Making Peace with "Problem" Skin
I’ve had “problem” skin for my entire adult life. I got my first zit in high school and never looked back.
I cringe when I think about those early years. There were days that I was so desperate for relief that I would smear tinted Clearasil all over my face like foundation. (Yes, it looked as bad as it sounds. Probably worse).
It was a bummer having crappy skin in high school, but I was comforted by the idea that my teenage hormones were completely to blame, and I assumed by the time I was a sophisticated 20-something I would be smooth and clear with a complexion like Sanaa Lathan.
And I tried anything to manifest that future. I got on the pill in my early teens to try and regulate my hormones; I went on prescription meds (tried everything but Accutane), tried a variety of anti-inflammation diets, got microdermabrasion, chemical peels, heat treatment, and light treatment. I was poked, prodded, and burned until one day I cried to my mom that I was done. No more prescribed treatment. The pain was incredible, and after my skin healed from whatever “groundbreaking” treatment I had subjected myself to, the acne always returned.
By the time I went off to college, my skin was the worst it had ever been. I was covered with big, painful, cystic acne, making almost every part of my face painful to the touch. My mom begged me to return to the dermatologist for medical intervention, but I stood strong in my refusal. I braved my freshman year in college in a new state, in a dorm with complete strangers, and with a face that I almost didn’t recognize.
Acne made me shy. I avoided eye contact with people because looking someone in the face meant that they were looking at mine. And the last thing I wanted to see was the severity of my acne reflected back to me via someone else’s grimaced expression. So, I did my makeup the best that I could, kept my head down, and shuffled through a lot of my freshman year.
About halfway through my second semester, inexplicably, by skin began to clear up. I hadn’t changed my routine and I certainly wasn’t eating any better. But by the time summer break rolled around, my acne was about 80 percent gone. “It’s the Arizona heat,” my mom declared when I returned home. “It must have dried it all up.”
No science backed up this theory, of course. After all, I was born and raised in California, not Alaska. But who was I to question this good fortune? My acne never completely disappeared, but it was no longer painfully distracting and I learned to live with the small outbreaks as they came and went.
And when important occasions or engagements drew near, I paid extra attention to my skincare routine and prayed that my skin cooperated. Sometimes it was fine. Others it was disaster. An unforgettable example of the latter is the day that I met my future mother-in-law for the first time with a dime-sized zit smack dab in the middle of my forehead. It took all I had to not just cancel our plans and stay home with a face mask on.
I had dozens to choose from. I purchased endless skincare products all with the gusto of someone who has just found the cure for their lifelong affliction. I refuse to think too much about the amount of money I spent in my 20s on creams, serums, masks, and gels that all claimed to be the vital missing step in my skin regime. Part of me had to know, walking out of Sephora holding a tiny bag with a $45 spot treatment bouncing around inside, that it was far more complex than that.
My 20s came and went. I’m now quickly closing in on 35 and I still sometimes wake up to a sore, swollen intruder on my face – usually the chin or the cheek. The comfort in “growing out of it” has faded and has been replaced by the dread of battling the oncoming wrinkles with one hand and fending off acne outbreaks with the other.
Thankfully, I do have two hands and am pretty great at multitasking, so no biggie. Aging out of my twenties may not have cleared my skin, but it has helped me gain some perspective. Sometimes you’ve just got to do your best and accept the results. I’m gentle with my skin, I try to provide it what it needs (including almost a gallon of water a day), and I do my best to protect and nurture it. What it does from there is basically out of my control.
For me, that acceptance has been long overdue.
Here's what I'm currently using, if you're interested:
CVS No Breakouts Sunscreen
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Exfoliating Cleanser (3 or so times a week)
Kiehls Deep Pore Minimizing Cleansing Mask (once a week)
Kiehls Ultra Facial Cream (once or twice a week, after face mask)