If there’s one thing that, more than anything, has shaped me into the person I am today, it’s acne. Here’s my full acne story… from my very first breakouts at around 14, to my semi-clear (but still very acne-prone) skin now, at 26.
My acne story: Then to now
I started struggling with breakouts when I was around 14/15. It started off just a few spots here and there. I didn’t really refer to it as acne at this point; just your normal teenage spots. I remember my entire family telling me not to worry, that it was normal at my age and that it’d settle down as I get a bit older.
It didn’t. Once my skin started getting worse at around 16/17, I spent so much of my spare time scrubbing at my face and trying to cover my acne. I’d spend my money on any Freederm, Clearasil or Clean N Clear product that claimed to help spots and I’d wake up 2 hours early for school in order to pack concealer and powder onto my skin.
I eventually went to the doctors, who prescribed my antibiotics and a topical cream. The antibiotics calmed down my skin initially, but my acne came back… worse than it was before. The doctors gave me more antibiotics, but the same thing happened again. It became a bit of a spiral until they gave me a contraceptive pill called Dianette, when I was about 18.
Dianette definitely cleared up my skin—for the first time in years, it felt smooth and even-toned. The trouble was, this pill has a huge effect on my mood and made me feel down, 24/7 (more on this later). After about 6 months on Dianette, I had to stop taking it and the acne came right back.
In the years following, I tried various other pills, more antibiotics, more topical treatments, spent a load of money on ProActiv and other acne-fighting products, tried supplements, changed my diet several times and generally became more and more insecure of my bare face. I did have odd periods where my skin seemed to clear up, but it never lasted.
When I moved to Vietnam for a year after University, my acne peaked. I was 23 at this point and my skin became painful and super inflamed. I felt so insecure. Thankfully, a pharmacist eventually prescribed me spironolactone, which cleared up my skin for a good year or so. When I got back to the UK, I stayed on spironolactone for some time, but it stopped working as well and I didn’t like the idea of having to stay on it for the rest of my life.
When I was 24, I was finally referred to a dermatologist, who prescribed me accutane. Accutane worked miracles for my skin, but it’s not the easiest drug to go on. It was an intense six months, to say the least, but it really did clear up my skin like nothing ever had before.
That takes us to now, at 26. My skin since finishing accutane has been up and down. My skin stayed completely clear for around a year, but breakouts did start creeping back over time. It’s much more manageable at this point though. Plus, after a lot of soul-searching, breakouts don’t bother me quite so much. I know having acne doesn’t lessen my worth as a person and I refuse to let it hold me back these days!
Ashamed of my own skin
I’m passionate about discussing the mental health implications of my acne story, as I think there should be more support available and less of a stigma attached to the condition. Acne made me feel insecure and seriously affected my self-esteem; problems which have stuck with me for a long time.
Most people didn’t actually realise the extent of my skin problem, because I was just so good at covering it up! The problem? I developed an intense fear of people seeing my real skin and became obsessed with covering up my spots. Every night, I felt disgusted at myself when I took my makeup off. I hated what I saw.
For a long time, when I had a bad breakout, it’s all I focused on. In my mind, who cared that I was doing well at school? Who cared that I had friends and family who loved me and enjoyed my company? People used to tell me they loved my eyelashes, or that I had a nice smile, but I didn’t believe them or even stop to take it in. In my mind, I had spots, and that made me ugly, so none of the other stuff mattered. I considered all my value as a person lost the minute I had a cluster of spots appear. Well, at least until I’d slathered on the 50th layer of concealer and powder. Then I suddenly felt valid again.
I didn’t even want my friends or boyfriends at the time to see me without makeup. I was convinced they’d break up with me if they saw my acne. It made me feel trapped in my own skin. During my university years, I didn’t let my housemates (who I shared a bathroom with) see my bare skin. I’d conceal my spots just to walk to the bathroom, wash my face and then re-conceal again before I left the bathroom.
It might sound irrational to some, but my acne had essentially triggered mental health problems. I think I had a form of body dysmorphic disorder. Through having cystic acne for years, but only seeing flawless skin on social media, TV and in magazines, I developed super low self-esteem. I feel that society sets girls up to think ‘you are your looks’ from a young age; that our physical attractiveness is our greatest asset and that we should strive to achieve and maintain society’s beauty ideals. I was desperate to look ‘normal’ and have lovely skin like all the girls on Instagram.
Looking back at my acne journey, I wish I could shake my younger self and say “you’re fine just the way you are”, that those beauty ideals are near impossible and that you’ve got much more to offer the world than just being pretty.
Learning to accept myself
The real triumph in my acne journey was not clearing my skin, but learning to value and respect myself as a person, rather than for what I look like. I honestly feel that acne has made me so much more resilient, empathetic and understanding.
My acne story has shaped me into who I am today! I’m glad I had acne, because it’s shaped me into who I am today and taught me so many valuable lessons. Here are just a few of them:
I’ve learnt that the people who are truly meant to be in your life will love you no matter what you look like, or what condition your skin is in.
I’ve learnt that real beauty lies far beneath the skin. I know that my value isn’t dependent on whether I have makeup on or whether I’ve got breakouts. Instead, I value myself for my personality and character, over my appearance.
I’ve learnt that I can be comfortable in and proud of my own skin, no matter how spotty, scared or uneven it happens to be. I know that spots, scars—and in the future, lines and wrinkles—are nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t have to hide them!
Plus, starting this blog and connecting with others who’ve experienced acne has brought me so much joy and some incredible experiences, such as creating videos for the BBC (which, for my very-awkward self, was huge!).
Acne treatments: What I’ve tried
Here is a list of treatments I’ve tried during my acne journey; and the success I’ve had with each. Please remember that everyone reacts differently to different treatments, so what’s worked for me might not necessarily work for you and vice versa.
Acnecide wash & gel
Acnecide products can actually be picked up from a pharmacy without a prescription, which is where I got them from. I’ve tried them at various points throughout my acne journey and, while they do help to clear up breakouts, I find them far too drying. They contain Benzoyl Peroxide, which kills acne bacteria. I’d recommend giving this a go if your breakouts are mild, however, I don’t think it’s as effective for moderate-severe breakouts.
This was the first topical treatment I ever received from a doctor for my skin. It’s a thin, watery solution that you apply to the skin once or twice a day. Zineryt is an antibiotic acne treatment solution which contains two active ingredients, Erythromycin and Zinc. This was the least irritating of all the topical treatments I received from the GP, but it really didn’t keep my breakouts under control.
Duac is a cream that contains Clindamycin, an antibiotic that stops the growth of acne-causing bacteria, plus Benzoyl peroxide. Personally, I found that Duac decreased the number of breakouts I experienced, but never completely cured my acne. I also found it super harsh; it made my skin red, irritated and dehydrated. This made my skin look 10x worse, even if I did have fewer spots! Admittedly, I tried this when I was much younger and a little impatient, so I might not have stuck with it for long enough to see results.
Treclin & Tretinoin
Of all the topical treatments I’ve tried during my acne journey, these are the two I found most effective. I started with Treclin, which contains a combination of clindamycin (an antibiotic) and tretinoin, which is a retinoid. After a few weeks of consistent use, I found that Treclin really helped clear up my skin. I used Treclin in combination with spironolactone; the two together were a super-effective acne-fighting duo.
I’m now using tretinoin 0.1% to keep my skin clear post-accutane. It’s seriously helping to keep my hormonal breakouts under control and I feel that it’s reduced my acne scarring, too.
Erythromycin & Lymecycline
These antibiotics didn’t have a strong clearing effect on my skin, even after months of continued use. That’s all I have to say; but please remember that they might work differently for you.
Of the three antibiotics I tried, this one did the best job for me. I thought I’d finally cleared my acne! It did take a couple of months to kick in, but from then on, I had really clear and manageable skin for around 9 months. Sadly, my acne slowly crept back. I had a short break and went back on them, but they didn’t have the same effect.
If anything, I’d say that Cilest made my acne worse. I don’t think it’s a known acne-clearing pill, so I’m not 100% sure why my doctor put me on it.
Yazmin was one of the better pills in terms of my skin. It didn’t completely clear my skin, but my breakouts weren’t as regular, inflamed or severe. It definitely made my skin less oily too, which was a huge plus in my teen years! On the downside, it made me feel a bit down in the dumps.
This cleared my skin beautifully. Dianette is an anti-androgen, making it fantastic for hormonal acne-related issues. You’re only typically allowed on it for a year or so, as it can increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis. It has also been linked to depression and, I won’t lie, made me pretty emotionally unstable. I wouldn’t recommend this pill for anyone with a history of mental health problems and, before going on it, bear in mind that it’s not a long-term solution.
This is the pill I eventually settled on and, while I can’t say it cleared my acne, it gave me the least side effects in terms of mood, as it’s a low dosage pill. If you have problems with mood or other side effects on the pill, talk to your GP about giving this one a go! I’m no longer on the pill now though; and I feel better inside and out. That’s probably a blog for another day!
I’ve tried every acne skincare product and routine under the sun, from ProActiv, to Clinique Acne Solutions, to Freederm. For me, off-the-shelf acne treatments just aren’t weren’t worth the money. Often, they’re riddled with chemicals and harsh ingredients—which, yes, might dry out your spots—but also leave you with red, irritated and sore skin.
Over the years, I’ve learnt the hard way that less is more. Scrubbing at your face with every Clean n Clear product is going to do nothing but make your skin look more stressed. You might be surprised to hear that dehydrated and dry skin can actually cause more acne. This is because your skin will overcompensate by producing more sebum and end up making the problem worse. Take it from me—keep it gentle and simple!
Anyway, it’d be impossible to list every skincare product I’d tried, but none of them ever made a significant distance to my acne anyway. I do think a good, hydrating skincare routine can reduce the risk of scars and ease inflammation, though. I’ve shared most of my favourites in my accutane skincare routine blog.
Spironolactone is a prescription medication that is sometimes used off-label for acne. It blocks the effect of androgens (male hormones), which are often to blame for excess oil production and acne.
Spironolactone worked absolute miracles for me—it took my skin from the photo on the left (just before I started taking it), to the photo on right, around 4 months after starting it. It seriously cleared up my skin, with minimal and super manageable side-effects.
You can read more about my experience with this lesser-known acne medication in my guide to spironolactone for acne.
Accutane (isotretinoin) is used to treat severe acne that hasn’t responded to other treatments. I started my accutane treatment at the beginning of 2019 and took 60mg for 6-months straight. I didn’t experience the initial breakout that many others seem to, which I believe is because I switched straight from spironolactone to accutane with no break. I had all of the expected side-effects—dry, flaky skin, extreme tiredness, feeling down—but I still think it was worth it. Accutane cleared my skin completely and, while it’s not 100% clear to this day, it’s way more manageable.
Dealing with acne
Acne was (and may well be again) a huge part of my life. While it really affected my self-esteem and confidence, I’m happy that it taught me so many important life lessons. It might be hard to see it now, but I’m certain that your acne story will do the same for you.
If there’s one thing I’d say to anyone who’s suffering with acne now, it’d be to not let your acne hold you back. You’re so much more than your skin; don’t let your life slip by whilst waiting for it to clear. You will find the right treatment, but in the meantime, get out there and be proud of yourself no matter what. Trust me, you’re still absolutely beautiful.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, please don’t see your acne and forget all the other amazing things you have to offer the world, all the people who love you for who you are (regardless of what is on your face or not) and all the things you’ve achieved or will achieve. Acne is a part of you for now, but it’s tiny in comparison to all the other amazing things about you!
I hope you enjoyed reading my acne story. I’ve got so much more content on dealing with acne on my acne blog, so I’d love it if you could stick around and have a read.
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