I've finally figured out how to "solve" (read: effectively manage) my acne problems and thought I would let people know what worked for me.
Firstly, I want to thank Tracey from The Love Vitamin for giving me the ideas that have helped me manage my acne. Check out her website--it's a great resource!
My Struggle With Acne
So my story is that I started out with some acne in my teen years. My Ob-gyn put me on the pill when I was 16 (which I now believe was a TERRIBLE TERRIBLE idea--please don't ever take artificial hormones especially when you're still growing). It helped with the acne but messed me up in other ways.
Once I got off the pill, the acne came back and at some point I started using proactiv to clear the acne. This seemed to help somewhat but I would still get pimples here and there, especially around my period. It never occurred to me that my lifestyle may have something to do with it even though the times I remember my skin being at its best were the times when I was living a relatively stress-free lifestyle and getting lots of sleep.
Over time, I fell for all the cosmetics advertising and by the time I was 25 I was using a fairly harsh face-wash + scrub TWICE A DAY followed by proactive repairing lotion and a moisturizer with all kinds of chemicals in it. (When I think back on it now I shudder!)
The only reason I started re-thinking any of this is because I became allergic to some of the cosmetics I was using (I still don't know specifically which ones). In my struggle to stop my eyes from burning all the time I stopped using everything (except concealer which I still use to hide the fading acne scars despite being mildly allergic to it--hopefully I can stop using that one day as well).
When I stopped using proactive (and everything else) my face went crazy and I would get tons of acne everywhere--it was very embarrassing and I barely left the house if I could help it. I tried all kinds of natural products--turmeric, manuka honey (and I discovered I was mildly allergic to honey and it made the acne worse), jojoba oil, coconut oil, oil-cleansing, etc. None of it worked all that well.
Eventually, about 3 months later, things came together and my skin started getting better. Partly I think my skin just needed that long to recover from all the harsh chemicals I had been using on it. But partly it had to do with 2 things I started doing around that time: eating lots of fruits and vegetables and decreasing the carbs I was eating; and second, implementing a pseudo-caveman regimen.
Regarding my diet, I'm vegetarian and therefore my diet wasn't "paleo" in its true sense. I just started eating a lot more nutrition-dense food items and decreased (but not eliminated) carbs. I also significantly decreased my intake of dairy and soy. I still ate cheese but somehow the diet still worked for me. I also started taking a few supplements at the time: Vegan Omega-3 (called Ovega-3), a food-based multi-vitamin (Megafood), and zinc here and there.
The pseudo-caveman regimen which I started around the same time started with about a month of not washing my face as much as possible with some washing with water only to remove concealer (which I wore very little of and only where I had scars). I had some peeling/dry skin issues and a not terribly noticeable dead skin mask as others have described. After a month I took off the dead skin with some oil (can't remember what oil--either EVOO or Jojoba oil).
The combination of diet and the "Touch and wash as little as possible" regimen helped clear off my cheeks, forehead, and most of my face (though I still had and have pretty bad red scars). However, my chin and jawline still got cystic acne on a regular basis and I just could not get rid of it. I noticed it got worse right before my period and realized it must be a hormonal thing.
The thing that finally helped clear up that last bit of cystic acne (and solved all of my PMS symptoms) was a supplement called Diindolymethane. The one I use is DIM-Plus from Nature's Way. Now I don't think this on its own could have solved my acne issues but I do think it helped A LOT.
I still have a lot of scars and redness so if anyone has tips on getting rid of that faster, please let me know! For now I am letting it fade and using MSM Cream here and there (but I think I may be allergic to that too--I have a lot of allergies to cosmetics).
My current acne management system is as follows:
Diet: Low-carb; Lots of good fats (avocado, coconut oil); Lots of leafy greens (green smoothie every day!); Fruits and Vegetables; I still have some sugary treats here and there without any adverse reaction; Very little dairy with the exception of cheese; Some soy here and there; Lots of vitamin C rich foods or supplements; Only coconut oil or olive oil for cooking (to reduce omega-6 intake); Other nuts and seeds to get minerals; Sea salt only; Also I try to swallow one or two cloves of chopped raw garlic every day with water (read up on the benefits of garlic--also read up on who shouldn't eat too much of it)
Supplements: DIM-Plus one a day (increasing to twice a day in the week or two before my period--you have to adjust dosage based on your body's cues--don't take too much just because it says to on the bottle--start slow and build up or down based on the time of the month); Ovega-3 (one a day with fat); Zinc (as zinc picolinate); Vitamin-D+K in winter and here and there in the warmer months (this gets stored in your body so no need to take every day); Vitamin C here and there; I've stopped taking a multi-vitamin regularly and take it only when I feel like I haven't eaten that well on a given day;
Sleep: I've realized that sleep has a HUGE impact on my general well-being and on acne. Not just duration though I need 8 to 9 hours to feel optimal, but the time during which I sleep has had an impact on my acne. For instance, I always feel better if I can get to bed by 11 than if I go to sleep after midnight but sleep for the same amount of time. I think the routine of going to bed earlier is also important for my body and acne. Good sleep habits have also helped the redness and scarring decrease significantly (may be something to try for rosacea sufferers). To help me get to sleep early, I turn off the t.v. a half hour before I want to sleep and either read something relaxing on my kindle or my computer (which has the program f.lux installed to prevent the blue backlight from interfering with my sleep--look it up, it's free). I also have a sound machine (Ecotones) which I turn on a half hour before I go to sleep. Dimmed/soft lighting helps a lot too and I wear a sleep mask once I'm ready to go to sleep. Seems like a lot but each thing helps me a ton.
Stress Management: This is also very important I've realized. I've recently taken up yoga which I love! I haven't seen specific results from the yoga as far as acne but it seems to help me sleep better which as I described is a huge factor in my acne. Going out in the sun also seems to help my stress levels (and definitely my Vitamin D levels). I have tanned skin so do this at your own risk if you sun-burn or are pale.
Other perhaps unrelated lifestyle changes I've made recently include giving up all chemicals as much as possible. I don't use shampoo or conditioner anymore. I use coconut oil to condition and use a white vinegar rinse here and there to remove buildup. I also don't wash my hair too frequently (probably twice a week which I'm trying to bring down to once a week). I use soap very sparingly and use EVOO to moisturize my body. For my face I don't use anything but water and the Jane Iredale Magic Mitt washcloth. Occasionally I'll use a tiny amount of olive oil with a cotton ball to moisturize my face. I still use a MAC concealer which I apply with a brush but trying to wean myself off that as soon as these scars fade. As I mentioned, I use the MSM cream here and there to try to help the scars fade but I've found that leaving my skin alone seems to do a lot more than putting on MSM cream.
That's all I can think of for now but I've come to believe that non-drug and non-chemical methods can be 100% effective. Don't underestimate the effect of lifestyle changes!