Acne: The Truths, Untruths and Everything In Between

Bethany Ferguson discusses her experience with acne and the hit your confidence takes when dealing with skin problems. In this article, she explains the power struggle she had with her own skin, and describes the need to represent imperfect skin more publicly.

We’ve all experienced that sickening feeling when you look in the mirror on the morning of that party you’ve been looking forward to for weeks, and discover a giant spot has popped up to say hi. For most people, this horror is something which you only need to endure in your teenage years. Unfortunately, this was not the case for me.

Not to point out the obvious, but the problem with acne is that it’s, well… on your face. There’s no hiding it no matter how many layers of foundation you pile on. From the age of about thirteen makeup became my necessity which I could not live without. The horror of weekly swimming classes without my beloved mask of foundation was torture. Once I even tried smothering foundation over my face while running to my next class. Not a smart idea unless you’re channelling Casper the ghost.

I was always told that my acne would go away eventually. But as time went on I could not understand why I was still getting spots. I began to resent so many of my friends who did not take care of their skin (you know who you are), but still managed to have a complexion like a Disney princess. At sleepovers while everyone else was too busy eating pizza to bother taking off their makeup properly, I was in the bathroom cleansing, toning and moisturising like a maniac. Yet, nothing worked.

By the time I came to university, my ever-present spots took a turn for the worse. My usual pimples turned into painful cysts, and after several trips to the doctor I was told that I was suffering from adult acne, something which half of all adult women will suffer from at some point in their lives. This is something which I believe needs to be talked about.

There is vital work being done about the need for greater body positivity in the media, film and TV industry. However, young girls and boys need to be exposed to more images of celebrities and social media stars which proudly show their acne or so-called ‘bad skin.’ We need more skin diversity in order to normalise spots and remove the stigma surrounding acne. However, the advent of blurring and perfecting skin filters on social media apps, as well as our old friend retouching means that we continue to be bombarded with images of men and women with impossibly flawless skin. No one’s skin is as perfect as these tools make it seem. Yet, we fall for it every time. In an attempt to replicate the impossible we are beguiled time and again by glittering marketing campaigns, lured by the stunningly retouched models selling the latest makeup or skincare product. But after weeks of use and zero signs of improvement we are once again left feeling conned, betrayed and out of pocket.

Over the years, I tried everything to help my skin. From various types of birth control pills, antibiotics, chemical peels (one of which made me resemble something out of Jurassic Park - would not recommend), light therapy, face masks, cutting out dairy from my diet, ridiculously expensive skincare, supplements, the whole shebang. Unfortunately, it seemed my stubborn acne was here to stay.

Acne has an incredible power to consume your life. Eventually, my skin started to inhibit me. I stopped going to my favourite hot yoga sessions for fear of being seen without makeup. I didn’t go to one of my best friend’s birthdays because I knew my skin would be seen in all its glory the day after. Some days, I wouldn’t leave my flat. This was when I knew things had to change. Your skin should NEVER stop you from doing what you love.

I was lucky. Seeing my low confidence and how utterly fed up I was with the whole saga, my parents took me to a private dermatologist. I was told that my skin was a medical condition which could only be fixed by the controversial drug Isotretinoin, or as it is more commonly known Roaccutane. A quick Google search will inundate you with overwhelmingly negative and off-putting information about this treatment. Roaccutane is condemned as a drug which can cause side effects which include: depression, mood swings, acne breakouts, dry skin, dry lips, joint pain, dry eyes, nosebleeds, headaches, you get the idea. However, after my dermatologist assured me that there is not one piece of concrete medical evidence to suggest any link between Isotretinoin and anxiety, I decided to take the plunge.

I would like to stress that everybody’s skin is different and, therefore, everybody’s experience with Isotretinoin will be subjective. It is important to note also that monthly pregnancy tests are required to take the drug. Nevertheless, I would like to dispel some of the myths surrounding Roaccutane. Yes I got dry lips and went through approximately 150 tubes of Carmex. Yes I had an awful breakout in the first two weeks of taking the drug which was pretty horrendous. Yes my skin was dry and very sensitive to the sun (hello SPF 50). Yes I got a rash on my hands. But honestly, this was all I experienced and the side effects are completely manageable if you are prepared for them. After taking the drug for four months, I now have the skin I always dreamed of. 

I was incredibly fortunate that my parents were willing to support me financially and emotionally throughout all my treatments. However, many people are not so lucky. On the NHS we are faced with long waiting lists for appointments with acne specialists, and even longer waiting lists to actually receive treatment. This has to change. As the many medical studies have shown, the link between acne and mental health issues is overwhelmingly obvious. As our society gets better at recognising the prevalence of mental health issues, acne needs to become the next link in the chain.

Everybody deserves to feel confident in their own skin. Literally.