I moved to New York when I was 25 and within two weeks of touching down at JFK airport, I had the first signs of adult acne.
I wasn’t sure if it was the stress of moving country — having to find a new job and apartment, organising a social security number and a bank account, all while trying to navigate a new city and a rather chaotic transport system — or if it was the increased levels of hormones in the food I was eating that had caused this flare up, but it couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time.
I was working for a magazine where appearances were everything. Heads would turn as someone walked into the fashion closet, looking you up and down, silently evaluating your outfit, your hair, your body.
It didn’t feel particularly mean-spirited, as The Devil Wears Prada might have led you to believe.
It was the natural instinct of a group of people who had turned their love of clothes into a career; we watched each other. And when my skin began to betray me, angry red spots clustering around my jaw line, I didn’t want to be watched. My attempts to cover it up didn’t help either.
New Yorkers don’t wear a lot of make-up, it’s seen as a badge of honour that you don’t need to do so.
Working at ELLE was the first time I understood the concept of Rich Person Skin. That while models and celebrities had been blithely telling us for years that their flawless complexion was due to ‘drinking lots of water’ and whatever drug store face wash they were selling, the reality was very different.
Genetics helped, yes, but for most of them it was having a dermatologist on call since they were 12 years old, coupled with regular facials, peels, and high-grade acids in their bathroom cabinets long before the rest of us had even heard of glycolics and retinol. After months of acute self-consciousness, I plucked up the courage to approach one of the beauty editors to ask for help.
She recommended I either go on the pill or take an oral antibiotic, and she also turned me on to the three step Regime from Acne.org. (Similar to Proactiv, but less harsh. And they ship to Ireland!) Her other, very sage piece of advice, was that I was probably doing too much.
Too many facemasks and scrubs and spot treatments — if your skin is sensitive, she told me, you have to be gentle with it.
So I was gentle with my skin and it repaid me by behaving itself. And that was that, I thought. Until recently. I had to come off the contraceptive pill due to health issues and within a couple of months, the familiar spots were appearing around my jaw.
If you had told me at the age of 14 that in 20 years’ time, I would be applying anti-wrinkle eye cream AND benzoyl peroxide for hormonal acne, I’d have given up there and then. It felt massively unfair — I don’t drink, I get enough sleep, I exercise regularly, I do a sign of the cross when someone admits to sleeping in their make-up. As Linda Martin would say, whyyyyy me?
I am a huge fan of Goop (don’t judge me) and Louise L Hay and I believe that the body can heal itself, if given enough time. (There are exceptions. Vaccinate your damn kids, folks.)
But despite all the supplements and meditations and affirmations and cutting down dairy and sugar and, you know, fun, my skin wouldn’t heal. Every time I looked in the mirror, my stomach would sink, those old emotions of shame and self-consciousness re-emerging.
After a few months of this, I once again had to go to the doctor to get a prescription of antibiotics, ordering more products from Acne.org and even though my skin began to return to its normal state within a matter of weeks, I felt like a complete failure.
It helped when I discovered that I’m not alone in this. A 2016 study of 92 private dermatology clinics in the UK found a 200% rise in the number of adults seeking specialist acne treatment.
Women are five times more likely to be affected because of hormone imbalances due to contraceptive devices, pregnancy, menstruation, etc. Millennials, the so-called Burnout Generation, are experiencing higher levels of stress than previous generations, which also contributes to acne.
But if this is no longer just a teenage issue, why did I internalise this ‘failure’ to such a degree? I’m just as much of a product junkie as the next person but I’ve noticed in the last few years, ‘good skin’ has become an obsession amongst my peers.
Access to better skin care products at affordable prices has played its part, as has Instagram and Reddit forums dedicated to 12 step Korean beauty routines. Having ‘good skin’ is a marker of health, but more so than that, it’s almost a status symbol now, declaring that you have the time, energy, and money to devote to self-care.
While, obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a skincare or beauty regime, it’s the value attachment associated with the results that bothers me.
The British Skin Foundation found that 63% of acne sufferers report lower self-confidence, while 95% of acne sufferers say it impacts their daily lives to the degree that over a third of those polled self-harmed.
This isn’t something to be taken lightly. If this is something that is affecting your mental health or impacting your social or work life, you don’t need to suffer in silence. Make an appointment with your doctor and move on from there.
WATCH: When They See Us. This Netflix mini-series tells the story of the Central Park Five. A stunning indictment of racism and the judicial system in the US, it’s both heartbreaking and infuriating.
LISTEN: Sentimental Garbage. This podcast invites guests to discuss their favourite ‘chick-lit’ classics. It’s funny and feminist and highly entertaining.