True to the teenager stereotype, my battle with acne began around my thirteenth birthday.
It started as a few breakouts here and there, but it quickly exploded into face, chest and back cystic acne. I tried all the over the counter creams, scrubs, wipes, sprays and strips available but nothing worked.
Over the next 6 years I unsuccessfully tried a cocktail of various creams, antibiotics and other tablets prescribed to me by doctors. Every time I was prescribed something new, I would think, “This is it. This HAS to work.” And every time it didn’t, I would dislike my appearance a little bit more. Because my acne was cystic, I was constantly in pain and my skin was red, angry and inflamed.
Every month I would spend most of my money on cosmetics and make-up, trying to find anything that would cover my skin and make me look “normal”. I struggled with confidence as a teenager and was bullied at school, so my battle with acne significantly impacted my self-esteem. I wanted to cry most mornings when I looked in the mirror and would smother my face in foundation and concealer, believing this would make me pretty and people wouldn’t notice my spots.
I was too inexperienced and young at this point to realise that my lack of make-up application skills meant that people were probably looking at the shocking, cakey, mis-matched foundation shade I had chosen rather than my acne!
I was so desperate that I had laser treatment and was heartbroken when it not only failed to make an improvement, but it actually made my acne worse.
Well-meaning people (sometimes complete strangers) would try to give me advice about what had worked for them, or someone they knew. They would ask me if had I tried X, Y and Z, or would tell me that stress caused spots and that I should try relaxing.
I was once on a train with some friends and a man began to talk about my acne and asked me what was wrong with my face and why hadn’t I had it “fixed”. I was mortified.
These conversations always made me feel awful. People were trying to help, but in my mind all they had done was prove that when people looked at me; all they saw was my acne. Whether I wore makeup or not, whenever I went anywhere I would always worry about what my skin looked like or what people were thinking.
Then, when I was 19, I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) – a hormonal condition affecting about 10% of women.
It has lots of horrible symptoms, one of which is persistent and severe acne. It wasn’t particularly well understood when I was diagnosed and I was just told to eat healthily and to exercise. Although the diagnosis itself wasn’t good news, I was oddly relieved to find the cause of my acne.
My doctor offered me a course of roaccutane tablets. The side effects of this drug were awful but after 4 painful months, my skin began to clear and after a year, my skin was almost completely clear (just the odd spot here and there).
However, years of picking and scratching at my skin had left me with many scars and marks which hadn’t faded and I now began to obsess over these in the absence of actual spots. But as time passed and I became older, I was happier in myself and found myself becoming increasingly confident and I stopped worrying so much about what people thought of my skin.
After a few years, PCOS became better understood and the link between diet and symptoms was undeniably strong. I cut out gluten, dairy and refined sugar and it made a huge improvement to my skin and other symptoms (although this is still a work in progress; I “treat” myself to things far too often).
Although some of my scars are still very noticeable to me, I have learnt that other people don’t notice them at all, and that my mind had completely warped the reality of my complexion to fit in with my own perception of myself. So now I am much more comfortable with going “bare-faced” and if I do decide to wear makeup, it’s because I want to, rather than feeling I have to. I still have bad skin days but I don’t spend as much time or energy worrying about them.
If there’s one piece of advice I could give to people suffering with acne, it would be: don’t let it define you. I wasted countless amounts of time, effort, money and energy on obsessing and worrying about my skin and how it appeared to other people and what they would think of me. I know how debilitating and depressing having problematic skin can be, especially in the age of airbrushing and seemingly blemish-free celebrities.
If you are someone who never wears make up, great! If you are someone who wants to wear make up to enhance their natural beauty or to cover blemishes, great! There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to find solutions that work for you.
Just make sure that whatever you do, you are doing it from a place of self-love, rather than because you feel you are worth less in some way if you don’t.