spots (or, what i wish someone told me 2 years ago)

I was a very clear skinned teenager. Amid a wash of other insecurities - I was quite proud, verging on the side of cocky, of this fact. Like a lot of people - I associated getting spots with puberty, with growing up, and even with poor hygiene. Being a late bloomer, (still waiting for parts of me to bloom, if we’re being real) I assumed that I just got lucky. 

Oh, how wrong I was. 

Arrogant Emily with blemish free skin circa 2007 (and probably tipsy off one wine cooler)

Arrogant Emily with blemish free skin circa 2007 (and probably tipsy off one wine cooler)

In my very early twenties I got my first actual pimple. I remember because it was Halloween and I was getting ready and having to sort out how to conceal it. Looking back on photos of that (rather blurry) evening - the zit in question was truly minuscule. It wasn’t red or irritated, in fact it was barely there.

The next time I had a pimple (to use the singular term feels very wrong) I had been under copious amounts of stress, and I believe I had just gone off the birth control pill. I was due to shoot my third year film that day when I awoke in the wee hours - not struggling to sleep because of anxiety but from an absolutely throbbing pain on my chin. Literally no clue what was happening, I think I actually thought I had accidentally punched myself in the face in my sleep. When I finally came to terms with what the reality was, I realised I had a very large, very deep, very angry pimple back to avenge my clear skinned teen years. This zit lingered for ages and felt horrific and was pretty unpleasant to look at. Eventually it cleared up and I felt what I experienced a little blip - my skin was dry for gods sake. I was not a pimple-getter.

Oh, Emily. Poor sweet naive Emily.

Since my first real destruct-o pimple I experienced hormonal breakouts every once in a while but it was something I learned to deal with and never really got the better of me. I look back on photos from those days and see no real evidence of bad skin - either I was far better at make up back then or I was really making a big deal out of nothing.

I was about to hit my mid-twenties and felt like things had settled down and was so confident. I felt pretty and worthy and freshly post-grad quite ready to take on the world. A couple of years ago I made the decision to go on the birth control implant, which is a tiny, match stick sized thing that’s placed in your forearm and gives you excellent protection against conception for three years. It is a truly great option for people who like to pretend to be the bionic woman and those who react well to the hormones. I was not one of those people. What followed was an almost 2 year span of painful angry zit after painful angry zit mostly taking up residence on my chin.

It feels very silly to complain about such a superficial thing - and even looking back I can’t quite understand how I got my panties into such a twist about it. But when you’re experiencing something like that, it is truly defeating. Beyond the pain, beyond the grossness, beyond the struggle to cover up with make up - having such bad skin wreaked absolute havoc on my self esteem. It made me feel unattractive and unworthy. It made me shy away from YouTube - a hobby that had basically doubled as therapy for me. I hated to be photographed, or be made the centre of attention. I spent a fortune on skincare products that promised to free me of my misfortune, and then a whole other fortune on make up that promised to cover it up temporarily. I didn’t know why I was struggling with my skin, and being a sensitive type, I was constantly trying to decode what was helping and what was maybe making it worse. 

In the end I finally got my implant removed, and went on a dual hormone birth control instead. My skin has chilled out. My scars are fading, albeit very slowly. I still get them now and again, but no where near the scale. And I feel ludicrously better about myself. I hate that I dealt with such unhappy skin - but I hate even more how it made me feel less than, how it felt like it was something I could buy my way out of, that I disrespected my mind soul and body trying to turn it around.

Anyway here are some tips from what is hopefully the end of my real struggle with bad skin (knocks on wood furiously).

1. Get to the bottom of it - I knew from the timing of my breakouts and also the location that my issues were hormone related. But there are a slew of other things that can contribute to bad skin - products you're using whether they're too harsh or you're allergic, foods you're eating, stress, dirty things that touch your face, and also just your genetic make up. I'm by far no expert but finding the cause of my pimples helped me to figure out a plan.

2. Simplify and be kind to your skin - and do away with the harsh chemicals if you're a sensitive-skinned type. When you're unsure of what is causing your skin dilemma, rotating through an immense roster of products and going overboard will only confuse your skin  more and make it more difficult for you to detect what's causing what. I found the most confusing element of my skin issues was that I had really dry and dehydrated skin plus spots, and a lot of spot treatments are geared toward oily skin, so these products only further dried out my skin and likely caused it to over-produce oil. If this sounds like you than I would advise you to realise that your skin needs the moisture so anything leaving your skin feeling stripped will only make you more uncomfortable. Creamy, balmy, and oil based cleansers are your friend, and try to find a moisturiser that makes you feel sufficiently nourished but maybe doesn't contain ingredients that could clog your precious pores (mineral oil and shea butter are both common ingredients in moisturisers that seem to aggravate my skin.)

3. Minimise your make up. It can be tempting to coat your face with heavy make-up but I found this just made me look worse. Go make-up free as frequently you can manage and when you need to cover up, use a very lightweight product over your face and limit your heavy coverage to just your spots and scars. And wash that shit off at night, no fail. I seriously wish I followed this advice when I first started having issues. I was in a new relationship and would literally go to bed wearing concealer because I was so insecure. LIFE LESSON: If someone you're dating can't handle your naked face then you should dump their ass, they aren't the kind of person you need in your life. Anyway, for wearing strictly during the waking hours,  I've found Make Up Forever's concealer to be the most effective and seamless. Hate to say it but since I bought this product I've felt a lot more confident about my skin.

Luckily did not have to dump his ass. Have now converted him to face masks.

Luckily did not have to dump his ass. Have now converted him to face masks.

4. Do not pick. If you do you’ll have a nasty scar as a reminder of your inability to sit on your hands. My chin can attest to this. 

5. Seek out a professional. Now this isn’t something I did because I wasn’t registered at a doctor and I didn’t have the money to splurge on an appointment with a dermatologist. In retrospect I probably spent far more money than I needed to buying products prescribed by non-professionals. Trust me I did my fair share of trusting bloggers, vloggers and forum-dwellers. Not to suggest they shouldn’t be trusted but there are so many differences of opinion out there that it’s hard to know who has got it right - not that there is a one-size-fits-all approach anyway, and using these people to find your own solution can often be fruitless because of this. I can't tell you how many times I wound up in a google k-hole trying to dig my way out of my anguish - kind of wish I saved that time and read a book or something.

6. I don’t know if I should really offer advice on products because I trialled so many things and did a lot of research but there isn’t much I can say I really came up with. I suppose my singular tip would be to exfoliate - but don’t over do it. A clarifying mask, a physical exfoliant, a chemical exfoliant, and a good scrub with a washcloth all get this job done, so don’t double up. If you’re a sensitive baby like me over-doing in this department does more harm than good.

And finally - what I consider to be the most crucial tip:

7. Be kind to yourself. Focus on other parts of your life. I know that being a girl it can really feel like your level of attractiveness is indicative of your inherent value. It sucks to feel that way. But there is so much more to love about your body - and your life. Pour that energy you're spending scrubbing your face to bits and put it into your work, your relationships, your hobbies, your health and your education. When I was having serious breakouts - I thought that was all people were looking at. Turns out, most of my friends didn't even notice. And when I look back at photos of that time I think - it doesn't look nearly as bad as it made me feel. I remember looking at myself disapprovingly in the mirror under fluorescent lights (never a good look) at my workplace and just seeing a lot of ugly. One day for some reason I smiled at my reflection, and I instantly noticed how much prettier I looked when I looked happy and confident. I realised that when I let my skin lower my self-esteem so dramatically, that I looked so sad, and it did become a focal point. But when I was happy and chatty with my friends, when I was doing things I was proud of and being busy - my skin was a very tiny insignificant footnote. 

I can understand how to someone who hasn't gone through this - this may seem like a pretty vapid diatribe. But when I was struggling, feeling so ugly and like I had no control over my body, and feeling incredible guilt that I was letting something so superficial get to me - this is exactly the kind of thing I needed to read. So if you can relate - I hope this gives you some comfort.

Now go smile at yourself in the damn mirror.

Emily Diana Ruth6 Comments