The trials and tribulations of adult acne

Acne is something most of us deal with at some point or another. It affects more than 5.6 million Canadians, according to the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA). 

Some people get it as a young teen, then grow out of it as they approach adulthood. However, not everyone is that lucky.

The CDA also reported that up to 30 per cent of adults aged 20 to 40 experience acne. Three-quarters of that number are women. 

I just so happen to be part of that demographic.

The beginning

One months away from turning 21, I am going on my fifth year of having acne. If you think those pesky zits are frustrating when you’re 16, I can confirm that they’re much, much worse as an adult.

My first three years as a teenager were acne-free. I had the occasional pimple, but it was never anything serious. 

When clusters of breakouts appeared just a few weeks after my 16th birthday, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I suddenly had acne. It seemed so foreign to me. 

Yet, I didn’t let this change bother me as I assumed it would clear up shortly.

Boy, was I wrong.

Things got worse over the next few months. By spring 2017, I realized my acne was there to stay. 

This discovery took a huge toll on me. I didn’t recognize myself when I looked in the mirror. I no longer enjoyed wearing makeup because my skin still looked bumpy beneath the cosmetics. Before I knew it, my self-esteem had completely deteriorated.

The one thing that kept me going was the thought that my acne was merely an obstacle in my teenage years. I was repeatedly told I’d outgrow the breakouts and get back to having clear skin at an older age – and I believed it. 

Part of me knew it was unlikely. I tried to push past those doubts because, quite frankly, I was desperate.

The setbacks

I was finally starting to see progress when I was 19. This was the result of understanding and treating the root cause of my acne (which is hormonal), cleaning up my diet and finding an effective skincare routine. 

It seemed like I was on my way to having the skin I’d been dreaming about for so long – until the end of last year rolled around.

In October 2020, I reached out to my doctor in hopes of finding a solution for my remaining texture.

After trying different medications (both oral and topical) for the past eight months, I’m now left with some of the worst acne I’ve ever had. The treatments didn’t work – they actually did the opposite – and it feels like I’m back at square one. 

Acne is difficult to cope with at any age, but dealing with it as an adult has been grim. I think the worst part about the situation is how isolating it can be. 

Over the past five years, I watched as my friends got acne after I did, then overcame it before me. It’s no longer something I can casually discuss with peers because pimples are a thing of the past for them.

Most people around my age are working towards delaying the signs of early aging. Meanwhile, I’m trying to combat a problem that arose during my adolescence. 

Side effects and misconceptions

According to the Acne and Rosacea Society of Canada, the emotional effects among women with adult acne include frustration, embarrassment, low self-esteem, and feeling less confident and attractive. I’ve gone through all of those things firsthand, and it hasn’t been easy.

For me, a lot of these feelings have been amplified because of social media. 

It’s difficult navigating this time in my life while being constantly reminded that clear skin is, and always has been, the beauty standard. 

It’s especially hard during the summer when radiant, sun-kissed skin feels like the expectation for the season – but it shouldn’t be.

Acne is normal. I still have a hard time getting that through my head, but deep down, I know it’s true. I mean, just look at the statistics. It doesn’t define you or me. It’s not gross, and it doesn’t reflect poor hygiene. 

In fact, the CDA reported that a common misconception about acne is that it’s caused by poor hygiene.     

photo of woman withacne
Photo by cottonbro

Other misconceptions include the belief that the condition is contagious and sun exposure clears up skin.      

Moving forward

I’m not going to act like I’ve come to terms with having adult acne and feel confident in my skin, no matter how it looks, because that simply isn’t true. 

I’m sure almost anyone with acne will agree that embracing your imperfections is much easier said than done. 

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “It’s just skin,” as if that somehow makes things better. (Quick tip – it doesn’t.)

What I will say is I’m holding onto hope. I want to believe things will improve because surrendering to the idea of this being my reality forever doesn’t sit well with me. 

Even on my bad days, when I feel discouraged, I tell myself there will come a time when I’ll be able to look in the mirror and recognize my reflection. A time when I’ll be able to take photos with friends and like what I see. A time when I’ll finally feel like me again.

Until then, I’ll remain hopeful because I know it’ll be worth it someday – whenever that may be. 

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