You could say I’m unlucky – I’ve had chronic acne. And not once, but twice.
It was bad – and I mean bad. A lot of people think acne is the one or two spots they get when menstruating… and that’s annoying, sure! But chronic acne is a burden I wouldn’t wish on anybody. The first time I suffered from bad acne I was in the throes of puberty, suffering with my mental health, about to graduate school and move to a different country for university.
I suppose it was expected (but definitely not welcomed!) that my body decided to express the stress I was feeling through my face.
After my everyday over-the-counter Mario Badescu drying lotion failed to work to tame my violent spots, I decided it was time to go and see an expert. I could no longer fight this battle on my own.
My dermatologist in Geneva is a funny man, who deals with what seems like every cosmetic gripe under the sun. Not sure I would go see him for breast implants, but if you’re looking for prescription meds, he’s your guy. Anyway, he was all too pleased to prescribe me Roaccutane. Since my acne was quite severe, I started out on 20mg isotretinoin capsules. Dangerous for fertility (not that I was planning on a teenage pregnancy), I had to have a pregnancy test before he prescribed me them, and then I was on my merry way.
I had heard about the tough side effects of Roaccutane, like depression and anxiety (lol, already had it, thanks), dry lips, weak hair and nails, and skin that wouldn’t heal – but luckily for me, I only got dry lips. Have you ever finished a Chapstick? I can confidently say I’ve finished at least 30. Gold medal for me!
After about 9 months on the 20mg pills, my skin had been clear for the last 3 months, and my dermatologist decided to take me off them. I was down to taking one every 3 days, and then I stopped completely. A pretty easy ride all in all.
Finally, acne free forever! Or so I thought…
The second time around, I was a fully-fledged adult, working at British Vogue. Was it stressful? Sure! But I loved my job, and each and every day I was excited to walk through the revolving doors at Vogue House.
I had survived depression, and I was managing my anxiety mostly well. My diet was not the best it could’ve been, but I was definitely not eating rubbish every day! Yes, after work I did frequent my friends at the pub (guilty), but overall I would call my everyday lunch of chicken breast, brown rice and Greek salad a pretty well-rounded diet.
But for some reason, I just couldn’t stop getting spots. And the ones that I got, decided to stay, by sinking into my skin and becoming tough and sitting deep under my skin. They weren’t angry, or red, but they left a hard bump and were un-squeezeable. The only way to get rid of closed comedones, as they’re called, was either by getting them professionally extracted, or going on hard prescription drugs. Mix that with my angry, inflammatory spots, and my face was like a retirement village for pimples. They moved in full of life and vivacity, and then slowly settled down to stay for the rest of their malicious little lives.
My acne got so bad that I carried two tubes of Chanel concealer with me everywhere I went. Every time I went to the bathroom, I would have to bring my concealer to reapply to my cheeks. I’m a staunch supporter of the natural-looking made-up face, so to have to go into my dream job every day wearing a thick layer of foundation that covered up my freckles… it weighed on my self-esteem.
Finally I thought, ‘This is enough,’ and I started researching dermatologists who could help me beat the beast. It was my last resort to go on Roaccutane again, as I remembered how it ruined my hair and nails – and I was tired of my body not looking as beautiful as I wanted it to be.
I discovered Dr. Justine Kluk, a renowned dermatologist in London who specialises in acne, and specifically chronic acne in adults. I made an appointment that day, with my fingers crossed.
Now Dr. Kluk was a lot more thorough, and also more hesistant with how to deal with my acne. For those who start Roaccutane, once you have finished the course, you have a less than 10% chance of your acne ever reoccurring. Unlucky for me, I was part of that 10%, and she knew that my body wouldn’t be able to deal with hitting it hard and heavy like my free-wheeling dermatologist the first time around.
First of all, she gave my skincare regime an overhaul. I was no longer allowed to try out all the fancy skin creams from Space N.K., I couldn’t use anything with acids in it, no Retinols, no A.H.A.s, no B.H.A.s, no salicylic acid. She taught me what non-comedogenic meant, and I was put on a strict skincare diet of Avène Tolérance and A-Oxitive serums. I could also use La Roche Posay’s Toleriane line, but that was it.
Then, she prescribed me the Isotretinoin capsules, but at a measly 10mg. And boy, it hit me hard. Not only did I get the dry lips from last time, but my skin became as thin as a piece of tissue paper. Playing with my dog left me with cuts all over my arms that wouldn’t heal for weeks on end. I went to wax my arms before a holiday, and my skin came off with it. My hair was like straw, and my nails would constantly break. I was literally falling apart at the seams.
But it worked: my angry, red spots went first, and slowly but surely those tough, mean comedones set deeply under my skin finally dissolved, and I was left clear. Every now and then I would get the occasional spot (if I had a weekend of clubbing, or a particularly spiteful period), but nothing like how it was before. The only problem was, I was left with all the scars left behind. Not only were they deep and obvious, but they were red too. I couldn’t disguise them as freckles – they were very clearly scars.
Dr. Kluk ended up taking me off the pills after my skin was clear and my scars were not improving. Instead, she put me on prescription creams, which were gentler, and trying to boost my collagen and skin renewal.
Still on my strict skincare diet of Avène and La Roche Posay, I added in a night cream of Differin – a strong retinoid, and a morning cream of Finacea, which contains azelaic acid. Even though these creams try to renew my skin as quickly as possible, my facial battlefield of scarring seems to be stuck there for good.
Looking after my skin is like a moving target, and something that I have to check in with every now and then. Currently, I’m off to micro-needling to see if it’ll finally shift those scars. Luckily, I’m acne free and haven’t had a spot in over a year! Fingers crossed the Roaccutane worked this time and I’m part of the 90% that never gets their spots back. If not, I would really be third time unlucky.
It’s been a long journey, and one that I’m happy to share. I know only too well how struggling with skin problems can grate on your self-esteem. Up to 80% of teenagers deal with acne, and almost 20% of adults do too. It’s common, and people struggle with it all the time. So instead of being ashamed about it, let’s share our shame! It’s easier to carry a burden when you have several shoulders to help you carry it. Talk about it with your friends – you’d be surprised at how many people you know struggle with the same things you do.
In the meantime, I’m not going to freak out over getting the occasional spot. I’ve had it so much worse. I’ve decided that I don’t really mind having spots on my face – as long as they’re mostly freckles.