Please upgrade your browser for the best Refinery29 experience. Read more.

Saved! Access Favorites in your account profile. Removed from my favorites

What Happened When I Started Talking About My Skin Problem

Standing in front of a mirror each Monday morning, close to tears, was not exactly how I’d pictured my mid-twenties to pan out. I would stand there and count the number of spots that I had accumulated twice – an excruciating process that has something perversely enjoyable about it.

I’ve been obsessed with my skin since I was 14, around the time it first started getting bad. "It will clear up when you’re older," I was told countless times by relatives. Puberty and spots come hand in hand, right? So although it was upsetting, it was – I thought – to be expected.

Cut to eleven years later and yet another morning where still the first thing I do is assess the damage. Sometimes I wish I could have a sit down with my acne and discuss its geographical intentions. I understand why it happens on my face (I suppose) but when it moves to under my chin, on my back and my chest? It feels like a deeply unfunny practical joke. Anyone that has tried putting foundation on their chest will understand; it’s hard to get the colour right.

I’ve done just about everything to placate or disguise my angry pores. It started with borrowing my mother’s tinted moisturiser, which made me look like an aspirational member of TOWIE; and advanced to the expensive make up counters where I was sold empty promises about a certain kind of foundation changing my life and pore-quality. At one point I was wearing so much makeup that when I sneezed, the tissue came away looking like it had just been wiped across a beige oil painting.

The first dermatologist I visited advised me not to wear makeup as it can clog your pores and lead to further breakouts, which felt about as useful as telling me to turn up to school butt-naked. I’ve been lucky that, since then, I’ve found a dermatologist who understood that not wearing makeup was not an option. They were able to advise me on the more suitable kinds of concealer to wear and reminded me that acne is not usually caused by cosmetics, even though some may aggravate it.

My fight then progressed to different kinds of medication. I took one which had me throwing up in the middle of the night; and then I went on a skin-friendly contraceptive pill which affected my hormones so much it made me burst into tears on public transport. I’ve since become allergic to a couple of my prescribed skin creams, which in succession turned my face into the colour of an angry tomato.

I ended up on Accutane (also known as Isotretinoin) during my first year of university, which is an acne medication only available on prescription from a doctor. A quick Google will reveal that this is a drug which comes with its own risks, such as leading to depression, but I was truly desperate at that point. Side effect-wise I was fortunate to only experience the chronically dry lips which no amount of Vaseline would sate. It can affect your foetus if you're pregnant, but getting pregnant was something I was trying to avoid during university.

Clearly the reason for keeping my problems to myself was partly embarrassment, but I realised that beyond that, I actually thought that my acne was somehow my fault.

Since going on this drug, my skin has improved, but I’m definitely not advocating it as a fix-all solution. Clearly the "war" I talk about against my skin is also a deeper struggle with my own self esteem, and one that no amount of medication will be able to heal. Having spent a lot of time thinking about it, I have now realised that I worry my skin issues make me not only unattractive but also unlikeable, a strange hangover from the teenage angst I thought I’d purged during university.

So I decided to try and change my relationship with my skin, which is after all, the largest organ any of us will ever own. Instead of seeing my struggle as a dirty secret, I decided that not only should I try and appreciate it more, but I should also talk about what I am going through with my acne more openly. Clearly the reason for keeping my problems to myself was partly embarrassment, but I realised that, beyond that, I actually thought this skin problem was somehow my fault. Which is pretty twisted logic.

It’s not like I’m the only one of my friends who has struggled with their skin in their twenties and beyond (and by struggled I don’t mean the ones who get the odd spot now and then and give you that knowing, sympathetic look). It was one moment of crisis recently that made this clear to me: when a friend also acknowledged that she had cried in front of a mirror that week. Another one who suffered from psoriasis confessed that it was why she never drinks and explained how much it affected her daily life.

It seems that nowadays there are very few taboos which haven’t been broken. STDs are much more openly discussed, as are many mental health issues. Skin problems, however, still seem to be a bastion of awkward silence, something we keep to ourselves, behind closed doors. The stigma of skin conditions can affect anyone though, as Cara Delevingne showed last year when she revealed her struggle to conceal her stress-triggered psoriasis.

Part of the issue is obviously the narrative of a society which champions perfection. I was at an event recently where Rachel McAdams was being honoured and was taken aback that her introduction included a mention of her "flawless skin", as if that somehow took precedence over the fact that she has also been nominated for an Oscar. The mention of a man’s miraculous pores at such an occasion would be unheard of – but no news there.
Research into the amount of people suffering adult acne has helped put things into perspective; a report done by WhatClinic last year showed that the number of people seeking treatment for adult acne at private dermatologists had increased by 200%. Evidently I’m not alone – and that’s something which has encouraged me to open my mouth about my acne-woes.

This doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to start striking up conversations with random strangers on the street about their dermatology needs; but I do think that a conversation needs to be had about the fact that so many of us are suffering in silence. Opening up isn’t easy, and it doesn’t make the spots magically vanish, but it certainly reassures me that there are others also dealing with something as an adult that they were promised would end with their school days.

I still check my face every morning in the mirror, but when I do so, I remind myself that we are all so much more than what we think our skin says about us. That's an idea that 14-year-old me would have laughed at, and one that my 25-year-old self is just about starting to get my head around. It takes time to accept yourself, acne and all, but I'll get there.