I can’t remember the first pimple I had. It must have been around Class 7 that I finally noticed because that’s when self-consciousness started settling in.
With clear skin the demand of the day, it made me feel ugly and out of place.
As I grew up, the problem didn’t go away on its own as my mother and grandmother had assured me.
Things flew out of control after Class 10 where a precarious schedule of preparing for the board examinations, sleepless nights and extreme pressure to perform well – both from school and home – resulted in constant caffeine intake to deal with the stress.
This ended up wreaking havoc in my body. My stomach was constantly upset, my periods were irregular, I gained a lot of weight and the acne got exponentially worse.
By the time I hit Class 11, my face was peppered with swollen blisters, zits, hyperpigmentation and scars. I found myself closely inspecting every nook and cranny of my face before going to school every day and being disheartened by what I saw.
All this led to low self-esteem and belligerent self-bashing.
This became an ideal breeding ground for hatred which in turn bred violence; violence in the form of picking. I spent hours standing before the mirror each day, picking on and bursting zits till they bled, and then I picked on them some more.
It would leave behind heinous red marks that would persist for days, weeks even, sometimes requiring bandaging which, needless to say, did wonders for my already struggling self-image.
Every waking moment, I was worried about my acne. I was worried about how it made me look, how it set me apart from my peers – most of whom had clear, smooth, even toned skin and never had to deal with pimples except maybe a couple of spots they got on rare occasions.
It made me feel inferior somehow, like my skin was a sign of my inherent value and the numbers weren’t looking good. When you grow up in a culture that places physical appearance over anything else, when magazines set beauty standards, you find yourself isolated.
An endless line of treatments
Granted, acne is a skin disease and needs to be treated by professionals. But treatments are varied and expensive. What works for one might not work for another.
Visits to dermatologists had become a regular part of my routine and I was put on various treatments – both topical and oral. Unfortunately, not one of them worked.
Antibiotics helped, especially with the pesky, painful and deep seated cystic zits. But their effects were temporary as a month or two later, I would break out again. I used benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid – both popular over the counter treatments – but they completely dried my skin out, leaving it parched and itchy.
Steroids were prescribed at one point but had to be discontinued because they led to a painful bout of perioral dermatitis – an angry, flaky rash around the mouth which takes courses of antibiotics and months to completely heal.
All this led to renewed stress and self-hatred which made me pour more and more money into treatments and skin care, desperately hoping that maybe the next pill or the next serum would be the magical cure that I’d been feverishly searching for.
Eventually, I came across blogs suggesting holistic treatments instead of courses of medication. Thus began a new chapter in my obsession. I found it taking centre stage in all my decisions. If I wasn’t sleeping, eating or studying, I was online reading about the next big acne cure.
And I tried all of it. I changed my diet to include more fibre, drastically increased my fluid intake, constantly took care not to spike my insulin levels in between meals, ate more greens, exercised, optimised my skin care routine and everything else under the sun.
But by this time, I was in college. Being away from home and living on a strict budget doesn’t really allow for large scale lifestyle changes. Soon I was back to square one, rushing to the dermatologist who started me on a course of antibiotics yet again.
Currently, the global acne treatment market and skincare industry is huge. It is expected to cross over $7 billion by 2025.
Waging a war against your skin
While talking to a friend, who has faced similar issues in her adolescent life, we discovered that we had both started avoiding eye contact at a very young age, as a pointless exercise in hiding our faces from someone sitting too close to us. It did nothing but maybe quell our anxieties about being examined.
And unsolicited advice from people doesn’t help.
Drink more water.
Have you tried exercising?
Visit this facialist of mine; she worked wonders for a friend a few years ago. Yeah, she charges Rs 1,200 for a session but it’s TOTALLY worth it. So what if you have a skip a couple of meals in order to afford her?
Even worse than that are the plain old comments, the ones that just let you know that you have a problem – as if you don’t own a mirror. Growing up, it was comments like these, coming from family members, friends or sometimes even teachers that led to shame and feelings of embarrassment.
All these insecurities are what the acne skincare industry targets. It preys on our vulnerabilities and convinces us that the way to get our skin better is by destroying it, with excoriating scrubs that lead to microtears in the skin, antibiotic courses that upset the body’s flora, topical solutions that completely dry your skin out, leading to overcompensation in terms of oil production which in turn, leads to more acne, and recently, Isotretinoin.
Isotretinoin, a form of vitamin A that is taken orally, is used to treat severe acne. It essentially dries your skin, changing your skin’s microbiome to make it inhospitable for acne causing bacteria. It is usually upheld as an extremely effective solution for treating acne.
But this wonder drug comes with a plethora of side effects which includes dry skin, nosebleeds, joint pain, body ache, drowsiness, dizziness and in some cases, extreme mood changes leading to depression and even suicidal tendencies. It is a high risk drug for women in pregnancy because of the birth defects it can cause.
This isn’t to say that all acne medication is bad, or that any of it is. They do work for people. But it requires months, sometimes years of visits to the doctor, aesthetician appointments, OTC acne medication and drawers and drawers filled with both, medicated and non-medicated skin care.
It is exhausting and the entire time, you feel like you’re waging a war against your own skin.
It doesn’t even feel like healing after a point, it just feels like another future disappointment. And all of it further complicates the problem; each treatment that doesn’t work leaves you with a new set of symptoms to tackle.
Acne is a deep-seated, complicated problem, more often a symptom than a disease in itself. Studies have shown that processed food and our general eating trends affect hormone levels. Genetics have also been found to play a role. If one or both of your parents suffered from acne, it is likely that you will too.
At times like these, it’s crucial to stay kind to yourself. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the better half of the last decade, scrutinising every pore on my face, it’s that there is an entire industry waiting for you to hate yourself so that it can market its brand new product.
And you owe it to yourself to not let anybody pile any more burden on an already struggling you. Thoroughly research any treatment your doctor prescribes, talk to them about the pros and cons but do go to a doctor because if left unchecked for too long, it will fester, not get better.
But mostly, forgive yourself and forgive your skin. It is suffering, just as you are.
It will eventually get better, it will.
Your approach needs to be holistic and you need to have a support system in place. It’s a long and cumbersome journey, but we’ll get there.
Acne can be a hindrance to everyday life, but it doesn’t mean we should always let it win the battle.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty
Somya Dhuliya is a second year English honours student at the University of Delhi.