My Favorites of 2015: Actives (AKA, skincare that does stuff)

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Throughout the rest of December, I’ll do some roundups of my favorite products of 2015. These aren’t necessarily products that came out this year, just ones that I’ve fallen in love with in the last 12 months. For this second post, I’m covering actives.

There was one discovery that took my love of skincare from casual acquaintance to full-blown A Beautiful Mind-style obsession, one genre of products that changed the way I think about skincare: actives.

Actives are, generally speaking, the products that verifiably, scientifically “do stuff”. They have a wealth of peer-reviewed research backing up their ability to exfoliate the outer layer of skin cells, or regulate cell turnover, or decrease sebum production, or any other number of super-important effects.

Specifically, I think of actives as the following ingredients: AHAs, BHAs, vitamin C, retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide. The designation “active” is a mushy one that’s up for debate, and I’m open to expanding that definition, but for now that’s how I’m defining it.

I tried a lot of great actives this year, and I tried a lot of duds. There are three that clearly rise to the top, ones that have taken up a throne of Holy Grail that I can’t see them ever abdicating.

I just moved and all my skincare is still spread between boxes, so please excuse the borrowed images.


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Formerly known as Pocketderm, this is a subscription service available to most states in the U.S. You submit some info about your skin and a few photos, and you’re matched to a medical professional who prescribes you a personalized treatment cream with three of the following ingredients, depending on your skin type and goals: tretinoin, azelaic acid, clindamycin, niacinamide, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP).

That’s the technical description. The emotional description is that you will pry my Curology bottle out of my cold, dead, lookin’-10-years-younger-than-they-actually-are fingers.

I’ve been using Curology since June; my current Rx is 0.035% tretinoin, 4% niacinamide, and 5% MAP. Tretinoin is probably the single most powerful active that I use; it increases cell turnover and makes skin cells stick less to each other, helping your pores shed clogs, even out your skin tone and texture, and fade hyperpigmentation. (Fun fact: tretinoin is another word for retinoic acid, so it’s pronounced like retinoic: tret-ih-NOH-in.)

Not only has my skin become clearer, brighter, plumper, and more even since I’ve been using it, it’s also been so wonderful to have personal advice from a medical professional right at my fingertips. My experience with Curology has been 100% positive and I could not recommend it more highly.

If you’re interested in trying it out, you can follow this link and get your first month free.

Makeup Artist’s Choice Acid Peels

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MUAC’s at-home chemical peels are like the old Ford pickup trucks of the skincare world: they’re not pretty or fancy, but they get shit done.

I use their 25% Mandelic, 40% Mandelic, and 15% Mandelic/15% Salicylic acid peels with regularity. These are all highly potent concentrations of hydroxy acids that you leave on for just 3-5 minutes; in that time, they exfoliate like madmen. They’re fantastic at fading hyperpigmentation, evening skin texture, and leaving you with insanely soft, bouncy skin. They can also increase collagen production, which is a great way to get more resilient, younger-looking skin.

Chemical peels sound scary, but mandelic acid is one of the largest AHA molecules; that means it doesn’t penetrate your skin as far and causes significantly less irritation than smaller molecules like glycolic acid. For both the 25% and 40% mandelic peels, I’ve never experienced any burning, peeling, or significant discomfort. (I managed to give myself a mild chemical burn the first time I used the mandelic/salicylic peel. The burn healed with no scarring in about a week. But if you notice any “frosting” while the peel is on – sudden whitish spots – wash it off immediately with water.)

I use the mandelic peels about 2-3 times per month and the mandelic/salicylic peel once every month or two. I find I actually get less irritation if I use it like that as my main source of AHA rather than a daily 8% AHA toner. Goddamn, I love this stuff. And it’s so quick – three minutes and my skin is transformed.

It’s not too expensive, either – the sample size will last you for about 10 peels. Pick some up here. You can also use this link to get 25% off your order.

Skinceuticals CE Ferulic (and my DIY knock-off)

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Sometimes, I dream that I’m a trust fund baby, with a penthouse apartment and a vacation home in Bali. I play the violin – badly, but no one tells me that – and I couldn’t identify a can opener in a lineup. When I wake up, I splash my face with pure Evian and then apply Skinceuticals CE Ferulic to my face and neck before taking my breakfast in the pool house.

Skinceuticals CE Ferulic is fucking expensive, is what I’m saying. At $120 an ounce, this is not a skincare product you take lightly. But since they have a patent on products with vitamin C, vitamin E and ferulic acid formulated between pH 2.5-3.0 – basically, the ideal combination and pH for vitamin C serums – they’re the only real game in town, as far as I’m concerned.

I got my hands on a couple of sample bottles a few months ago, and holy shit, you guys. At the time, I had a couple clusters of very stubborn closed comedones (little flesh-colored bumps) from a bad reaction to Mizon All-In-One Snail Repair Cream. Those little buggers were determined to stay on my face, and survived regular AHA, BHA, chemical peel, and konjac sponge attacks.

I started using the Skinceuticals serum, and within two weeks, all my CCs had purged. It. Was. Incredible. Not only that, but my skin was smooth, bright, even – my dark undereye circles even started vanishing. For the month that my sample bottles lasted, I was in heaven.

And thus ended my experience with Skinceuticals. I don’t believe in using bulk samples long-term because that’s essentially stealing from the manufacturer and giving the profit to the middle man, and there was no way I could afford it full-price.

But, in my growing obsession with DIY, I discovered this recipe from Lotioncrafter that’s (shhhh) a dupe for Skinceuticals. I’ve made a few tweaks to it – I’ll post my own tutorial soon – and I’m in love. It’s not quite the same quality as Skinceuticals, but it’s still head and shoulders above every other vitamin C serum on the market.

I use it every morning, and it’s my favorite active, period. I use a little squalane in my recipe, which means it’s also a titch moisturizing, and I feel like I could condense my morning routine to just vitamin C serum and my skin would be happy. I never would, of course, because I love putting as much stuff on my face as possible, but it’s nice to know that that option is there.


  1. Love this. I’ve been wanting to try a peel, especially now that I’m not using my AHA and BHA daily anymore now that I’m also on Curology. We actually have the same prescription though I’m still on a weaker strength of tret. I’ll have to try the MUAC peels, I didn’t know they had samples!

    I’m loving your Favorites of 2015 posts so far but I’m getting a little nervous… your sheet mask one inspired a massive haul haha. I couldn’t rationalize picking up all 50 of the soy milk ones from Sasa because I’ve never tried them but somehow managed to rationalize 30 -.- I also ordered a couple single masks of some of their other flavors because they’re were doing 8 for 10 on those then picked up some My Scheming masks. I also have a ton of MBD, Lovemore, L’Herboflore, Sister Diary, Annie’s Way, Leaders, and various other sheet masks on the way. Temporarily broke over here.

    And now I have a feeling I’ll be ordering from MUAC soon too. I’m shopping for a Vitamin C serum too actually, I won’t be repurchasing the OST that’s for sure. Have you heard of the Skin Actives one? It seems similar to the SkinCueticals one and I love that you mix it when it arrives, which keeps it fresh longer. May try the SC samples too though.

    (Sorry I always ramble!)

    1. Oh! And I thought of you the other day. I saw Sana has some of their soy milk sheet masks on Beautius. They’re a little pricey, 4 for $12 so they may be cheaper elsewhere but I wonder if they’re any good.

    2. YESSSSS I’m inordinately thrilled that I inspired a massive Sasa haul. I hope you love those masks as much as I do!

      I haven’t tried the Skin Actives one or heard much about it, but the ingredients list looks phenomenal. Let me know what you think if you do end up getting it.

      And never apologize for rambling! I love your rambles.

  2. I JUST ordered the sample kit of the skinceuticals CE serum yesterday. Hopefully it can help me out with some old cc’s on my chin/jawline. I am 2 weeks into Curology and loving that as well (I’m on the baby dose of clindimycin, azaleac acid, niamainimide). So now I guess I will have to check out the MUAC peels! haha. Happy holidays, thanks for all the great research and sharing.

  3. Hi,
    I really liked the part about the Makeup Artist’s Choice Acid Peels..
    any chance you do an in depth article about these peels?
    im using at home cosrx 4% bha and papa recipe 8% aha ,
    but i dont know with which mandelic acid peel i should start –
    can you point out how to start and what are the step?

    thanks !!!!

  4. I have been using MUAC peels for a number of years. They have great info on their site on how to select the right one. They offer a professional grade c serum. Any thoughts about that one ?

    1. I just checked out the ingredients and it looks good. 20% L-Ascorbic Acid, which is the maximum effective amount, plus tocopheryl acetate (a more stable but less effective form of tocopherol). No ferulic acid, but definitely worth checking out.

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