A very rational and usually unflappable friend called me last week. In a tone I can only describe as verging on hysterical, she told me that she was in said state on account of a spot. But not just any spot, she went on. This was a spot of the cystic variety, and after a catastrophically failed foray into squeezing it - which resulted in icing it in an attempt to calm the raging heat that engulfed her entire chin - she didn't want to go to a dinner party. Scratch that: she didn't want to go to work and had truly contemplated calling in sick, before deciding to strategise by avoiding conversation with colleagues as she felt they'd invariably be talking to her swollen chin.
I cannot overemphasise how very stoic this friend is - she has soldiered through long days in her office with: norovirus, food poisoning, a hangover that felled me for two full days, jet lag after returning from a trip to India, and a cold that meant she'd resorted to mopping her brow - and nose - with a sleeve. But this spot was another story. It didn't just dent her wellbeing, it dented her confidence.
And therein lies the real issue with acne/spots/blemishes/whatever other euphemism you choose to use. However many stony-eyed dermatologists talk about treatments and pus and not squeezing spots at home (ha!), nobody who hasn't had a face covered in bumps or a spot that deforms a part of your face (and often has its very own pulse to remind you of its existence) can ever really know how much they make you want to crawl under your duvet and emerge only when the blighters have disappeared.
This, I know all too well from experience. At 13, I had magnificent skin and expected things to stay that way; both my mum and sister are often asked about skincare on account of their creamy, preternaturally youthful complexions. Well, no. My skin had other plans, and along with the joys of periods and body hair came spots galore. And I, of course, squeezed and picked them. And they got worse. And my confidence plummeted - whenever I had a break out (which was almost always as a teen), I couldn’t think about anything but how hideous my skin must look when in public.
My doctor prescribed topical acnecide gel Benzoyl Peroxide, told me to apply it nightly, and sent me on my way with a reassuring comment that it was ‘just a bout of teenage acne, it’ll pass.’ Only it didn’t. If anything, it got worse, and I ended up wearing a thick layer of foundation as my safety blanket everywhere. At sleepovers, I’d wait until everyone else was asleep in a darkened room before I’d cleanse, and when I started dating, I’d leave my make-up on overnight, despite knowing that I’d suffer from a more furious break out as a result.
During those years, I suffered untold blows to my confidence on account of my acne. No conversation, kiss, interview or event was navigated without a strategy to hide my acne from view. Then, at 25, I had a eureka moment: a facialist at Vaishaly suggested the cause of my spots was probably hormonal. I decided to investigate. Turns out, she was right: I had PCOS, a common hormonal syndrome that elevates androgens (aka male hormones) and results in a butterfly effect on the body, inducing extra hair growth, a tendency towards weight gain and - you guessed it - acne.
Now, my skin is mostly under control because I understand its triggers. My skin doesn’t like wine (this is tragic; I really do), my skin absolutely hates sugar (again: tragic), and my skin can only tolerate a modicum of dairy products and stress. Anything more, and acne comes to town. And, with it, my confidence takes a huge dip.
In this, it seems my friend and I aren’t alone. Recently, Kendall Jenner wrote on her website that acne “completely ruined my self esteem… I wouldn’t even look at people when I talked to them. When I spoke, it was with a hand covering my face.” Katy Perry has said that she is so insecure about her acne scars that “sometimes I wear too much make-up to cover them up,” with Cameron Diaz chiming in “I had terrible, terrible skin - it was embarrassing.” Bella Thorne was similarly self-conscious about her spots, saying that: “when you’re a young girl, it takes a toll on your self-esteem.”
Dr. Sam Bunting isn’t surprised by this visceral response to spots: “I’m often struck by how acne takes away all the femininity from a woman. It distorts the way she sees herself, and so many women stop seeing themselves as sexy or desirable. There is often a frustration that, despite having a pristine diet and exercise programme, nothing they do makes it any better. And therein lies the problem - frustration and anxiety are the downward spiral of acne doom, leading to frenetic skincare-hopping behaviour that is so often a key driver to skin blowing up.”
Dr Bunting goes on to explain that as well as adopting a sensible skincare regime, a lot of how we feel about our skin is down to adjusting our mindsets and to stop beating ourselves up about our skin: “Women will ritualistically get home from work, remove make-up (‘because it’s bad for my skin’) and then spend the evening playing peekaboo with their magnifying mirror, squeezing everything in sight.” This habit spells disaster for our skin as it can lead to pot-hole scars and pigmentation (a particularly disabling variant of acne known as acne excoriee is largely a result of human behaviour).
While there’s no one solution to handling the blow to self-confidence that comes with acne, just as there is often no one single product to treat the spots themselves, practising kindness can help to reduce the crippling insecurities - and may well reduce the anxiety and frustration that are propping up some of your episodes of break outs. Here are some ideas…
1. Bin the magnifying mirror. Nobody will ever be close enough to your face to see those tiny pores. Save yourself the stress and just use a normal mirror when you look at your skin. And place it a metre away. It doesn’t look quite as bad now, does it?
2. Adjust the lighting in your bathroom. Scrap that: adjust your lighting everywhere. It’ll take the pressure off and stop you from obsessing as much about bumps in your head. It is for this reason that I used to seek out darkened pubs for dates and it worked wonders, making me feel less self conscious every time.
3. Keep your make-up on until bed. Few things here. First, if you’re a picker, you’re less likely to go at your skin when you’ve got your base on. Also, you’ll feel less aware of your skin if you feel it’s concealed. That said, you need to choose a formula that shields rather than anything comedogenic. Oxygenetix has a legion of fans for its aloe vera base that soothes and reduces spots, while Vichy Dermablend’s foundation is well respected for covering anything. My concealer of choice for covering spots is always Laura Mercier Secret Camouflage, which must be applied with a brush to stop bacteria from being passed from the pan to your face.
4. Stage a weapons amnesty. Basically: keep your fingernails short - gouging at spots and picking at them only makes them last for longer and more likely to scar. File them down and paint them in a great shade and you’ll be far less likely to go at your skin.
5. … But if that doesn’t work, meditate. Seriously: so many people are now cluing in to the benefits of a little meditation in reducing harmful habits like picking spots. Bunting agrees: “Try Headspace; anything that gives you ‘headspace’ from acne is of value, in my book.”