Skincare SOS: My Recovery Routine When I've Been Bad

I'm in the dermal doghouse.  My skin is in crisis: dry and greasy, flakes everywhere, clogged pores overrun with sebaceous filaments & blackheads, dull & uneven texture, every wrinkle in sharp relief, and coated in a disgusting shell of dead skin mixed with sebum and who knows what else.   I'm sorry, skin; I know I've done you wrong.

Today, as I apologized to my skin for neglecting it for ... weeks, really, it occurred to me that rather than reviewing the cleanser I was about to use in my "bringing my skin back from exile" routine, I should talk about that instead.  So today's post is all about how to bring skin back from the brink of despair.

Lineup of Korean Beauty and Taiwanese Beauty products
Farewell, lovely things on the right, until this skincare penance is over.
Obviously, everyone's skin is different, and what works for me isn't going to work for everyone, but it's not the specific products which are important, but their function, so anything that fills that role will work!

In this post:

  • Routine to recover from long-term neglect; illness, depression, or skincare ennui
    • Cleansing, re-balancing, and dealing with breakouts
  • Products I avoid while I'm nursing my skin back to health

As tempting as it is to go hard with every problem solver in your Skincare Wardrobe to bring your skin up to speed, resist the urge for instant gratification.  It will only bring woe-- and breakouts, more flakes, and possibly permanent damage.  We're playing the long game, and patience will be rewarded.

Just as a quick reminder: this blog uses both affiliate and non-affiliate links, and if you choose to click the former before you shop, your purchase may contribute a tiny amount to the maintenance of this blog.  See full details at the end of this post! #receipts

Routine to recover from long-term neglect; illness, depression, or skincare ennui

I'm not going to dwell on the reasons why, but I've been spending a lot of time in bed over the last few weeks (or even months, really) and dredging up the motivation to crawl into the bathroom for an elaborate skin routine was the last thing on my list of priorities.  In fact, any sort of skincare was the last on my list of priorities; if I managed to shower or run a bath on occasion, that was a victory.

My skin is a mess, and it needs systematic work.  Thankfully, I know what I need to do to tackle it.

Korean, Taiwanese, and Western beauty products for acne prone skin
Belatedly, I realized that the AHAs in this picture should have been placed at the end. Whoops!
My skin is dehydrated, combination (dry & oily areas), and clog-prone, so my long-term neglect fix is focused on not overwhelming my skin with too much exfoliation or too much product.

Time to start with the basics: cleansing off that grime!

Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser
As you can see, this is well-used and nearly empty.
First, a non-irritating low-pH cleanser (read why pH matters here) that is strong enough to start cleaning away the layers of goo, without stripping my skin.  Right now I'm using the Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser, which is low pH, cheap, effective, cheap, and comes in a huge tube.  Did I mention cheap?  Also cheap.  Where to get it:  Amazon | eBay | Bisou Beauty Bar | Jolse | KoreaDepart

Mizon AHA/BHA Daily Clean toner
One of my many, many empty bottles of this toner.
Cleansing toners are optional, as are pH-adjusting toners, and I use one that is both.  (You can read about the differences between cleansing and hydrating toners here.)  You don't need to use this kind of product, but when I'm trying to slog through the buildup from long-term neglect without being too harsh, it's great.  Swiping my face with a cotton pad saturated with a weakly acidic toner provides a gentle manual exfoliation that wipes away dead skin and anything loosened by cleansing, leaving it clean and bare for my next step.  My perennial fave is still the Mizon AHA/BHA Daily Clean toner, and it's not, I repeat, not discontinued.  Where to get it: Amazon | eBay | KoreaDepart

Paula's Choice Resist Daily Pore-Refining Treatment With 2% BHA Exfoliant
It smells iffy, but it works.
After weeks of neglect and sketchy, infrequent cleansing, my pores are clogged as hell.  Counter-intuitively, now is not the time to dig in and go hard on clearing out my pores.  Why?  I'm going to purge, and it's going to be ugly.  There's an army of proto-breakouts lurking under the surface of my skin, and the last thing I need is to unleash them all at once.  I don't want scarring or hyperpigmentation.  It's better for me to ease back into exfoliation, so the purging is gradual and more manageable.  I'm going to start with just BHA exfoliant to dissolve the clogs while preventing new ones, and in a few weeks, I'll start easing back in the heavy hitters like my prescription azelaic acid and an AHA exfoliant to dig deep and pull things to the surface.  I'm using Paula's Choice Resist Daily Pore-Refining Treatment With 2% BHA, which has an ultra-watery texture and is strong enough to coax my pores to Snesus without irritation.  Where to get it: Paula's Choice Website (you can get $10 off your first order with this referral code if you need one.) | Amazon | eBay

Lovemore silk masks, My Scheming black cloth masks
Perennial favourites.
If you take something away from your skin, you need to add something back to balance it.  I've abruptly deprived my skin of the oily shell that has been coating it for too long, so my skin is going to need moisture.  I also need to reduce inflammation and keep it hydrated so it's more resilient; resilient skin is going to weather a storm of breakouts better than dry, fragile skin.  I also need to avoid anything that will re-clog my skin, so creams, packs, oils, etc are out.  How do I deeply hydrate my skin without overloading it and triggering breakouts?  Sheet masks.

Sheet masks are a multitasking boon; not only will they slowly and thoroughly saturate my skin with hydration, their cooling effect from evaporation will soothe irritation and inflammation.  I especially like "whitening" type masks for acne care, because they're usually chock-full of anti-inflammatory ingredients to provide temporary reduction in redness.  That's a perk if I'm battling breakouts!  The ones I reach for the most are Taiwanese sheet masks, because they're light, comfortable, cheap, machine-manufactured,  and readily available.  The ones I reach for the most are:

Image from: Sheet Mask Reviews & Empties: a Month of Getting #Sheetfaced
Still the gold standard for affordable silk masks, my sheet mask stash is full of Lovemore masks, or it was until I repeatedly raided it. These ultra-light, comfortable masks cling so well that you can wear them while doing activities, like lying in bed listlessly eyeing daylight sneaking through your blinds, or avoiding your news feed by marathoning Netflix, or deciding that today is just too much for pants.  I'm actually wearing one right now as I write this post, which makes me feel 50% more productive. Where to get it: eBay | Beautibi | BonjourHK | Crystal Cove Beauty

Image from: Sheet Mask Reviews & Empties: a Month of Getting #Sheetfaced
My Scheming is still semi on my shit list, because of the reformulation incident of The Burning Snail Mask of Fiery Face Death, but I'm down with any original-formula masks, pulp masks, and their black cloth masks.  The black cloth masks are heavier than the others, packing enough of a hydration punch that my skin doesn't need a regular moisturizer afterwards.  Bonus perk: unlike regular sheet masks, the dark material doesn't reflect the light of your smartphone when you're reading dire news at 3 am, ensuring that your sleeping spouse isn't held hostage to your insomnia. Where to get it: Amazon | eBay | Sasa

My Beauty Diary sheet mask
Image from one of my olllllld reviews.
I don't talk about My Beauty Diary masks much, although I used to use them regularly.  Like many people, I moved on from these beginner-type masks as I discovered better options.  Why are they on this list? If the cost of silk masks is a deterrent or you're looking for instant gratification, MBD masks are very cheap and they're often available in grocery stores; you can even find them in Target and Walmart, if you want to throw some into your cart along with your boxes of wine and unspeakable comfort foods.  Where to get it: Amazon | eBay | Target | Walmart | Sasa | BonjourHK | Beautibi

Paula's Choice Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment With 10% AHA, Mizon 8% AHA Peeling Serum
I've gone through many bottles of the Mizon AHA, because it's cheap, but it has issues with supply.
While I won't use it all over my face yet, AHA makes an excellent spot treatment (as recommended by Tracy of Fanserviced-b) speeding up emerging breakouts without disrupting the surrounding skin.  Currently I use Paula's Choice Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment With 10% AHA, but my former mainstay was Mizon 8% AHA Peeling Serum.  I use a cotton bud to apply it for precision's sake.
Where to get Paula's Choice AHA: Paula's Choice website  (you can get $10 off your first order with this referral code if you need one.) | Amazon | eBay
Where to get Mizon's AHA: Amazon | eBay

Cosrx and 3M Nexcare hydrocolloid acne stickers
I'm going to be slapping some of these on my two new facial friends before bed.
When the blemish opens, I slap on a hydrocolloid acne sticker to quickly drain, flatten, and speed the healing of the breakout.  HCB (hydrocolloid bandages) are game-changing, and if you haven't tried them, run, don't walk.  The only caveat is that the blemish has to be open, because the HCB can't drain it otherwise.  Since I'm not a medical professional, I recommend googling how to safely lance a blemish.  I use either the Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patches or the 3M Nexcare Acne Dressing Pimple Care Patch Stickers; I liked both although the Corsx is a little more luxe (and pricey.)  Apparently there is a difference between the 3M stickers made in Asia and the ones made in North America; I've tried and liked both the Taiwanese and Korean versions.
Where to get Cosrx stickers: Amazon | eBay | Jolse | Mishibox | Bisou Beauty Bar
Where to get 3M Nexcare stickers: Amazon | eBay | Sasa | BonjourHK

Products I avoid while I'm nursing my skin back to health

It's like going back to the gym after a hiatus: too much too soon is a bad thing.  Here's what I am skipping for the next few weeks, or longer:

Paula's Choice AHA, Mizon AHA, and Curology Azelaic acid
These reappear, but as full-face treatments instead of precision spot treatments as above.
Overexfoliation will not help my skin recover.  As I mentioned above, I'm avoiding intense exfoliants so I don't end up pulling more breakouts to the surface than I can deal with at once.  Some actives have a period of adjustment, such as retinoids and azelaic acid, where the skin has to build up a tolerance before it can be used frequently, so those are benched for now.  When I've finished clearing out the current clogs with my BHA exfoliant, I'll start reincorporating these.  You can learn more about what actives I have in my Skincare Wardrobe here.

Korean creams, essences, and facial oils
They're so pretty, and I want to play with them.  *sobs*
While winter is coming, right now my skin is in no shape to be smothered with anything rich, so creams, oils, and sleeping packs are out for a bit until things stabilize.  I anticipate a week or so of my minimal routine will have my skin ready for some regular moisturizers, but right now, if I layer creams over clogged pores, it's going to get ugly.  The sleeping pack in the next photo is so tempting but I'll wake up with banana-scented breakouts.

Korean peeling gel, mask packs, sleeping pack, peeling mask, modelling masks, scrubs
So much tempting goodness.
It's a great time of the year for fun and interesting things like rubber/modelling masks, mask packs, and sleeping packs, because the weather is cool and dry and my skin is able to tolerate heavier products.  Unfortunately, right now I need to focus on undoing the results of my neglect first, so these are also benched for now.  Any sort of manual mask or treatment is right out: no clay masks, peeling masks, scrubs or peeling gels until my time in the dermal doghouse is done.

Have you ever had to plot a skincare recovery plan after a long period of neglect?  Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!

Have something you'd like to share with me in general?  Snap a pic and tag me on Instagram at @snowwhiteandtheasianpear because I'd love to see it!

All the best,

**Disclaimer: All products reviewed on this blog are purchased by me, or in rare cares, were personal gifts from friends or family.  There was a single exception of a press sample I tested & reviewed in 2015 which swore me off of them forever.  This blog contains both affiliate and non-affiliate links, and clicking the former before you shop means that this blog may receive a small commission to assist in this blog supporting itself.  Please see my Contact Info & Disclaimer policy for more information.


  1. Anything that can help with hydration is needed for my dry skin. Love all of the options and suggestions. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. How come you don't use benzoyl peroxide ? I only went acne free once I used benzoyl peroxide. Bha helped but I still got acne when I only use that. It makes sense now that I think about it since Bp goes in the pores and eradicates the bacteria that cause acne. If I don't use Bp consistently the bacteria will reclaim their spot in my pores. I finally found the original article that supported effective aid using Bp as a wash off

  3. By the way I use the five percent gel and wash it off after 3 minutes and it still works

  4. Very helpful post, thank you!
    Aleeha xXx

  5. I check your blog regularly and was wondering whether anything was wrong when you had not posted for a month. Welcome back. I just wanted you to know that I enjoy reading and learning from your articles and that you were missed.

  6. These product suggestions are great! I find the low pH cleanser suuuuper drying personally, but I haven't really delved into masks so all the cheap options/links really help!

    PLZ post a follow-up! I'm super interested to hear how you slowly incorporate the hardcore actives.

  7. Can we expect a full review for the PC BHA? :)

  8. Good to see you back active. I enjoyed this post. I'm relatively new to asian beauty skincare and I've been marathon reading as many posts on your blog as I can. They're all super helpful. As someone with sensitive, oily, acne-prone skin, Proactiv was killing my skin and your posts have been helping me ease my way into treating my skin right.

  9. Thank you! This post is EXACTLY what I needed with my skin sulkily rioting after one of those not-so-great months, courtesy of depression. Bleh! Learned the hard way about reaching out to my occlusives for comfort in these troubled times. Oh man, what a mess. :D

  10. On HCBs- I find that sometimes they can help bring things closer to the surface of the skin, but they definitely are at their best once whatever the monster is has been opened up. If I feel like I have a bad breakout coming on I will often use Origin's charcoal mask to help bring things to the surface and then use HCB once they're open..... mostly just because the charcoal mask is cheaper! :p

    Also, I've been sheetmasking daily for about a week and my skin is so much better.... I may need to do this more often. Even made a spreadsheet! Sheetmasks <3

  11. How long do you plan on using the SOS routine? I know you wrote "a few weeks"--does that mean two, three, whenever you feel like your skin is properly hydrated to completion?

  12. Agree with your assessment. Lots of your sos is my simplified routine...the cgmlphc, Mizon toner, Paula bha ( only resist is sufficiently non-oily)...then other stuff. My skin went kerflooey, much as other systems (immune mediated arthritis and gastro (my mum called them gizzards....) When I got a couple of infections. Haven't had great success w/hcbs. Think I tried them too early in the formation. Plus, if you use the Paula bha 9, it tends to damp them down, rather than draw them out. You reminded me to use the aha, too. Finding an aha that passed my personal cosdna was lengthy. You'd think I'd remember. S.o. Asked why no BP? Another thing I've been allergic to for a dog's age. If my middle names weren't google and cosdna, and my favorite channel wasn't investigation discovery, I'd bloody well hate skincare. Think I'll go wash and try a lululun.

  13. I have had a few weeks of neglect and am so glad I found this article. Is my bae sunscreen, Biore Watery Essence, too harsh for right now? I have fairly normal skin and don't normally have any problem with that sunscreen, but should I be avoiding the alcohol in that sunscreen? The shiseido one seems like it might be too heavy though.

  14. Hi Cat,
    I have the same skin type with you, which is comfortable at cheeks and oily at T-zone. However, suddenly skin around my mouth and eyes and between my eyebrows are becoming so flaky, by which I mean it obviously peels off. I have tried exfoliating and more moisturizing gel but it didn't seem to improve. Have you ever experienced flaky skin and what would you do to improve the condition? Thankz a lot, I'm desperate!

  15. Was talking to a nice lady from Wishtrend, asking some questions - a newbie to anything more than L'Oreal skin care, and also having had a long time with no skincare. My oiliness is only a little bit and in small spots, maybe not as bad as yours, and I mentioned this post (sorry) and asked her advice. She said she'd love to come and read your blog. But, her advice was not very in depth. Would something similar to your routine, but less harsh with the BHA's and a gentler cleanser, be suitable for someone whose 'gunk' is less bad?

    Also - I'm sorry you've had a rough time and not felt up to skin care. I notice you've been away again for some months and wish you all the best with whatever is going on right now.

  16. I'm confused. So how often can you exfoliate? Or do you have any link I can refer about this exfoliating routine? Thank you!