My Acne Journey

My Acne Journey | Writing Between Pauses

In October, I turned 29--and it marked the first month in 18 years (that's right, 18) that I had not had a new pimple or cyst every single day. Can you believe it? 18 years. 

I've written before about my struggle with acne: it's been a constant on my face for as long as I can remember. I've become a pro at covering it, concealing it, angling my face in photos to hide it, editing it out of photos entirely, using my hand to cleverly cover it, and more. But that only works in photos; in real life, I've gotten good enough at doing my make up to cover up the worst... but modern make up can only do so much. 

I wanted to write a longer post about my acne, how it evolved as I got older, what I did to try to fix it, and what never worked. Let's jump right in. 

I first started getting bad acne when I was 11. I distinctly remember being in the 6th grade, just after my 12th birthday, and my mom dabbing powdered foundation over my chin in the car. "No picking," she said. I rolled my eyes because, duh, mom. But I fidget when I'm nervous: I twirled my hair, pick at my nails, tap my feet, and, as time went on, pick at my face. It was a cycle that started then. 

The first kind of acne I got was typical of newly pubescent girls: whiteheads, basically, and a few clogged pores. Occasionally, I would get a cyst that would knock me on my butt for a few days. Early on, I wasn't bothered by my acne; I did wonder why I was the only girl in my class who seemed to have so much of it, but I was always a little older than the other girls in my class (thanks to my October birthday), so I chalked it up to age. I went to a very close knit Catholic school; by 6th grade, I'd known everyone in my class since we were 6 years old. 

My acne got worse, of course. By the time I was 13, it was a constant on my face and true to form, no one else I knew was struggling quite as bad as me. On weekends, I would spend a lot of time in the face wash aisles of stores, trying to find something I hadn't tried and would magically start working. At the time, I was using those prepackaged Neutrogena acne face wash wipes; they came in a box and you lathered them up under water. They did absolutely nothing. Shortly after, I started using Clean & Clear Deep Action Cream Cleanser, something that is still made today, but was new at the time; it felt minty when I put it on and I was convinced it did something. (It didn't.) 

Once I was out of middle school, I was allowed to wear make up to school and, baby, I did. I wore foundation and powder every single day to cover my acne. It was embarrassing and I knew it was the first thing people noticed about me. Even in my close knit Catholic school, I felt ostracized because of how I looked; I'd heard kids whispering about me and making jokes about my skin. 

I kept on using average drug store products, mostly Clean & Clear, but for a while I was dedicated to the classic Neutrogena Acne Wash, you know, the brown kind that comes in the square bottle. However, nothing really worked and my acne had spread from being generally on my chin and forehead to my nose, my cheeks, my scalp, and under my ears. I started having to use shampoo with salicylic acid in it to help my scalp and ears. A day never passed, however, without at least 2-3 new pimples. I altered my diet in my first year of high school; I started trying to eat fruit with every meal and reduce the amount of fat I ate (which is really hard when you're a teenager and the only thing you want to eat is french fries). 

By Junior year, my skin was still bad, but I had accepted it. However, something happened my Junior year that I still think about a lot; on AIM one night, my best friend was having a crisis. She was saying that she felt like she said mean things when she was angry, as a way to make other people hurt or to make it so she wasn't alone. "Like right now," she wrote, "I want to tell you to get proactive, your skin is so bad." (Proactive being that acne wash system that is advertised on TV; which, note, I had tried and it didn't work.) The conversation ended shortly after, but I still think about that all the time. I had accepted my skin; I knew I ate healthy, I drank water, I worked really hard to keep my skin clean and to look decent. To know that my friends still looked at me and thought I wasn't trying...

My acne wasn't something I talked about. I didn't talk about it or complain about it to anyone. I was so embarrassed by it that I thought if I mentioned it, it would just bring more attention to it. I was mortified by that conversation. You know when you lie in bed and think about all the stupid things you've ever done or moments where you didn't protect yourself? That's one for me. 

(And to clarify, I am still friends with this girl and she may very well read my blog. If she's reading, I've forgiven you; I know you've grown since then; and I know you didn't mean to hurt me the way you did.) 

In March of my Junior year, my sister got married. She, of course, picked a backless halter dress for me as her maid of honor. I was terrified to wear it. My acne had spread from my face to my back; I would say that my back was actually the most severe acne I had and I still have extreme scarring from the large, painful cysts I would get. I began obsessively using Neutrogena Acne Body wash, which didn't do much; I also started smearing large amounts of both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide on after every shower I took. All of my sheets and t-shirts got stained, but it did help a lot--even if I frequently gave myself chemical burns on my back. 

I also got my first facial during this time, at the behest of my mom; she actually bought me the entire line they used on me during it in the hope that it would help my skin. I remember her telling me that we needed to get my skin cleared up for the wedding and, again, I just wanted to scream; what had I been doing for 6 years!? Trying to clear up my skin! 

I think it was during my senior year that I finally went to a dermatologist; I was prescribed a high-powered acne cream that had to be kept in the fridge. It worked by burning off the top layer of your skin, basically, to clear acne. It worked for the first 2-3 weeks, giving me decent skin, but then stopped working. The dermatologist offered to put me on 2 months worth of antibiotics to see if that helped, but the idea of taking antibiotics for that long felt odd and like not a great idea. 

After my senior year of high school, I asked to go on birth control because I heard it could help with acne. My mom agreed. Friends, I need to tell you something: birth control was the worst thing I did for my skin. Ever. 

About three weeks after starting hormonal birth control pills, my face felt like it was covered in acne; I had whiteheads across my forehead, my chin, my cheeks, and my jawline; my pores seemed to get larger and darker across my nose, cheeks, and chin; worse, the acne around and under my ears got worse too, as did the acne on my back. I was miserable, but my mom assured me that it would get worse before it got better, she was very sure. 

I waited for it to happen. It never did. Hormonal birth control consistently made my acne worse, but I stayed on it for 7 solid years, hoping that one day it would magically work like it did for other women! Why did this have to be the one thing was incredibly unique about me? Why did my acne have to be absolutely ironclad and resistant to all forms of treatment!? 

During the summer between my sophomore year of college and my junior year, I was 20 years old and I decided to go on a new form of birth control: Seasonale. If you remember it, there were commercials for it; you only got your period 4 times a year on it and I thought, that will be very handy for my acne, since it tended to be cyclical. I really thought if I could at least reduce my break outs, I would be happier. 

I went on a generic form of Seasonale and, friends, guess what happened? My acne didn't get worse, exactly, but it changed forms. I'd always just had bad whiteheads and clogged pores, but when I started Seasonale, I started getting cystic acne. I got less whiteheads, that was true, but I was getting 3-4 new cysts every single day

Friends, I stayed on Seasonale for nearly 4 years. Why? I ask myself. Why!? 

It's because I thought acne was just the thing I had to deal with, the cross I had to bear. 

I spent a lot of time researching things to help my skin, but I was convinced that if I just stuck it out with birth control pills, things would change. Not only did I now have some of the most severe cystic acne of anyone I knew, but I was also getting severe scarring on my chin from it. Thankfully, my skin calmed down elsewhere; I stopped getting zits on my forehead and cheeks, except for the occasional one, and my pores stopped getting clogged and inflamed... but my chin, jawline, and ear areas were messes

At this time, I was religiously using Neutrogena Acne Wash, tried and true (except it never worked at all) and keeping my skincare very neutral; I used Olay sensitive skin moisturizer. I still wore foundation every single day, but I had to do something to hide what was happening on my face. 

It was at this time that I started my first blog (shout out to Locked Out!) and posting pictures of myself really frequently. I don't need to tell you that getting attention for my outfits--and not my face--was a huge confident booster. I had never been confident in person because of my skin; I avoided speaking in front of people. I even avoided meeting my professors face-to-face in their offices because I was so embarrassed by my skin. I had trouble making friends in dorms because I didn't want to be seen without my make up. Once I started my blog though and started getting readers, started making friends who couldn't see my skin and didn't know that, in reality, I had the worst acne of anyone they'd ever met... I started getting more confident. 

My senior year of college was one of my best. I was busy all the time: with my blog, with projects, with everything. I was much more confident, despite the horrible cystic acne I was still experiencing, but I was very happy. I started dating Danny near the end of my senior year and, obviously, that changed my life for the better. But I still had acne; it was still something I thought about near constantly; and I still really struggled with how to fix it. 

After I graduated and entered the real world, I knew I had to do something about my skin. It had gotten slightly better, but I was still getting cystic acne all the time--more than the average person. I started going to the dermatologist again and was, again, prescribed antibiotics and the cream that burns your skin off; I used it, of course, and it worked for 2-3 weeks only to stop working after a while. Dermatologists tended to not take my concerns about my skin seriously; acne is mostly cosmetic and tends to be hormonal, so they always told me to try birth control. I was already on birth control and it made my skin worse, so what was the next option? They refused to prescribe me Accutane because of my history of depression. 

It was depressing to feel like nothing I tried work. I bought cheap skincare; I bought experience skincare. Mostly, I bought expensive make up to cover my acne and I got very good at it; concealer, foundation, green color correcting concealer, and powder were my best friends. I never went anywhere without spares. 

However, in 2013, I finally went off birth control. I'd been on it since I was 18 in 2007 and that was honestly too long. At the time, I hoped it would help me lose weight (my weight struggles are intertwined with my acne struggles, but that's too long of a story to tell here), but mostly, I noticed it helped my acne. My cystic acne got knocked back to, instead of 1 new cyst a day, I would get 5-6 cysts around my period and then whiteheads whenever I ovulated. I started tracking my cycle and noticing the patterns; I knew when I was going to break out and I prepared for it. I also stopped getting body acne, thank goodness, and could focus on fading my scarring from it. 

Having at least 2 weeks of decent skin a month was enough for me; I really felt like that was "good" in comparison to what I'd been through. And decent skin was, to me, that I had only 3-4 pimples at any given time. Totally doable! (If you are reading this and you've never had more than 1 pimple at a time, you're probably shrieking internally.) 

It was this year that I started really trying to revamp my skincare routine. I tossed my Clean & Clear cleansers that I had been using religiously, as well as my good ol' Neutrogena Acne Wash. I replaced it with gentle cleansers and toners, chemical exfoliants and masks that contained tea tree oil. These things "helped" in the sense that my skin seemed to perk up a little bit otherwise; my texture definitely got better and my pores shrank. But I was still getting acne. 

For years on the acne forums I frequented, I had read about using jojoba oil in skincare to help prevent acne. However, I had read all the teen magazines and I knew that oil was bad, right. Everyone said that acne-prone skin was too oily and adding oil was bad news. 

Friends, I was wrong. That's wrong. If you read anything that says that, they are wrong. 

Yes, acne-prone skin tends to be oily; but people with oily skin do need to moisturize. They need to moisturize a lot because our skin is oily because our skin is producing more oil to moisturize it. So if we moisturize well, our skin will stop producing so much oil. Success. 

It was in August that I finally decided to try it. I'd been struggling for almost 18 years with acne; I have horrible scarring on my chin and jawline and back; I was nearly 30 years old and still afraid to talk to people for fear they would notice my skin. Something had to change. And I had tried everything else. It was time to try the thing I had been avoiding because I didn't think there was any possible way it would work. 

I ordered a bottle of jojoba oil off Amazon and waited anxiously for it to arrive. I started using it to wash off my make up, followed by Soap & Glory's Peaches & Clean Cleanser; I also added a few drops to my tried-and-true SPF moisturizer during the day. I really worried that it would make my make up slide off and I needed my make up to stay put to hide my skin. 

Within 2 weeks, I noticed a difference. One day I woke up and... my skin was clear. I had a few healing pimples, but nothing new. I remember putting on make up and thinking, "I'm only covering scars, nothing new, wow." Within a month, I noticed the biggest difference: during my cycle, I only got one cyst. One cyst. That's a record--and it went away within 2 days, instead of the usual 7-10 days. 

By the second month, my skin was clear most of the month with only one new pimple when I ovulated and one when I started a new cycle. It was like a miracle. I felt like I had been wasting my entire life when I had read the answer years ago and just refused to believe it. I was so excited. So beyond excited. 

For the first time in my life, my skin is clear. I still really struggle with my confidence regarding my skin; it is a major issue for me still because I lived with it for so long. And I have so much sympathy and love for people who experience and struggle with acne; if you've never had severe acne, you truly have no idea what it's like to live with it. And the things people say about it to you are the worst. 

The one thing I notice most is that, if someone has good skin (usually, it's just genetic) they offer their skincare routine up as an example for others to use--as if, "well it works for me, it will work for you." And the reality is, if you've never had severe acne, you are pretty privileged and your individual experience with skincare isn't going to help anyone! (Is that too harsh?)

The other thing I noticed most throughout my journey was that people just assumed I didn't wash my face or that I didn't know how bad my skin was; if anything, I spent more time and money on skincare than anyone else I knew. I had a nightly skincare routine from the age of 11 onward. I washed my face twice a day, religiously, for 18 years. I never didn't wash my face. Even in college when I would be out until 2am, I would wash my face when I got back. This is the most hurtful assumption that people make about those with acne: they assume they have the answers and that we are just being stupid and not looking for them. 

I hope this post strikes a chord with you. If you are suffering from acne and aren't sure what to do, just know that it is possible to find something that works. Don't be afraid to try the thing that seems most impossible (jojoba oil). My number one wish is that I can prevent someone from waiting until they are 29 years old to have good skin.