You can design your own acne treatment online—but does it work?
Skeptical of Curology's bold-faced claims? We were, too.
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To say that the offerings coming out of the beauty industry—and more specifically, the skincare industry—are daunting is a major understatement. Finding products that not only achieve your skin goals in the long run but play nice with your skin in the process is a journey. Curology, a skincare brand creating customized serums that target your specific skin troubles, is trying to take the guesswork out of your skin regimen.
After seeing ads for Curology’s genius idea on Instagram (and YouTube, Facebook, and everywhere else we consume advertisements), I, along with my co-tester Sara Hendricks, decided to see if this idea was only good in theory, or if the brand can concoct our new favorite skin products.
What is Curology?
The name sounds medicinal and the idea behind it sounds mystical. Curology is a subscription service selling personalized serums, including some by-prescription-only ingredients that address customers’ skin concerns. Customers submit a survey and photos to communicate their skin’s current state and desired results with their “medical provider,” assigned by the site, who then creates a custom formula. As is required by law in all 50 states, these providers are physician assistants, nurse practitioners, or dermatologists with prescription-writing privileges. However, telemedicine—or the practice of prescribing medication without an in-person physical examination—isn’t legal in 13 states (or Washington DC or Puerto Rico), so if you live in any of those localities, you can’t get Curology. (One note: In order to parse most of this information, I had to reach out to a representative of the company; the FAQs and About information on the website are not very detailed.) Curology, which originally launched in 2014 as PocketDerm, sells a three-piece kit that included a customized serum and a non-customizable cleanser and moisturizer “for all skin types.” For the subscription, you pay $59.90 per shipment, delivered every 60 days.
If you already have a cleanser and moisturizer you love, you can choose a plan that only includes a custom serum; for that, there are two options: Pay $39.90 every 60 days for a 0.8-ounce bottle that’ll last you two months (averaging to $19.95 a month) or pay $19.95 a month, plus $4.95 shipping and handling (free with the other subscriptions) to receive a 0.4-ounce that is meant to last you 30 days.
As of this writing, Curology also offers a (mostly) free trial, which includes the three-piece set with a 0.4-ounce serum, 0.8-ounce moisturizer, and 1.4-ounce cleanser meant to last a month with everyday use—you pay the $4.95 shipping and handling cost. Sara and I opted to try this set for our testing, and then defaulted to the $60 three-piece set for our second month.
Who tested Curology?
I’m the lifestyle staff writer at Reviewed, and I teamed up with fellow staff writer Sara Hendricks to test Curology’s cleanser, moisturizer, and raved-about customized serums. Sara and I shared in our skepticism and optimism when it came to Curology. We wondered whether we would receive bottles with identical ingredients claiming to be customized, or if we would be blown away by the care and precision put into our bottles.
Sara and I each also have our own checkered histories with problematic skin.
I had my share of embarrassing woes in middle school, but when it came to acne, I emerged from my early teens unscathed. While my friends started bargaining with their parents for makeup to cover up blemishes, I remained untouched. Until high school, that is. It started with a giant pimple on my nose during freshman year—I swear I still have a small lump of scar tissue from that one—and it escalated to full-blown cystic acne during my junior year. My dermatologist said it was all hormonal and topical treatments wouldn’t touch it. The only thing that did clear it was Accutane (a controversial last-resort medication that resets your skin’s oil glands), which I took for five months at age 18. Fast-forwarding to my early 20s, my skin’s temper flared again when I decided to go off birth control last summer after being on it for about two years consistently. Last fall, my dermatologist prescribed spironolactone (a hormone suppressant) and suggested I simultaneously return to birth control, both of which I did. Almost a year later, my skin is completely clear, with a rare blemish around my period, but I am blessed (sarcasm) with unrelenting acne scarring as a reminder of my past.
Like mine, Sara’s skin problems arose in her teen years: “I dealt with pretty severe acne for a good chunk of my young adult life, from the approximate ages of 14 to 22. When I graduated from college and found that my skin problems had not gone away with the onset of adulthood, as I’d been told (lied to?) my whole life, I visited a dermatologist. There, I procured a prescription for birth control and spironolactone, which helped me tamp down the brunt of my zits. Still, my skin wasn’t perfect—I’d often have a pimple or two (more around my period) somewhere on my face. Of course, at the peak of my skin troubles, I’d wished for the privilege of only having one zit to deal with, but I wanted to make my skin flawless—and still do. Trying out Curology seemed a great way to do that.”
What it is like to order Curology?
Buckle up because Curology’s skin survey is quite lengthy, as it should be, for its experts to prescribe you something for your skin.
After signing up with your zip code and birth date, you move on to the meat of the test, starting with the “your skin” portion. In this section, you choose what you’d like to be treated for (acne, clogged pores, dark spots, firmness, skin texture, and wrinkles); your skin type (very dry, often dry, combination, often oily, very oily); how many pimples you had in the last week (none, one to two, three to four, five to six, or more than seven); and how often you wear SPF (never, sometimes, most of the time, always).
In the next section, you’ll provide details on your health and medication history. You’re asked what medications you’ve taken for your skin in the past, how long you took them for, and how much they helped improve your skin. If you’re currently taking a medication for your skin, you’re asked for the exact dosage and frequency with which you take it, how long you plan to be on it, if it helps, and if you experience any side effects. The survey also asks if you’re on any contraceptives, if you’re pregnant or nursing, and a host of other medical questions you’ve probably answered on a questionnaire at your doctor’s office. (For anyone concerned about medical privacy, Curology complies with HIPAA.)
In addition you upload three photos of your face (right, left, and straight-on) to help your provider understand your concerns.
Lastly, you’ll choose the subscription plan you want. If you go with the free trial with the three-piece set as Sara and I did, you’ll automatically be billed for and receive the $59.90 box four weeks after the shipment of the samples, unless you cancel (more on that later).
After you complete all of this, you’ll be matched with a medical provider who chooses ingredients that they believe will best benefit your skin based on your skin type and goals. Under a section of the site called “treatment,” you learn about what ingredients are in your bottle, what they are supposed to do for your skin, and when you should see improvements. This is also where you’re introduced to your provider, who is available via the webesite’s messaging system to answer questions as you use your products, responding within 24 hours. Sara and I were assigned to the same person—a certified physician’s assistant.
What did our custom bottles claim?
My formula was designed to target dark spots, firmness, and skin texture with three key ingredients: 0.25 percent zinc pyrithione (an antimicrobial that fights acne-causing fungi and bacteria), 1 percent clindamycin (an antibacterial that fights acne-causing bacteria and inflammation), and 4 percent niacinamide (an antioxidant that fights wrinkles and dark spots, and improves skin elasticity). With this combination of ingredients and consistent use, Curology said I “should see improvement after a few months” but that I could see improvements sooner. In the meantime, I was instructed to stop using potential skin irritants, including physical exfoliants, such as facial brushes and scrubs, and chemical ones, such as retinol and salicylic acid. For my new routine, I would wash my face with the Curology cleanser and apply my normal sunscreen in the morning, then I’d wash my face, apply a thin layer of the custom serum, and follow up with the Curology moisturizer before bed. This is all similar to my normal routine, just swapping in Curology products for my other cleanser, serum, and moisturizer.
Sara received an identical set of instructions, but her own ingredients and expectations. Her bottle—meant to treat acne, dark spots, clogged pores, and wrinkles—contained three ingredients: 0.009 percent tretinoin (a retinol that promotes skin cell turnover), 1 percent clindamycin (the same amount of this antibacterial as in mine, to fight acne-causing bacteria and inflammation), and 9 percent azelaic acid (an acid that unclogs pores, improves skin texture, and fights dark spots). She was told to expect results after six to eight weeks with regular use (but not sooner, as I was).
Did they do what they claimed to?
Sara and I tested Curology for about two months. My subscription didn’t guarantee results in that time (as you’ll recall, it said “a few months”), so I realize that I didn’t fully test the serum’s claims, but—foreshadowing alert!—I wouldn’t have been able to, anyway.
I received my products during the day and I was eager to begin using them that night. Immediately after applying the serum the first time, my face stung and continued to sting until I fell asleep. By morning, my face felt completely normal, but it’s unpleasant to fall asleep, especially on a hot summer night, with a burning hot face. I chalked it up to my skin needing some time to adjust to the new ingredients and kept applying, spacing out the uses to every two or three days instead of everyday. But the burning went on, unabated, after every serum application for about two weeks.
When I explained my woes to my Curology provider, she replied that temporary dryness, flaking, redness, and/or mild itching or stinging are not unusual and I should try waiting at least 10 to 20 minutes after washing my face to apply the serum, reduce the frequency I was using the serum, apply moisturizer before the serum, or dilute the medication with moisturizer. That night, I mixed moisturizer into my custom serum before applying it and felt zero burning.
I was relieved and feeling a lot better about the prospects of my skin until the burning returned about a week later. I tried adjusting the way I was using the serum again, but finally, at the advisement of my dermatologist, I broke up with Curology. I haven’t noticed any change in my skin’s appearance from serum, but I didn’t use it for the recommended few months, so I can’t knock Curology for that.
At the same time I was dealing with a burning face, Sara was wondering if the immediate clearing in her acne was due to Curology or a cosmic shift: “My skin was randomly the best it has ever been in my entire life about a week after I started Curology—as in, not one single pimple or imperfection on my face, which I don’t think has happened to me since before puberty. But I think this was a fluke, because it returned to its post-spironolactone, pre-Curology state a week or so after that, which means I pretty much always have a few minor-but-annoying-to-me zits on my cheeks and around my eyebrows.”
Despite her acne returning, Sara says her overall skin quality improved: “Toward the end of my trial, when I was washing my face, I noticed it had a new element that wasn’t there before, a shiny, smooth glow heretofore only seen by me on Instagram influencers and wealthy people I sometimes see in yoga and spin studios. A few days later, I got my eyebrows threaded, and the woman doing them paused mid-thread to tell me I had “really nice skin.” It’s unclear to me whether this is due to the tretinoin, azelaic acid, clindamycin, or something else, but no matter what, I have to assume that something about Curology worked.”
Is the subscription easy to cancel?
Even with our differing results, Sara and I both cancelled our subscriptions. I, for obvious reasons, and Sara because she liked it fine, but not enough to keep paying $20 a month for just the serum, or $60 for the three-bottle set every two months.
While the sign-up process requires some time and a great deal of information, canceling is easy. Click on your name in the top right corner to access the dropdown menu, then click “payment.” In the bottom corner of this page, you’ll see the option to cancel. That’s it!
Is Curology worth it?
When I told my friend that I was testing Curology, she responded with, “That’s the company with those YouTube ads showing people claiming their product worked miracles on their skin, right?” I knew the exact advertisements and bold claims she was referring to. I don’t doubt that Curology, like anything, works better for some than it does others, but for me and my skin, it isn’t worth it.
Despite enjoying Curology more than I did, Sara agrees that the service is not something everyone needs to try. “If going to a dermatologist is an option for you, I'd say to do that. This way, you can get a prescription from someone who has seen your face in person, plus the option to get oral medication like spironolactone, birth control, or Accutane. But if the dermatologist isn't possible, Curology is an OK alternative. It's more expensive than a lot of skincare products, but significantly less than my dermatologist visits have been. I didn't have perfect results, but it's a good way to get prescription-grade ingredients if you aren't seeing benefits from over-the-counter topical medications.”
Our editor, Amy Roberts, has a different take. After reading our review, her interest was piqued. “I recently began my own DIY routine, in hopes of slowing the signs of aging. I’m intrigued enough by Curology to consider the trial. I’ve used some prescription medicines in the past for skin issues (mild rosacea, cystic acne, and mystery rashes finally diagnosed as allergies) and the idea of a single customize prescription-containing product—something I can’t get from my dermatologist—appeals to me, both from a simplicity standpoint and a laziness one (only one treatment product to put on for all those effects? I’m in!). And, if it works, the price seems more than fair, considering how much I’ve spent on the dermatologist visits and prescription tubes that collect dust in my medicine cabinet.”
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.