The Good, the Bad, and the Acne

The Emotional and Psychological Toll of Having Bad Skin

By Jessica Huynh, Storyteller for RU Student Life

I’ve struggled with acne for as long as remember. I know this because I started my first job at 14 as a gymnastics coach. I remember one of my kids looking up at me and asking, “Teacher, why is there red stuff all over your face?”

Throughout high school, I envied girls with clear complexion. I dreamed of having smooth, blemish-free skin. My parents assured me that my acne was a natural part of being a teen. My blemishes, they promised me, would disappear by the end of high school.

As luck would have it, my acne went from manageable to debilitating by the time I entered university. While most of my friends were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, my acne story was just beginning. I started breaking out in places I had never had problems with before. My face was riddled with hard, painful bumps that hurt to touch, hurt to look at, and hurt my self-esteem in ways I never imagined. Some days, all I could do was bury my face in my pillow and bawl my eyes out. I would cancel on friends just to avoid being out in public. Even looking people in the eye became difficult as I had become cripplingly insecure that people were staring at the battlefield that was my face. Acne had declared full dictatorship over my entire being, and I let it.

Unless you’ve struggled with severe acne, you won’t understand the emotional and psychological effect it has on you.

You look in the mirror and stop recognizing the person who looks back at you. Imagine looking at your own reflection and seeing a distorted version of yourself — a version that people pity and feel sorry for. You see, the general public has a poor understanding of the underlying cause of acne. I know this because I received unsolicited advice on ways to cure my acne for years.

I had people ask me if I was washing my face properly, as though I didn’t know how to practice proper hygiene. I’ve had people tell me to put toothpaste on my face, as though my severe acne could be cured by a spot treatment method that worked on their one pimple a year. I’ve had people accuse me of picking my skin when in actuality my skin was popping, bleeding, and scarring on its own. The worst was having beauty retail workers jam skin products down my throat when I was simply looking to replace an old tube of mascara.

The more solicited and unsolicited advice I received, the more insecure and isolated I felt. The commentary I received from strangers reinforced my delusion that what I was going through was a personal problem. If I had just washed my face more, washed it less, went to bed earlier, drank more water, used this product, stopped using that product, ate more of this, ate less of that, took these vitamins, didn’t take those vitamins… I would be cured of this God-awful disease.

Unless you’ve struggled with acne, you do not understand what it’s like to hate the skin you live in… to be so desperate you’re willing to try anything to find the cure.

Combating and managing sensitive skin becomes a full-blown lifestyle. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my skin and analyze what I can do to keep blemishes away. I am hyper-vigilant (read: borderline obsessive) about my skincare regiment. If you met me today, you might not guess that I’ve been on almost every topical and oral medication on the market, including Accutane twice. Accutane is an oral Vitamin A derivative that dries out your entire body. I’m talking monthly blood work, bloody noses, eczema, hair thinning, and increased risk of depression. People assume because I’m Asian, I must have been blessed with good skin. If only they knew how much acne held me back in my early years of university…

The funny thing is even when my skin got visibly better, I still carried the baggage of someone with crippling insecurity. It took me a long time to admit to myself that it wasn’t just my skin issues holding me back, it was also my poor self-esteem. The worst part about acne is how it gets inside your head and makes you feel as though you’re the only one struggling when you’re not. Not enough people talk about the psychological effect acne has on an individual. Acne emotionally drains you, depresses you, and makes you feel as though you aren’t good enough even when you are.

I never thought I would reach a point where I would ever say this, but I’m glad I struggled with acne. Some good came out of having imperfect skin.

For one: I’ve created strong bonds between friends over our acne struggles. Once I got over my fear of addressing the elephant in the room (AKA my face), I realized a lot of my friends could relate to having troublesome skin. By being vulnerable and honest, I created a circle of trust. My friends trust that they can confide their frustrations to me, and I trust that I will always receive emotional support. As they say, those that breakout together, stay together… or something like that.

Two: I’ve become wholeheartedly more compassionate. Now, that’s not to say I was judgmental before, but I’ve stopped noticing minor imperfections on people. If someone’s a good person, that radiates out from within them and makes them beautiful. No matter what.

Three: I learned that loving yourself comes from within. When the little voice inside of my head was saying, “I hate myself because of my acne,” I should have told it, “I love myself despite of my acne.” I wish I had squashed that inner voice in my head sooner. I wish I could go back and not let acne dictate my social life. Although it took years to come to this realization, I’m glad I did. Being confident in your own skin is way less exhausting than feeling sorry for yourself.

Four: I’ve accepted that my skin might never look like a Glossier model and that’s okay. Beauty advertisements have you convinced that having perfect skin is the norm when it totally isn’t. We all have flaws and imperfections. No one is perfect, not even celebrities.

Five: I’ve learned to be gentle with my skin. The road to combating acne meant learning about all the ingredients in my makeup and skincare products that were irritating my skin and causing long-term damage to it. I’ve stopped using products with alcohol in it and wear sunscreen *almost* every day. Skincare isn’t just about getting rid of blemishes, it’s also about keeping your largest organ healthy and away from harmful chemicals.

I’ve learned a lot about acne and skincare, but mainly I’ve learned a lot about being kind to myself. If you’re struggling with acne, please know that you are not alone. There are great communities out there (like /r/skincareaddiction) that you can join (or lurk) with strangers that are struggling just like you. There are also some great YouTubers who genuinely want to help by sharing their story like Elaine Mokk from Toronto. Don’t be nervous to talk openly to friends, coworkers, and family members about your skin issues. Not only does it address the elephant in the room, it also paves way for others to share their skincare journey with you. Adult acne is more common than you think and it doesn’t have to affect your university experience. Trust me.