Searching for Zac Efron: Or, My Quest for Clear Skin

By featured contributor, Dustin Garrett Rhodes

You know the expression, “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone”? That’s the story of my skin. I won’t bore anyone or wax poetic about the perfection that was my epidermis throughout my teen years. I didn’t know I was a lucky boy who escaped the evil rite of passage that is acne. I’ve paid dearly for having yearbook photos that aren’t embarrassing except for the bleached-white, spiky hair.

In my mid-20’s, and literally out of nowhere, my skin turned on me—an exacting revenge that was determined and unrelenting. My face exploded—a bomb of crimson red, angry looking zits all over my face; zits that would plague me for countless years. Little did I know that finding a solution for acne would be like trying to make a vegan cheese that doesn’t smell, taste and look like a half-melted yellow crayon.

When acne struck, I was Mr. All Natural and Organic. My entire life was about the power of the organic essential oil. I was cleaning my toilet and my face with, essentially, the same products. I bought into the myth that if it is “natural,” then it is good. I was convinced that some special, secret combination of lavender oil and unrefined organic coconut oil would save the world and my ugly face.

I literally spent thousands of dollars over the course of several very long years seeing dermatologists, acupuncturists, homeopaths and even chiropractors—an odd mix of people upon whom I projected magical powers. I constantly invented new theories for my acne—one week I was convinced my body was out of alignment and I got treatments by a polarity therapist and energetic chiropractor (seriously!), and the next I knew my Chi was fucked up, and I’d be laying face up with needles shoved into my knees and forehead. I did the Master Cleanse fast and rubbed god-knows-what on my face as prescribed by y non-English speaking acupuncturist (whom I loved dearly). Of course, it made perfect sense at the time that torturing myself would lead to zit-free beauty. Then, I’d eventually end right back at the dermatologist’s office where I started; they’d give me a new prescription full of toxic, cancer causing chemicals that had been squeezed into the eyes of bunnies, and it wouldn’t work as promised anyway, and then I would have been wracked with guilt for the rest of my life over the bunnies, and … .

Rinse and repeat.

All of it was embarrassing, exhausting, expensive and ultimately futile: my skin was determined to fuck me over until the bitter end.

The bitter end came in a grand, almost religious moment—a couple of days after I started using a new cream that was guaranteed to give me a, smooth face, which I was also hoping would resemble Zac Efron’s (let’s forget the fact that in reality, Zac Efron would have been, like, two when this was occurring). I was slathering some, supposedly, all natural plant-based brew on my face when, moments later, it appeared as though I’d been doused with battery acid. That’s when Jesus (or his Jewish-Buddhist step-cousin) spoke to me: “Thou shalt stop making your skin worse by putting things on it that are bad.” It became my mission in life to learn about skincare products, and that search took me places I never thought I’d go.

Fortunately for me, someone already made this her mission in life (inspired by acne, like myself)—Paula Begoun, the author of The Beauty Bible and Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me. I discovered her books in a local bookstore, and—pardon my while I sound like Cher in an infomercial—they changed my life forever.

Paula Begoun has spent three decades researching skincare—attempting to sort fact from fiction. The fiction is almost everything we are told about skincare products and what they can do—and what they can’t.  I also learned about natural versus synthetic ingredients—and how one is not inherently preferable or more efficacious over one that was developed in a petri dish in a laboratory. And not only that: consumers have been fed a pack of outright lies by companies that claim to be all-natural—because everyone uses preservatives and synthetic ingredients. It’s impossible not to. That’s not to mention: the process that turns a plant into an “all natural” ingredient in a cosmetic or skincare product is anything but natural. Trust me: no one is picking the leaf right off of an aloe vera plant and sticking it onto a jar!

One Step Face CleanserExfoliating 2% BHA GelBlemish Fighting SolutionSkin Balancing Super Antioxidant Mattifying Concentrate (Serum)

I put all of Begoun’s research to good use immediately: I stopped using any skincare products with essential oils, fragrance (of any kind), and anything that was not in stable, airtight packaging (air causes antioxidants in products to deteriorate in products almost immediately). I stopped using anything occlusive or products that contained alcohol or dyes. I was 100% compliant; I only used products that Paula herself recommended—and guess what? My skin was, almost miraculously, clear—for the first time since I was a teenager!

Cue the violins and soft piano.

Paula's Choice

Paula Begoun has been making her own products for many years now, and I believe they are incredible. Many of them are vegan, and none are tested on animals. They make no outlandish claims, are sold in stable, air-tight packaging, and contain impressive levels of antioxidants and skin-identical substances—all of which equal radiant skin. Her acne regimen is unparalleled.

I am constantly seeing recommendations for “all natural” or “organic” skin care lines on blogs (including this one) and other places on the web. I beg people who are interested in taking care of their skin to not take any company’s word on skin care—much less the advice of a non-professional (including myself, at the end of the day). And even if a product doesn’t irritate in an obvious way, it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s good for your skin! Some people are made of steel; others, like myself, can’t even bear having our skin looked at the wrong way!

My acne, incidentally, was not caused by the crappy products I was using; they simply exacerbated an already existing problem. All these years later, I still have to do more than most people to simply have clear skin. And I wish I could tell you I didn’t care, but that would also be false.

Just for the record, in case you are waiting for me to tell you I now look like Zac Afron, well, sadly, I don’t. Nor do I look like his step-cousin. However, I do have clear skin that requires daily maintenance and good air-brushing—just like Zac!

And so can you.


Dustin Rhodes is a writer and animal rights advocate living in Washington, D.C. He works for Friends of Animals.

I encourage everyone to visit: and Paula has an information page on her website stating which of her own products don’t contain animal ingredients. Ceramides and cholesterol (as well as beeswax) are present in a few products, and these ingredients are not vegan.

She also maintains a comprehensive website that evaluates the efficacy of thousands of products at:

From Paula’s own line of products, I personally recommend, and have found phenomenal success with the following products for those suffering from oily and/or acne-prone skin; all of these products are vegan:

  1. One Step Face Cleanser:
  2. 2% Beta Hydroxy Gel or Liquid (I prefer the gel):
  3. 2.5% Blemish Fighting Solution:
  4. Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Mattifying Concentrate:
  5. Skin Balancing Mattifying Lotion with SPF 15:

10 Responses to Searching for Zac Efron: Or, My Quest for Clear Skin

  1. lagusta says:

    Wow, this is really fascinating, thanks Dustin! What a great point that not all “all-natural” skin care products are “healthy.” I have a friend who swears by full-strength tea tree oil directly on her skin, and I think that would burn me alive. I’m a Lush girl, do you know Lush? They have so many vegan products and I am just in love with them.

    • Drew Kapke says:

      Lush has wonderful scents, but i would encourage you to read the reviews for that line on or in Paula’s book. If you feel a product works for you by all means use it, but just be aware that fragrance of any kind is not good for skin. I myself am a scent driven person, but have slowly given up putting scents of any kind on my body(except for cologne).

  2. Becci says:

    I really appreciate this blog post because I too had perfect skin…up until a year or two ago. I’m in my late 20’s and adult acne has hit me, and I’m having a lot of trouble making anything work. I will definitely look into this Paula stuff!! Thanks!

  3. […] I was pointed to it, weirdly, by two people within five minutes, both blog readers! Kara emailed Joshua & I to see if I could donate some chocos to an event he’s involved with (yes! Also, this event is at Peter Max’s studio, and his wife Mary Max used to be a client of mine, ah, that small NYC vegan world…), then in the next minute, Dustin emailed to tell me he had a cute little piece up on Joshua’s site. […]

  4. Dustin says:


    I highly recommend Paula’s Choice products (and I swear I am not a secret employee, either!). I didn’t say this in the piece, but the secret is to follow her steps and advice 100% (they are on her website, free of charge under the “Learn” heading). Comparatively, her products are inexpensive, too, and there’s almost always a sale or promotion of some kind (right now sunscreens are 30% off!). In other words, I didn’t get perfect results until I followed all the steps. I also think I exacerbated my own problems by using irritating products. She recommends other lines, too, but I am almost always disappointed.

  5. Mark says:

    Congratulations on finding the solution. I suffered for over two years with severe roseacea and trying every natural or homeopathic solution I could find. Nothing worked for me.

    A dermatologist (world-class) figured out the problem (infection out of control from insect reaction), and within 4 months of using medication and ointment (hell, hadn’t even had as much as an aspirin in twenty years) my skin was completely “clear” and has remained so since.

    It’s hard to express what it’s like to have people (and especially children) stare at you ’cause you look like a leper. I was too frickin’ stubborn and should have sought out help sooner.

    But, you found a solution, have identified some fine products, and have had the guts to write about it.

    My sincere respect and admiration… so glad it’s all well.

    Best regards, Mark

  6. tinako says:

    I’m a little confused. I went to Paula’s site and on the first page I read she seems to be in favor of testing cosmetics on animals, saying that the opposite is unsafe: I’m actually having good luck with Aubrey cleanser.

    The recession-busters she mentions are all non-vegan, animal-tested products I avoid like the plague:

    I was hoping for guidance in buying effective vegan products. I’m going broke trying to buy with conscience. I can’t pay $25 for a bottle of face cleanser.

  7. When you grow older your skin will lose its elasticity and your skin will become very thin. There are other factors also that will make the skin worn out. So care for skin is very important no matter what age you are because the sooner you take care of your skin the healthier it will be and the more you will be able to prevent skin problems and wrinkles or fine lines.

  8. Angela says:

    Thanks for this recommendation. I’m going to try it and will comment back with my experience. Just wanted to make a note that one of the products you list, #4 Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Mattifying Concentrate, is not vegan as it contains retinol. I chose the Skin Balancing Moisture Gel instead. When looking at products to choose, another non-vegan ingredient to watch for besides cholestorol, ceramides, and retinol is creatine–I found that some products had that as well.

    • Dustin says:

      Hi Angela.

      According to Paula’s Choice, the retinol in the mattifying antioxidant concentrate is plant-sourced. Supposedly, retinol can either be animal or plant-derived.

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