At age 12, my 'za face emerged. Being one of the tallest girls in my class was already rough (puberty, amirite?), but suddenly, I was also the zittiest. I remember wishing so desperately for some Freaky Friday–style scenario where I could switch my pimply face skin with some other covered part of my body. I was prepared to take on full-ass acne (concealable!) rather than continue comparing my bumpy greasiness to the toddler-smooth faces of the other girls in my grade.
My mom took me to the dermatologist, who recommended a round of Accutane. As you probably know, Accutane is one of those drugs that promises miracles (your skin will become permanently better!) followed by terrifying caveats (you’ll probably get depressed, maybe suicidal. Your butt may bleed! If you get pregnant while taking it, you will literally birth a reptile!). My mom and I decided that I was better off trying it since there was a good chance of me getting scars that would last the rest of my life. My only memories of this time are thinking that it was pretty cool that I got to skip the harder stuff in gym (Accutane causes joint and muscle aches) and punching out “DON’T YOU DARE GET PREGNANT” warnings every time I took a pill (“LOL — I’m 12!”).
I turned 26 in December and realized that I’ve been dealing with zits — and zit shame — for more than half of my life. Since that first round of Accutane, I’ve tried lots of supposed “cures” (antibiotics, nightly egg yolk masks, toothpaste treatments, radical dietary changes, a bunch of topical prescriptions, and a second round of Accutane after college). Anyone who has dealt with moderate-to-severe acne knows what it’s like to search for your own personal silver bullet.
For a long time, “solving” my acne felt like a Lord of the Rings–style quest; all I had to do was find that one thing — MY PRECIOUSSSS — that cleared my skin for good. And once that happened, the whole world would open up! Guys would finally think I was a babe, or I’d get that job reserved for perfect, pimple-less people! I obsessed and I exfoliated, and every cream, lotion, and ointment that touched my face had the singular purpose of kicking my acne’s ass. I hated my acne so much that I kind of forgot that it was attached to my face, and I hated my face for associating with acne, THAT BITCH.
Which is why, I think, my “aha” moment didn’t come until about a year ago when I saw a facialist for the first time. Even though I’d visited at least five different dermatologists (including one in Argentina who told me to apply crushed-up aspirin every night), they always recommended a new cream or a new pill, always stronger than the last, and each one left my skin oily yet dry, flaky and equally zitty.
My facialist simply said, “Damn, girl, your skin needs some TLC.”
And she was so right — and that turned out to be my sort-of silver bullet. The idea that I should actually take care of my acne-covered skin, instead of wage war against it, helped my complexion and self-esteem more than any one product ever did.
I realized that, for me, acne brought out a weird sense of dissociation; instead of thinking about my skin as a part of me that I should tenderly look after, I pictured my face as one huge pimple that needed to be conquered BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
And like, duh. Pretty much all acne-related marketing contains this message. Acne products don’t say things like “gently take care of your zit-prone skin, you fabulous person!” They say “BLAST YOUR ACNE,” “MURDER YOUR ACNE,” “WIN THE BATTLE AGAINST THE BREAKOUTS THAT ARE RUINING YOUR LIFE” (okay, I’m exaggerating, but that’s the underlying idea). It’s never about self-care or treating your skin well; it’s about destroying the enemy. I now realize that I spent years trying to torture my face into submission by scrubbing, picking, and poking — essentially punishing my skin for the shitty way it made me feel. And in the process, I made it a lot worse.
So if I could hop in the DeLorean and have a heart-to-heart with my 12-year-old self, I’d sit her down, hug her, and tell her to give herself a fucking break. I’d then ask her to think about skin care as a self-love ritual rather than an act of warfare or self-loathing, and give her the following advice:
You may have oily genes, but you still need to moisturize that shit.
I was always terrified of clogging my pores, and I didn’t really see the need to add more wetness to my perpetually slick face. But by constantly using drying acne treatments, I might have actually been causing my face to produce excess oil. Moisturizing a lot has helped me balance things out and slow down the grease flow.
Now, whenever I do anything drying (e.g., a clay mask, a Stridex swipe), I know to always follow up with moisture. This is also why facial oils can work well for people with acne; if you’re putting nourishing oils on your face, your bod is like, “Oh, we’re good,” and holds off on adding more.
Try to be realistic about your pimple situation.
Sometimes, if I have lots of zits, I look in the mirror and internally scream OH MY GOD, THE HORROR. Back in the day, I would have immediately slathered myself in acids and chemicals with a “Mwahahaha, I’ll get you!” attitude. Now, I force myself to spot-treat instead of all-over treat. I like tea tree oil or Mario Badescu Drying Lotion.
You might feel like you’re totally covered in zits, but in reality, you probably have plenty of unscathed, gorgeous, blemish-free real estate. By lovingly treating your pimples one by one, you can spare the rest of your skin from intense topicals, especially since drying your skin out can just cause more acne.
If you can, throw down some $$$ on products that make you feel good.
There are loads of amazing drugstore products, but it’s true that sometimes a cheaper buy equals cheaper ingredients or fillers, many of which are more likely to cause breakouts. Growing up, I spent lots of money on the things my derm prescribed, but didn’t really mess with more expensive lotions or serums. I used to balk at spending $40 on a face cream, and then go buy five scented Bath & Body Works glitter lotions and a one-use-only dress at Forever 21.
Now I invest in products that make my skin feel soothed and healthy. This also turns skin care into a TREAT-YO-SELF experience rather than an “ugh, I hate this” experience.
Listen to your skin.
Lots of people go on and on about perfecting their “routine,” but both oily and sensitive skin like mine, it’s great to check in and see what your skin is like on a daily basis.
Basically, I used to always approach the mirror saying “DIE PIMPLES,” but now I politely ask “How are you?” and take it from there. My skin can change a lot due to stress, weather, my current intake of ice cream/night cheese, etc., so I try to give it what it needs to feel good, whether that’s a fancy serum or a cheapo Freeman mask.
Take it easy on yourself (literally and figuratively).
It’s just as important to avoid treating your skin harshly as it is to steer clear of harsh self-talk. Acne can be cruel and unforgiving, and sometimes that asshole just won’t go away no matter what you try.
As Sun Tzu says in The Art of War (yes, I’m going there), “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” If acne is a battle, I think sometimes the only real way to win is to say “fuck it,” accept the zits, and work the hell out of your lovely, imperfect — aka HUMAN — face.