) being treated properly in the space. "I always had the tendency to break out, but also have dry and sensitive skin. I grew up using the same products we all had access to -— the white creams, pink creams, 3-step solutions,”  Ju Rhyu of Hero Cosmetics shared.
Alice Lin Glover, co-founder of EADEM explained to me that she wanted to find clean, effective products for both her severe cystic acne and the hyperpigmentation that resulted from it. "Hyperpigmentation caused by inflammation, such as acne, is very common amongst people of color, but there are very few products on the market that are actually tested and proven to work on our skin," she explained. Desiree Verdejo of Hyper Skin could relate — years of dealing with chronic acne fueled her desire to see herself, and skin like hers, in the acne care space. "What followed the hormonal acne was stubborn hyperpigmentation that, no matter what I tried, would not go away. Product after product, I was continuously unimpressed with the solutions available on the market. I never felt that the space celebrated real skin or real diversity. so I set out to create a modern clinical brand that did."

Remembering the burning sensation and the smells of acne care from years past, the three-step routines, the Proactiv commercials during Degrassi reruns — it's a deep-rooted memory for most people.

For Priscilla Tsai of cocokind, years of treating cystic and hormonal acne also damaged her skin barrier, leading to more acne. "I had a mentality of the harsher the product is, the more it worked," she said. "As a result, not only was I still struggling with acne, but I also had destroyed my skin barrier. Every day, I'd apply skin care and my skin would sting and become bright red for 10 to 15 minutes, to the point where it would make my eyes water." Remembering the burning sensation and the smells of acne care from years past, the three-step routines, the Proactiv commercials during Degrassi reruns — it's a deep-rooted memory for most people.
Esthetician Renee Rouleau’s namesake brand is based in treating adult acne, specifically with her Nine Skin Types system, a unique, personalized skin prescription that addresses varying needs and concerns beyond the typical "dry, normal, or oily" classifications. "Keeping acne at the forefront, I developed the line by avoiding common ingredients that might irritate or clog pores," she said. "I also became especially passionate about understanding the science behind acne, helping clients get to the root of the problem and get rid of blemishes in the most efficient way, without scarring." Face Reality’s Laura Cooksey also founded the brand on need to treat adult acne effectively and not finding appropriate solutions on the market.
Daniel Kaplan of ZitSticka, however, wanted to treat body acne because of a very TMI reason: "This catalyst, in our case, was actually a large butt zit — Not kidding. It was pretty massive and I had a hard time finding any successful treatments. Thankfully, it went away on its own, but then a year later, I felt it coming back in almost the exact same spot." A pharmacy recommended drawing salve Ichthammol for his “golf ball-sized boil," but the issue is that it stains everything it comes into contact with, because it’s Vantablack-black, like tar, and dealing with a plaster just made it a mess. Then a lightbulb moment occurred. "Whenever I get a spot in my life, I am going to put a plaster over it. But instead of just a drawing salve, I wanted to create something that actually had effective ingredients within the actual patch — and that wouldn’t stain my trousers.”

The Positive Shift In How We Talk About Acne

"I love that acne is now a topic of conversation that people aren’t ashamed of — it’s the same wave that is happening with being open about mental health, therapy, digestive, and other health issues,” explains Kayleigh Christina of CLEARSTEM Skincare. “People are no longer "ashamed" to be talking about acne, or other skin struggles, and hiding from it. The more we can talk about struggles, the more people we can help." And that really does seem to be the case  — like with mental health, we’re just saying the quiet part loud now. With the way information is accessed and transmitted, we’ve begun the process of finally saying that having acne does not mean something is wrong with you, some people are more prone than others — and it’s about finding your own personal root cause, not feeling ashamed of it.  It’s removing the layer of societal stress.
I have my own personal issues with the "clean girl" aesthetic, but I will say, the only good thing it’s given is that it’s become a bit gauche to cake on your makeup. Instead, people are letting their skin be skin. Both Christina and Tsai spoke of the psychological effects acne had on them, and how they didn’t feel okay leaving the house without a face full of makeup. “To see this shift from both brands and consumers helps relieve some of the psychological pressures of having 'perfect skin,'" says Tsai. "Of course, having a breakout is never fun, but it also doesn’t have to ruin your day and you are not alone. It’s very normal — and we should embrace that." Alex Hernandez, Licensed Esthetician and Lead Educator for Face Reality shared that the brand's recent acne study of over 1,000 respondents found that 56% of those in their teens and 20s have been bullied or ostracized because of their acne, and 85% said it had a very or extremely negative impact on their confidence when their acne was at its worst. It’s time to stop that. 

We have treated having acne as a personal and moral failure. What the actual hell is that? Having acne should never make you feel unworthy in any way, shape, or form. Your skin is something that is forever changing, and this absurd idea of having "perfect skin" is, well, a lie.

"I still am amazed that the beauty industry managed to convince 85% of the population that they were wrong, or dirty, for breaking out when it’s overwhelmingly normal," says Jamika Martin of ROSEN Skincare. "I think we have a long way to go when it comes to the conversation around skin expectations, the journey of people of color with acne, and the overall expectation of 'treatment', but I think we’re moving in the right direction."  Glover just wishes she could turn back time and have the shift happen sooner: "I wish that shift had happened when I was growing up! As a still-ongoing acne sufferer, it was always embarrassing for me and made me feel like it was my fault for not taking care of my skin better, when any dermatologist can attest that it’s not a personal failing.” And that’s the issue at it’s core: We have treated having acne as a personal and moral failure. What the actual hell is that? Having acne should never make you feel unworthy in any way, shape, or form. Your skin is something that is forever changing, and this absurd idea of having "perfect skin" is, well, a lie. Your skin is a progressing biome, not a smooth, perfect canvas. and not the perfection that so many people think they need to attain to be "beautiful." 
“We’re seeing this destigmatization of things previously deemed 'bad' across many arenas — the biggest parallel being body image with the 'body positivity' movement," says Deven Hopp, Senior Brand Director of VERSED. “However, ‘positivity’ can be an overcorrection — while it’s great to have a decidedly positive body image, it’s just powerful to embrace body neutrality, to accept your body for what it is and what it does, and to not ascribe so much importance to your body image." Across the board, these founders encourage skin diversity and representation across the board in a mindful manner. What we think of as “normal” is personal and subjective, and we have to adapt to that way of thinking. “Representation is important, Not just in campaigns for acne products, but all products,” Hopp says.

How Acne Care Innovations Are Working Out IRL

Acne care really hasn’t been innovated or changed in decades, and all of these brands found pockets in that market to jump into. Historically, acne treatments have been about drying out acne and aggressively treating it, and if you have sensitive skin, well, good luck! “We believe in effective, not aggressive, skincare. You don’t need to strip and dry out the skin to see improvement; you actually really need the polar opposite — you need to nourish the skin and heal the skin barrier,” explains iNNBEAUTY Project co-founder and Head of Innovation Jen Shane. Modern acne-care products are so much about barrier support, rather than stripping everything away. A damaged skin barrier, which is similar to cracks in a wall, lets bacteria and irritants in, creating the perfect environment for acne. So adding on harsh ingredients to dry the skin out will only exacerbate a damaged skin barrier. "There is a better way to treat your skin with love — allowing it to heal while effectively addressing your key concerns,” she says.
When it comes to body acne, VERSED realized there is no reason to contort your body just get to that one spot where you have breakouts on your back. They made the Back-Up Plan Acne Control Body Mist. "For whatever reason, body breakouts have reached the same level of de-stigmatization as facial acne, so for us it was super important to create a product that addresses it and tells the story that body acne — like facial acne — is normal,” says Hopp.

"The biggest innovation in acne care is education — arming people with real-life education is what creates the biggest change for them."

For Danielle Gronich of CLEARSTEM Skincare and founder of the San Diego Acne Clinic, she puts it very succinctly: "The biggest innovation in acne care is education, arming people with real-life education is what creates the biggest change for them." No one "thing" will fix someone’s acne for good and forever, and people understanding ingredients and percentages and efficacy is how we innovate — people aren’t completely crushed when their product isn’t working the way they hoped, they understand why
When you understand the science behind your skin and how a product works, consumers are willing to be a little more patient for seeing long term lasting results in their skin, understanding now that the short term “quick fixes” can sometimes cause further damage to the skin you are left correcting. "We don't believe in a one size fits all solution; after all, there are many different kinds of acne stories. And we always keep formulas safe for skin and earth, cruelty-free, and holistic for skin — don't treat blemishes while causing other issues,” explains Alicia Yoon of Peach & Lily and Peach Slices.
For both Hero Cosmetics and ZitSticka, it’s a good time to be in the pimple patch department, because the acne category has been under-innovated and under-invested for a really long time. "The success of Hero over the past few years is proof that by putting today's acne sufferer at the heart of what we do with smart innovation and the right message, we are addressing a whole new segment of people who have acne who traditionally have never been spoken to,” says Rhyu.
Kaplan goes even further: “Before we launched the brand, there was essentially no one [who] was producing a zit patch that used the microdart technology with ingredients baked into the darts,” he said. “As time progressed, we began to see this technology pop up more and more every year for a reason: They’re effective! Innovation also doesn’t just stop at acne tools. We’re seeing more and more innovative ingredients every year as well. Ingredients that have been used for centuries but just hadn’t received the recognition or the proper conduit they deserved.”
For Glover, EADEM is about continuing the work of creating effective skincare for Black women and women of color, who have historically been an afterthought in beauty. "Our customers are grateful to finally have products that are designed to help with their post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which is commonly caused by acne,” because no one likes living with the reminder of a blemish. No one.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Acne

We all need to just be more kind and more gentle with ourselves in so many ways. It’s difficult to have acne when it feels like it doesn’t exist social media due to filters, photoshopping apps, and approved accessibility. It’s happening, slowly, but surely. "In being more vulnerable about acne, we think it’s possible to cultivate a community in which people feel more empowered to treat them,” says Kaplan. Acne is a very emotional skin concern, and it’s one that is often very closely aligned with your own self-confidence. Nearly every brand founder for this story made a point to talk about how acne affects us all psychologically, and how necessary it is to keep that as a part of the conversation. “It’s just as important to not only treat the outward physical symptoms of acne, but to also look at what emotional challenges it may have caused,” says Shane. Acne-positivity has certainly become a larger movement in recent years — but that doesn't mean the conversation ends there.  
For estheticians like Rouleau and Hernandez, they’re hoping for a more empathetic and symbiotic relationship between skin-care professionals and their clients. “We need empathetic professionals [who] are using the appropriate language when speaking to acne clients. I’m also hoping that more skin-care professionals seek out dedicated acne training,” explains Hernandez.
Rouleau has optimism that there continues to be great innovation in the space, both in products and medications to treat acne. “There’s also been an increased conversation about the effect of hormones on acne, which can often be glossed over, and I’m hopeful that this will continue to be recognized by consumers, brands and medical professionals.” She also hopes that the conversation around acne becomes even more specialized and concentrated: “I would love to see more discussion about how to properly care for blemishes. We see a lot of guidance on not picking at your skin, but no one really tells you what to do to make a blemish go away without scarring.”
She explained the "fascinating life cycle" of a blemish — from the minute it appears, to various different phases, until it starts to go away and leaves a post-breakout mark — and that depending on the type of acne, whether it be papule, pustule, cyst, there’s a different protocol for what its life cycle will look like and how best to treat it. Another critical part of this is the frequency of blemishes, which doesn’t get addressed as much in the general conversation. “For many people, they see one pimple and start to use a product targeted to acne-prone skin. But there’s a huge difference between someone who gets one or two breakouts a month, versus someone who wakes up with a new blemish every day. There is often a blanket approach to acne, and I think it deserves a more individualized approach, taking all these factors into consideration.”
Martin agrees: “I think we have some more work to do on education around prevention and repair, and that’s an area we’re hyper focused in now,” My brother once said “every day is a new day to learn something,” and he’s unbelievably correct (as always, yuck.). She also hopes to see the conversation shift more towards appropriate skin goals and what super healthy acne-prone skin looks like. Hint: It still has bumps and scars, and of course, she also really wants to see way more people of color in these conversations. We see you.

“In all the normalization of acne, I want to make sure those [who] truly are struggling with it aren’t lost in the conversation. All experiences are valid. Even though the terminology we use may change, that doesn't always mean the way people experience acne does

Also, remember: Everyone is on their own path and journey, even with acne, and we must be respectful of that fact. Just because the way the industry is talking about acne has started to change in the past couple of years, doesn’t mean every person is there yet. For many people, acne is deeply emotional. So while some may wear their acne patches out and about with no problem or issue, others still may want to keep their treatment private and personal. “In all the normalization of acne, I want to make sure those [who] truly are struggling with it aren’t lost in the conversation. All experiences are valid. Even though the terminology we use may change, that doesn't always mean the way people experience acne does,” says Hopp.
"What was once something we ‘suffered’ from is becoming a skin attribute that individuals of all skin tones are experiencing or at least that is where the conversation is going," Verdejo emphasizes. "I know from personal experience that understanding that acne is natural and common doesn't always equate to a positive mindset when breakouts occur—so I always want to be careful of the distinction between the public conversation and the personal mindsets."
But that doesn’t mean you can’t roll your eyes when you have a pimple that won’t budge and a nosy colleague suggests just drinking water. Some things just can’t be helped.
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