What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Had Acne

For me, the emotional effects of acne were worse than the physical.
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For me, the emotional effects of acne were worse than the physical.

I’ve reached the other side of a decade-long struggle with acne. 

The relief I feel goes beyond the social convenience of clear skin as I recognize how deeply my skin problems affected my psyche. I feel much healthier in my opinion of myself and, in particular, my ability to visually assess my skin clearly and without distortion.

It’s one of the cruel ironies of the world that we are most likely to suffer from acne as adolescents when we are least equipped to deal with it. Being a young adult is really about figuring out who and what you are, and your appearance is a big part of your emerging identity. Your face, in particular, is so crucial to your image of yourself. It’s also your main visual tool for expression and communication with the world around you.

As young women in particular, we are confronted with billion-dollar industries designed to sell us our beauty, as defined by the narrow ideals of our societies. It is so easy to slip into the mindset where we convince ourselves that our worth as people is determined by how close we can fit that ideal, no matter how many thousands of dollars it takes to get there. And the younger we are, the harder it is to resist the pressure of those commercial and social forces.

Health problems with our skin, like the incredibly common acne, can push us over the balance and start a spiral deeper into disequilibrium. Something that started out physical can quickly become psychological and warp the way we approach the problem. And unsurprising, we tend to try to buy ourselves out of our unhappiness with more and more products from the drugstore.

I read a study the other day on the relationship between body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and pathological skin picking (PSP.) The study found a correlation between the two. In particular, younger women with BDD were more likely to have a fixation on their skin and use PSP as a way to attempt to fix it, without realizing that they were engaging in what looks more like self-mutilation to the outside world.

The conclusions of this study reflect a type of unhealthy thinking that I experienced when I had acne. I picked at my skin because I could no longer see what it really looked like. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see my face anymore. I saw a set of problems to be solved with DIY extractions and toners from the drugstore. I did much more damage than good, which was, thankfully, stopped and corrected by my family physician before it got worse.

Me today, with clear skin and the three products that completely fixed my acne. Tretinoin 0.05% at night, metronidazole 0.75% in the morning, and TriSprintec daily as directed. The grand total without insurance is less than $10 per month. Your magic combo is probably different than mine, but this is what did it for me.

Me today, with clear skin and the three products that completely fixed my acne. Tretinoin 0.05% at night, metronidazole 0.75% in the morning, and TriSprintec daily as directed. The grand total without insurance is less than $10 per month. Your magic combo is probably different than mine, but this is what did it for me.

What follows is what I wish I had known when I first started struggling with acne. I figured it out eventually with no harm done. But if I had a little sister, this is what I would tell her.

If you spend more than you can afford on skincare, if you can’t stop reading about skincare online, if you apply treatments to your skin that you know are far too irritating, if you are sad and angry when you look in the mirror--please ask for help.

Your primary care doctor is there to make sure that you get the best treatment possible. He or she may be able to simply solve your skin problems or refer you to a dermatologist. It may take some experimentation and some weird purges with retinoids, but acne really is treatable, and there is a solution for you out there.

And don’t forget mental health. If you are hurting yourself with irritating products or skin picking, a mental health professional is the person you need. Get help before you get into a bad place where acne is really affecting your quality of life. If you are in college, take advantage of the free counseling available at your university.

You deserve treatment. You should never have to suffer or wait through acne. It’s very common, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth treating. Chronic inflammation is something that medical professionals take seriously. And disordered thinking can turn into a mental disorder, so it’s best to address it early. You are worth the professional help and guidance to solve this physical and mental health problem.

Remember to use common sense when looking for information on treating acne. Your health professionals take priority over everything you read online. They are up-to-date on the latest research and can help you develop an ideal, complete skincare routine that maximizes the benefits while minimizing the risks.

Health professionals are sometimes pretty busy and that may mean that they are a little short during a consultation. You can always try different doctors to find one with whom you have a good emotional connection. Or you can just outsource your emotional needs to a mental health professional, who will be best equipped to deal with the psychological sensitivity of acne.

Aim for predictability and routine in your skincare. You will save money and reduce the possibility of irritation of your skin. Simple is good. Inexpensive is great. Your doctor should have some good suggestions for gentle products that will complement your prescriptions.

Your acne is a temporary problem that can totally be treated. You aren’t alone--most people go through this at some point in their lives. You deserve help. Good luck!