Is it just us or is sweaty, muggy summer the worst season for skin? Until, you know, autumn comes along, and then that's like the worst season for skin? Until suddenly-allergic-to-salycilic-acid winter comes and then you're like hold the fuck on, every single season my skin just gets worse and worse? Oh yes: aging! We were grousing about this with our friend Loren one day when we realized her skin was, um, not in the mood to relate to us. In fact, Loren's skin was so good we hadn't seen skin like it on an adult with the exception of our own Jezebel Jennie [Uh, isn't it 'Jenny'? Ugh. -Ed.] whose vegan, mostly teetotaling, acupunctured lifestyle would put most monks to shame. Loren, on the other hand, smokes in her house. And drinks — well, like the rest of us do! Who is she sleeping with, we wondered. Sheepishly, she gave it up: A nasty fucker known as Retin-A Micro. And boy has the first year with him been abusive! After the jump, Loren's long, strange trip.
The night I met the guy I'm currently dating, he made me show him my driver's license to prove that I was the twenty-six I said I was instead of the twenty-two he insisted I must have been. Months later in our relationship, I had a sudden, belated pang of fear that he secretly wished I was twenty-two, and asked him why he'd thought I was. "Your skin. It's like... perfect," he told me. "Most twenty-six year olds already have some lines."
"Fuck you," I said, as this was clearly a bald-faced lie designed to make me feel better about my pukish blend of cigarette lines and acne scars, dingy blackheads and new, oozing zits. Then I remembered that I didn't have those anymore. I'd been using Retin-A Micro for the past year. Had it finally actually worked?
My acne had never been the kind that begets, like, pockmarks or anything, but it was bad enough to spend what seems like at least the plurality of my waking hours picking at. I consistently had a significant zit or two plus assorted clogged pores and blackheads (with that number tripling or quadrupling just in time to make me feel even more awesome about myself during PMS week) that I loved nothing more than to squeeze and poke and prod. Nothing, after all, is more satisfying than the sound a really good one makes upon giving up the white stuff. Other, that is, than the sight of said stuff splattering the mirror! So yeah, I had acne scars. Duh.
I hadn't considered using a prescription acne product before my friend Heather's boyfriend left a tube of his Retin-A Micro at her house. (Yeah, gay.) I used it just to see what would happen, and woke up with blissfully plump, radiant skin. It had also cleared up the zit problem, albeit very temporarily. What the fuckery was this? I needed some of this shit! I needed to do it. For me. When's the last time I did something for me? Like, never. Or, you know, like yesterday. But whatever. I wanted to be that girl with the perfect skin. I deserved it.
Retin-A Micro's active ingredient is a retinol called tretinoin that—and don't sue me, I'm a layman and this is to the best of my understanding—basically causes your skin to shed and renew itself at a much faster rate than it normally would, which means that it doesn't have enough time for the excess yuck that causes acne to get trapped between the layers. It's applied at nighttime, right between face wash and moisturizer. This means you have to learn to wash your face at night, even when shitfaced. I'm not saying this was easy.
The information on Retin-A Micro's official website tells you that you can expect all minor irritation as well as most of your acne symptoms to go away in two to seven weeks. This is a filthy lie. I wanted to wear a paper bag over my head for the first three months, despite using it only every other night and with copious quantities of moisturizer. The flaking, cracking, itching, and redness described so matter-of-factly on the website as a typical side effect was gruesome. I would wake up in the morning with shiny red patches of dead skin too tender to pull off concentrated around my chin and mouth area that would, over the course of the day, flake off onto my clothes like charming little snowdrifts of face-dandruff. And if you miss a spot in applying your sunscreen at the beginning of the day it will immediately turn the color of cancer.
The other thing I experienced was "purging." This meant that my acne was worse than it's ever been in my
life during the weeks the Retin-A Micro furiously sloughed layer after layer of my skin off to reveal all at once the new, exciting pustules that had been lurking there all along, waiting to surface gradually and slowly wreck my life. First, I stopped leaving the house altogether. Then I started avoiding mirrors. This, too, was something I deserved. Beauty hubris had gotten me here and I would be made to suffer for it.
After three months, things were better but not great. I had fewer zits. There were moments when my skin was perfectly clear and beautiful. I also spent about fifteen minutes every morning meticulously rubbing off the lovely, flaky, dead-skin beard that had surfaced around my jaw line overnight, and my previous obsession with squeezing blackheads morphed into a new obsession with searching out and removing errant skin-flakes. I also experienced acute sensitivity. After spending an ill-advised night making out with my poorly-shaven Italian ex-boyfriend, he gasped at the sight of me under the bright, florescent lights of the Dunkin' Donuts that was our eminently refined post-makeout ritual.
"I marked you all up!" he whispered in my ear. "Your neck looks like you barely escaped from the trailer park alive." Upon inspection, I saw that he was correct. My poor little faccia was all tore up; red and angry-looking. "Fuck you, Jason. We're never making out again."
Abstaining from makeout sessions with coarse-haired exes was not the only concession I had to make for Retin-A Micro. I also had to give up all but my gentlest face products, switching from the Dr. Hauschka line to Purpose. I knew by now that exfoliation was a bad idea, as were professional facials, going to sleep in my makeup, and sharing a girlfriend's Queen Helena Mint Julep mud mask. My skin may have finally begun to look like porcelain, but it was just as fragile.
I hardly noticed the slow tapering-off of Retin-A Micro's side effects or the slow increase of its benefits, but somewhere along the line, it started working for me. My skin looks better now than it did when I was in high school. While I still get the occasional pimple, it goes away quickly and it's never part of a larger trend of bad skin like it used to be. Also, Retin-A Micro's sloughing action does an even better job on wrinkles and skin texture than it does on acne. My face is smooth and even-toned, and far less reactive to stress or stubble than it used to be. It seems to be on my side again, or maybe on my side at last.
That being said, I'm really, really, really vain now, like the first girl in high school to stop eating things. And that, in reality, is probably uglier than a little bit of the old pizza-face. Oh well!